Cubans hope for spring thaw in Cold War relationship
By Lucia Newman
In this story:
March 27, 1998
CNN Havana Bureau Chief
Web posted at: 12:20 p.m. EDT (1220 GMT)
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Defining 'normal,' and wanting a choice
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
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.
Icons at the Crossroads |
Cuba and Catholicism |
An Exile Returns
Testing the Embargo |
Live Webcasts |
The Struggling Revolution |