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Will Obama ease US policy toward Cuba?

A new approach could represent a relatively easy first step down a generally more controversial path of engaging with America's adversaries.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 15, 2008


A desire by President-elect Obama to enter the White House signaling change in US foreign policy may well lead to quick – though perhaps modest – action on Cuba.

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When he assumes office, Mr. Obama will be largely focused on addressing the worst economic dive in generations. But in that context there are several reasons a shift toward Cuba – a thorn in the side of the last nine presidents – could begin early next year:

•Obama could take a number of steps, such as easing contacts between Cuban-Americans and their families on the island, by executive action – thus signaling a shift from Bush policies without dedicating a lot of effort to it.

•The November elections and recent polls reveal a Cuban-American community more disposed to opening up channels to the communist island, even though the Castro brothers continue to govern it – meaning the political capital spent on a shift would be negligible.

•Moving on Cuba would give Obama something of a "twofer," signaling to the rest of Latin America the advent of a different policy toward the hemisphere.

•Making Cuba a test case of a new willingness to engage with US adversaries could be a relatively easy first step down a generally more controversial path.

Cuba presents Obama with "low-hanging fruit," easily picked, to suggest "a new foreign-policy direction," says Anya Landau French, a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a free-market-oriented think tank in Washington. Steps as basic as increasing antinarcotics cooperation, she says, offer "a way to break from Bush policy without a great effort."

None of this means the 48-year-old US embargo of Cuba will quickly go by the boards. Despite the longstanding view of many Cuba experts and a majority of Latin American leaders that the embargo hasn't worked – a view Obama himself held before his run for the presidency – the president-elect now says the embargo is "an important inducement to change" that he would lift once "freedom and justice" arrive on the island.

What Obama is likely to do is ease restrictions on travel to Cuba by Cuban-Americans and on the flow of remittances from Cuban-Americans across the Straits of Florida. Both moves would revert to openings pursued by the Clinton administration that President Bush reversed.