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After dramatic 2011 in Cuba, will US-Cuban policy shift in 2012?

Guest blogger Melissa Lockhart reviews a year of what she calls big change in Cuba, little change in US policy.

By Melissa LockhartGuest blogger / December 29, 2011

Ilvert Labrada of Plantation, Fla. waits in line with luggage at Miami International Airport before traveling to Cuba with his family, Dec. 19, in Miami. The US has loosened travel restrictions to Cuba, but hasn't changed much else in 2011. Meanwhile, Cuba has been undergoing some of the biggest changes in decades.

Lynne Sladky/AP

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This year in Cuban history will be viewed as a significant one, having seen more economic change and reform on the island than some entire decades. Yet Washington’s response has been minimal.

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Let’s start with a brief summary of the past year. In January 2011, the executive branch of the US government announced and published new travel and remittance rules with respect to Cuba, which increased possibilities for people-to-people travel. The effect has been gradual (OFAC in the Treasury is under-staffed and really quite slow), but greater numbers of cultural travel groups have received the necessary licenses and are leading trips to the island because of the new rules.
 

PHOTO GALLERY: Cuba's Economy

February and March saw the trial of the infamous violent Cuban exile Luis Posada Carriles, and a historic step in the US to prosecute him for terrorist acts in Cuba (he was later acquitted, to the chagrin of many Cuba-watchers). Alan Gross, the USAID contractor who remains in jail in Cuba, was ultimately sentenced in March to 15 years in prison — a relationship-damaging development that has continued to be a point of great contention between Washington and Havana.

In April, the Cuban Communist Party held their Sixth Party Congress and reviewed the terms of a great number of economic reforms whose implementation has proceeded during the course of the year. Yet in the fall, the US stood nearly solo at the United Nations as the world voted against the US embargo on Cuba. Washington put Cuba again on its list of “State Sponsors of Terrorism,” though the evidence to support the designation has withered.

This week, President Castro pardoned 2,900 prisoners in advance of the Pope’s visit to the island in 2012, noting that many of the pardoned were first-time offenders, youths, or inmates over 60 or suffering from illness. Yet here we are at the close of the year, and the Obama administration is still apparently convinced that the release of political prisoners in Cuba and the drastic economic changes underway are not enough to qualify as the “change” that would merit a significant bilateral discussion.

Asi es la vida for Cuba-watchers. The most unexpected event of this year was not a “happening” at all: it is the lack of movement forward in Washington on Cuba issues, and the continuing age-old tendency to cater to the conservative Miami Cuban-American base — a demographic that is changing and adapting its views to new developments in Cuba more so than Congress and the current administration, it seems. We expected more this year, despite the myriad of other global challenges faced by the US. Washington has found time recently to take a fresh look at Myanmar, but still not at our close neighbor Cuba.

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