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.
During the campaign, Susan Rice, Obama's chief foreign-policy adviser (and now tapped by him to become US ambassador to the United Nations), said Obama would maintain the embargo "as leverage to use as we work to negotiate with the Cuban government." She called lifting the general ban on trade and formal diplomatic ties "the ultimate step."
Some political observers considered Obama's shift in stance on the embargo a bow to the anti-Castro Cuban-American community. But some recent polls suggest that the majority of Cuban-Americans – and especially the younger set – no longer support the embargo.
Over half (55 percent) of Cuban-Americans support ending the embargo, according to a poll conducted by Florida International University's Institute for Public Opinion Research shortly after Election Day. The poll found lowest support for the embargo among Cubans who came to the United States most recently.
Another focal point of support for change in US Cuba policy is the business community. "Cuba presents an easy opportunity for Obama to demonstrate that change is coming to American foreign policy," says Jake Colvin, vice president for global trade issues at the National Foreign Trade Council in Washington.
Speaking at a recent Inter-American Dialogue forum in Washington, he said that suspending restrictions to allow US business to sell machinery to Cuba and rescinding a "cash in advance" rule on agricultural sales to Cuba are "innovative" steps that Obama could take.
US business would also like to see any lifting of the travel ban to Cuba include all Americans. But even change on that order would be less than some Cuba watchers might have expected at one time from Obama. "We're going to see some changes at the margins, but less dramatic than we would expect," says Damian Fernandez, provost of Purchase College, State University of New York, who is also a Cuba expert. New under Obama will be a "tendency towards engagement" – although "engagement has its limits," he adds.
The underlying challenge to Obama's new diplomatic approach, Mr. Fernandez says, will be: "Are we willing to accept a Cuban regime that is not very good to its own people?"