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Cubans hope for spring thaw in Cold War relationship

By Lucia Newman
CNN Havana Bureau Chief

In this story: March 27, 1998
Web posted at: 12:20 p.m. EDT (1220 GMT)
Newman

HAVANA (CNN) -- When Pope John Paul II made his historic first visit to Cuba in January, many people around the world saw a unique chance for change in one of the last communist countries.

Most outsiders contemplated a change in Cuba's political system, but some insiders in Havana, Washington and the Vatican saw something else: a unique opportunity to promote a shift in the United States' policy toward Cuba.

With almost clockwork precision, shifts on both sides -- however minute -- are exactly what we are seeing in the wake of the papal visit.

Making the first gestures

Castro

First, Cuban President Fidel Castro offered an olive branch by announcing the release of some 300 inmates, many of them political prisoners for whom the pope had requested clemency.

This concession, which would never have been made had Washington asked, was easy enough for Castro to grant to John Paul II, without a loss of face.

Next, it was Washington's turn to respond to this gesture, and to the pope's call for the world and Cuba to open up to each other.

Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright announced the easing of a number of restrictions imposed on Havana two years ago in retaliation for Cuba's downing of two planes flown by Miami-based anti-Castro activists.

Cuba looks for change 'one step at a time'

Publicly, both sides insist that, fundamentally, nothing has changed. Washington officially remains as committed as ever to its policy of holding Castro's feet to the fire, to try to force Havana to abandon communism for Western-style democracy.

But privately, officials in Cuba, at least, perceive new movement in Washington's position after a two-year freeze.

Some argue that the resumption of direct flights between the two countries, and the reinstatement of money transfers from Cuban-Americans to relatives here, simply revert the policy to where it was before February 1996.

But a closer look shows the White House going beyond that, by easing the restrictions on licensed medical sales to Cuba, and proposing legislation to "meet humanitarian food needs" of the island.

The Vatican has made it clear it is willing to act as an intermediary (or "interpreter" as it likes to call it) between Washington and Havana.

Just this week, Albright was at the Vatican, requesting the release of four political prisoners; soon after, Cuban Foreign Minister Roberto Robaina was there, receiving the message from the Vatican in person.

It certainly would be premature to predict the dawning of a new relationship between Havana and Washington. Still, from Cuba's point of view, this could well be the first step of many that may eventually lead to major change.

"We don't expect the U.S. economic embargo to go away overnight or by royal edict," says one high-level official. "We expect it to happen little by little, one step at a time."

The personal stake in the situation

For ordinary Cubans, the scent of a shift in U.S. policy is heartening. Whatever their politics, most Cubans believe their lives would be much easier if their country could normalize relations with the United States.

The decades-old U.S. economic embargo against Cuba undoubtedly contributes to problems here, but the bilateral conflict seems to permeate every aspect of life.

For example, many Cubans have relatives living in the United States, but visiting them is extremely difficult because of restrictions placed by both nations.

Cuba also restricts its people from traveling when they like, wherever they like, as people are free to do in other countries.

Cubans cannot read different political points of view in the news media, because only the opinion approved by the Communist Party is permitted. They cannot hold strikes or protest meetings.

And while they can choose among candidates in elections, all the candidates share the one political point of view that is allowed.

The government justifies all this by arguing that when a country is under attack by the world's biggest superpower, it cannot afford to allow divisions.

Of course, many restrictions on personal freedoms, as well as the shortcomings of the Communist Party system, have nothing to do with the United States.

But whether U.S. policy is a real culprit or simply a convenient one, the perception here is that Cuba could be more "normal" if it got along better with its northern neighbor.

Defining 'normal,' and wanting a choice

Pope in Cuba

The definition of "normal" depends on whom you ask. Many Cubans say they would like less government interference and control in their lives. But they are also afraid of what the pope called "savage and unbridled capitalism."

Most people do not want Cuba to become like the countries of the former Soviet Union, where the state no longer provides a social cushion. They want to preserve some aspects of their socialist system, such as universal health care and education.

But they also want choice, not imposition. Many Cubans, even some in the Communist Party, believe the fundamental change to allow more personal choice could be possible if the country's relationship with the United States improved.

Political analysts and policy makers wrestle over which side should be the first to make a major concession.

Already, an unprecedented number of American businessmen, intellectuals and politicians are coming to Cuba to see the situation firsthand. And more and more American tourists are skirting U.S. law to sneak into Cuba for vacations.

These small signs, coupled with the pope's groundbreaking visit and subsequent reactions from both Havana and Washington, indicate that for now at least, something is afoot in the Western Hemisphere's last Cold War relationship.


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Icons at the Crossroads  |  Cuba and Catholicism  |  An Exile Returns
Testing the Embargo  |  Live Webcasts  |  The Struggling Revolution  |  Related links
 
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