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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.

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With all of the events of the last year, here in the US the individual whose name has received the most airtime – and who therefore receives our designation of person of the year – is Alan Gross. Mr. Gross has been held in Cuba since December 2009 for distributing communications equipment illegally on the island. His sentence of 15 years in prison for crimes against the Cuban state was upheld by the Cuban Supreme Court in August. US officials have tried unsuccessfully to argue for his unilateral release; many experts have unsuccessfully argued for a prisoner swap (modeled off of the Israel-Hamas prisoner exchange of Gilad Shalit for hundreds of Palestinians — but in this case just one for five). Mr. Gross remains imprisoned, and as he was not one of the recently pardoned 2,900, Washington has continued to ignore other signs of significant change within the Cuban state. As long as Gross remains imprisoned, it appears there can be no progress.

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The forecast for 2012 is unfortunately only a tick higher than bleak in terms of the US-Cuba relationship. 2012 is a US election year, and Cuba policy remains a contentious political issue. Even just in the last few weeks, Cuba-watchers cringed (and spoke out) as a small faction of House representatives sought to fold an amendment into the 2012 spending bill that would change US regulations on Cuban-American family visits to Cuba, rolling this policy back to the Bush era. Fortunately, the White House took a stand and threatened a veto if the amendment was not removed. But many had feared that the administration would not spend the political capital to step in, and this was on an issue that simply maintained the status quo. There is very little reason for an administration seeking re-election to take the kind of political risk that more significant (necessary) Cuba policy changes entail.

However, the island’s future looks positive, at least for the moment. The population is testing out new economic reforms, the reforms are pressing ahead to the long-run benefit of a troubled economy, and foreign businesses and investors remain interested in Cuba (despite recent crackdowns on corruption that have affected foreigners as well as Cubans). Pope Benedict XVI will visit Cuba in March, and the state appears to be taking a look at its prison system in advance of that visit and making the largest number of pardons and releases of prisoners in recent history. These are positive developments that likely will not receive much acknowledgement from Washington, but for now, Havana does not appear to need our stamp of approval.

--- Melissa Lockhart Fortner is Senior Programs Officer at the Pacific Council on International Policy and Cuba blogger at the Foreign Policy Association. You can read her blog here.

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