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Americas

Cuba and the US: A new start with old obstacles

Relations between Cold War rivals Cuba and the United States are thawing more slowly than many had anticipated. The expectations are high, but so are the obstacles that must be overcome.

Cuba is trendy these days. Since Washington and Havana made the historic announcement to revive diplomatic relations that were put on ice in 1961, tourist numbers to the Caribbean island have increased sharply.

One New York tour operator has reported a 250 percent increase in bookings for March.

For most US citizens, Cuba has been a forbidden destination for decades. Many travel restrictions to Cuba still apply but at least some of the red tape has been lifted. Many view this as a last opportunity to experience the old, authentic Cuba with its iconic Eisenhower-era cars, before Starbucks and McDonalds move in and forever change the look and feel of the country.

While tourists tend to romanticize Cuba and disregard the fact that the island has been undergoing a transformation of its own in recent years, for many Cubans change cannot come fast enough. They desperately want their old buildings and infrastructure restored, more free trade, more freedom to travel, higher incomes, better Internet and an end to the US trade embargo.

view of Havana

Havana, capital city of the "forbidden Island"

US businesses are also raring to go to Cuba. Only recently, the first direct flights between New York and Havana started up again. Several ferry companies are also just waiting to set sail. The San Francisco-based online marketplace, Airbnb, has already started listing private accommodation in Cuba, so far only for travelers from the US. Other US firms like Netflix, Google or Apple have already announced plans to enter the Cuban market. There is a spirit of optimism.

Small advances

But relations are progressing much slower than many had hoped. A good example is the dialogue over human rights.

It's considered one of the most contentious chapters and is under close public scrutiny. At a first meeting on the issue in Washington on March 31, the different perspectives became all too apparent. The US has called on Cuba to grant its citizens freedom of speech and the freedom of assembly.

Roberta Jacobson

"Good progress" was made in the talks, says Roberta Jacobson

Cuba, however, says it has a different understanding of democracy and human rights and would like to shift the debate to the United States' own human rights record by addressing the violations in Bagdad's Abu Ghraib prison, the problems in Ferguson, where a young black man was shot dead by police and, closer to home, the US military's prison camp in Guantánamo. Cubans are also keen to point out their own achievements in social welfare, such as their free access to healthcare and education.

Another contentious issue is Venezuela. On March 9, US President Barack Obama declared Cuba's closest ally a national security threat and ordered sanctions against some of the country's top officials. The measure was strongly criticized by ALBA, an intergovernmental alliance of Latin American and Caribbean states, including Cuba.

No quick solutions

The chief US negotiator for Cuba, Roberta S. Jacobson, has played down any significant fall out, saying the US has no indication that the leadership in Havana will let talks fail because of Venezuela.

old US cars in Cuba

Many Cubans hope for change - and newer cars

The first two rounds of talks in January and February, however, clearly showed up the serious differences between the two countries. Both sides called the negotiations "positive and productive", but after decades of distrust and in the face of many open questions, a quick solution is not in sight.

As a result, the initial focus is on issues the parties are most likely to agree on. That includes expanding cooperation on telecommunications and air traffic safety as well as measures in the fight against epidemics, terrorism and the drug trade.

"I know it appears as if we haven't achieved anything but after 50 years of distrust, we've made a lot of progress," Jacobsen said. "Publicly, much movement won't be seen until we open an embassy."

That is, in fact, the first goal: restoring diplomatic ties by opening embassies in each other's capitals.

Cuba on the list

The US would have liked to have taken that step ahead of the upcoming summit of the Organization of American States (OAS) in Panama City, Panama, on April 10, but that's not likely to happen.

It would have been a strong message for a new chapter in relations, echoing the new relationship that then-newly elected US President Barack Obama had announced to Latin American heads of state and government at the last OAS summit in Trinidad and Tobago in 2009. In Panama, he's sure to be reminded of the remarks he made back then.

Josefina Vidal

Removal from the terror list is a priority, says Josefina Vidal

Cuba's status on the US list of state sponsors of terrorism is yet another stumbling bloc. The Cuban foreign ministry's chief of US affairs, Josefina Vidal, made it clear from the start that re-establishing diplomatic relations while Cuba is still on that list is highly unlikely. And just a few months ago, Cuban President Raul Castro demanded the return of the base at Guantanamo Bay before ties can be normalized.

Progress seems imminent on the terrorism list, however. The review of Cuba's inclusion on the terrorism list is "advanced", Roberta Jacobson said, while making it clear "that there are no conclusions and we can't prejudge its results."

While it appears that all of this will take time and can only be achieved one small cautious step at a time, the very factor of time could play an "important role" in the negotiations, according to Carlos Alzugaray. Obama only has 18 more months in office, the former Cuban diplomat argues, and Raul Castro has announced he plans to step down in 2018.

In Panama next weekend, Obama and Castro will face each other across a negotiating table for the first time - a signal of hope for the start of a new era for Cuba, the US and all of the Americas.

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