Cuba-US: Talking about talks

HAVANA, Apr 22 (IPS) - Bolstered by international support for its demand for an end to the embargo, Cuba could sit down with the United States to talk about a number of matters of mutual interest while it awaits the lifting of the web of restrictions that have weighed on its economy for nearly half a century.

In a context in which dialogue is a possibility, Havana has said there are no taboo subjects or conditions for talks with the government of Barack Obama.

'We are willing to discuss everything, human rights, freedom of the press, or political prisoners… but on equal terms, without casting the smallest shadow on our sovereignty,' Cuban President Raúl Castro said on Apr. 17.

This was not the first time that Castro has expressed his willingness to talk to the United States, but the explicit mention of topics that Cuba has always considered 'sensitive' was a new development. According to some analysts, his words prove that the government is interested in negotiations, so long as they are on an equal footing.

Without contradicting him, former president Fidel Castro added the interpretation that his younger brother Raúl's statement 'shows he is not afraid of addressing any kind of issue.' 'It shows courage and confidence in the principles of the Revolution,' he said in one of his latest opinion columns.

On the issue of human rights, the Cuban government has consistently rejected being put in the dock, as was the style of the former United Nations Commission on Human Rights. Under the Human Rights Council (HRC) which replaced the Commission in 2006, all member states are subject to periodic scrutiny.

However, Cuba would accept talks on the issue if they were based on principles of 'objectivity, impartiality and non-selectiveness,' a source close to the Foreign Ministry told IPS. Havana holds regular conversations with Spain on this basis, and has proposed an exchange of experiences with the European Union in the light of HRC evaluations.

In 1978, talks with Cuban exiles in Havana led to the release of some 800 prisoners, while the 1998 visit by the late Pope John Paul II led to nearly 300 prisoners being pardoned.

'Repetition of such a gesture is not impossible, but it cannot be a prior condition for convergence or dialogue… The Cuban government has never responded to pressure and impositions,' said a former official who served in a senior post at that time.

From different perspectives, the issue of prisoners is a priority for both Washington and Havana. Raúl Castro has reiterated his proposal of 'gesture for gesture,' that is, to exchange imprisoned dissidents for the five Cuban agents who have been serving lengthy prison sentences in the United States for more than 10 years.

Academic researchers agree that a pardon from Obama for 'the Cuban Five' would create a situation for the Cuban government to respond with an equivalent gesture.

René González, Antonio Guerrero, Ramón Labañino and Fernando González were convicted on charges of conspiracy to commit espionage, while Gerardo Hernández was additionally convicted for conspiracy to commit murder.

At an Apr. 19 press conference at the end of the Fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, President Obama said he would 'explore' possible new steps in relation to Cuba, after his recent lifting of restrictions on travel and remittances for Cuban-Americans to the island.

But he said the Cuban government could also take steps, such as reducing 'charges on remittances' to contribute to raising the living standards of its citizens, and 'releasing political prisoners.'

'Obama views the release of prisoners as a unilateral gesture by Cuba, and there's no help for it,' an academic warned.

Analysts also agree that dialogue is possible before the embargo is dismantled. Begun under the administration of President John Kennedy (1961-1963), the U.S. embargo was codified in the Helms-Burton Act, which was approved in 1996 during the presidency of Bill Clinton (1993-2001) and vigorously enforced by the government of George W. Bush (2001-2009).

Lifting the embargo is now in the hands of Congress, not the executive, which means there will be more delay. Meanwhile, the Obama administration could move towards convergence on issues of common interest such as illegal migration, terrorism and drug trafficking.

Concrete proposals for bilateral cooperation in these areas were made by Havana in March 2005, but were not taken up by President Bush, who two years later interrupted - unilaterally, according to Cuba - the six-monthly meetings for reviewing migration agreements signed in 1994 and 1995.

These agreements provided for legal and orderly emigration of Cubans to the United States. Delegations from both countries met alternately in their respective capitals to assess fulfilment of the agreements, and for nearly 10 years they were the only platform for dialogue.

Resumption of these talks are assumed to require no more than the willingness of both parties. And progress on the other issues proposed could also be made, as they are of strategic interest to the two countries whose geographical proximity means they share a number of problems, whether they like it or not.

'It will be a slow process, because of the decades of bilateral hostility, but it is worth trying. In Cuba it will mean changes that on the one hand may represent (ideological) dangers, and on the other, excellent opportunities,' said a university professor who requested anonymity.

In his view, the expected 'invasion' of tourists from the United States might initially overwhelm the tourism industry, but in the long run it would bring growth to the industry, creating new sources of income that would benefit the country and its 11.2 million people.

As for the ideological risks implied by a wave of U.S. visitors, political scientist Rafael Hernández said that Cuba is not exactly isolated in a bell jar, and essentially all the challenges involved in a more normal relationship with the United States are already present.

'When U.S. citizens can travel legally to Cuba, I don't think their social and ideological effect will be any worse than that of Italian or Spanish tourists. However, I very much doubt that 'a more normal relationship' will be the cure-all, unless the U.S. government renounces all interference in Cuba's political destiny, which is highly improbable,' even under Obama, Hernández told IPS.

Nevertheless, the Cuban government 'has always responded positively to proposals by the United States,' Hernández said. 'I think that even hinting that this conflict has not been resolved due to sabotage by Cuba is completely unfounded.

'To put it in the terms some people prefer, I don't expect the Cuban air force to shoot down any small planes, because I don't think the U.S. air defence will let any plane leave their airspace to fly over Havana,' he said, referring to the 1996 incident which prompted Clinton to sign the Helms-Burton Act