Do 50 years of U.S. intransigence toward Cuba mean we are stuck in a political ice age on the issue, immune from change, or is that era already ending?

President George Bush seems blind to trickles of change that are starting to appear. At a media spectacular held March 8 to castigate Cuba’s jailing of 75 government opponents five years ago, Bush declared, referring to the recent naming of a new Cuban president, “So far, all Cuba has done is replace one dictator with another.”

In fact, most of those jailed in 2003 had violated Cuban laws barring acceptance of foreign payments for domestic political activities.

Influential former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.) suggested this month that U.S. policymakers need not wait for signals from Cuba to start ending the trade embargo and easing relations with the island nation. Hamilton said he “opts for engagement” now so as to “end one of the Cold War’s last lingering conflicts.”

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) last month demanded that Congress pass legislation ending “this flawed policy.” She called for “election of a president who will work with the Congress” on Cuba, and for re-establishment of a U.S. embassy in Cuba.

In a forthright statement March 11 before the United Nations Council on Human Rights, Jean Ziegler, head of the UN World Food Office, praised Cuba’s assurance of food security for its citizens and said that “the unnecessary costs and inconveniences” impeding Cuban food imports must be ended. In addition, Ziegler said, “Cuba must be assured free access to export markets.”

On March 8, the European Union’s Development Commissioner, Louis Michel of Belgium, became the first high-level European Union official to visit Cuba since the EU imposed sanctions five years ago in response to the imprisonment of so-called dissidents. The sanctions relate primarily to diplomatic contacts and aid projects. Suspended in 2005, they are subject to periodic reviews. Pressure is building for the EU to end the sanctions at its June ministerial meeting.

As he left Cuba, Michel told reporters, “The EU must find ways to unblock this situation and do politics.” He and Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque signed a joint communiqué emphasizing “sovereign equality [and] non-interference in internal affairs.” It identified the sanctions as “the main obstacle” to harmonious Cuba-EU relations.

But President Bush thought otherwise.

On March 8, he applauded eight Eastern European nations for being in the forefront of “the struggle for human liberty in Cuba.” Countries like France, Spain, Portugal and Italy who are seeking to restore full relations with Cuba, are somehow acting against the Cuban people, Bush suggested. “When a new day finally dawns for Cubans, they will remember the few brave nations that stood with them, and the many that did not,” he proclaimed.

But France, on behalf of the countries targeted by Bush, protested against their exclusion from meetings with Eastern European diplomats arranged by the U.S. State Department. The Spanish paper Publico reported that the purpose of the meetings, presided over by Cuban-born U.S. Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez, was to press the Eastern European countries to back continuing EU anti-Cuban sanctions.

The atmosphere in Cuba suggests readiness for new developments. EU Commissioner Michel found “the spirit, the open-mindedness and the atmosphere of [his] talks” there hinted at “improvement in the dialogue process.”

In the same vein, famous Cuban crime novelist Leonardo Padura recorded signs of what he sees as new openness.

Writing for Inter Press Service, Padura pointed to the televised broadcast of a mass celebrated in Havana’s Cathedral Square last month, It followed a visit by the Vatican secretary of state, who was the first high-level representative of a foreign state received by Cuba’s new president, Raul Castro.

Padura also reminded readers of a significant development recently at the UN headquarters in New York. There, the Cuban foreign minister fulfilled government promises by signing two important UN treaties, one on economic, social and cultural rights and the other on civil and political rights.

Foreign Minister Perez Roque announced March 13, after meeting in Havana with his Mexican counterpart, that he would visit Mexico soon to deliver an invitation for Mexican President Calderon to visit the island. Mexican-Cuban relations have been frosty for several years.