US-Cuba anniversary shows how stuck ties are

By Lachlan Carmichael
Monday, April 11, 2011

WASHINGTON — Though US-Cuba ties are less tense than they have been, the 50th anniversary of the botched US-backed Bay of Pigs invasion highlights how hard it is for the two neighbors to bury the hatchet.

When he entered office more than two years ago, US President Barack Obama raised hopes that ties would improve dramatically. But very little progress has been made and the anniversary only amplifies a century of mistrust.

And relations took a fresh blow last month when Cuba sentenced US contractor Alan Gross to 15 years in prison for covertly distributing laptops and cellular phones on the island, the Americas' only one-party communist regime.

Experts said an improvement in ties with the regime -- now led by Raul Castro after decades headed by Cuban revolutionary icon Fidel Castro -- is still a long way off as politics on both sides limit progress.

"It will happen slowly but they are both engaged in a dance in which neither one is really dancing," Christopher Sabatini, senior director of policy at the Americas Society, told AFP.

"The Alan Gross thing is clearly a sticking point and will remain a sticking point," he added.

Sabatini said US governments tend to let themselves get "held hostage" each time the Castros take harsh measures and predictably trigger a US backlash, fueled by the conservative Cuban-American constituency.

"The Castros don't want to see greater opening. They realize that their citizens' access to information, and communication and options would only challenge their totalitarian rule," Sabatini said.

"The best thing we can do is to keep the regime on its heels, continue to press by opening, not by shutting down when they want us to," he said, conceding such a major step is unlikely.

The Obama administration wants Cuba to adopt broad political reforms rather than just release political prisoners -- which it did recently -- before it lifts the decades-old US economic embargo and fully opens up ties.

Cuba, however, has allowed no political opening and launched only extremely minimal economic change, despite deep economic crisis. Many farms still work with oxen, and most Cubans earn an average 20 dollars a month.

The US administration meanwhile has taken some baby steps.

Breaking with his predecessor George W. Bush, Obama eased curbs on Cuban-Americans traveling to visit family on the island, as well as restrictions on remittances Cubans in the United States send their families back home.

"I think there were high expectations that there would be pretty dramatic change when he (Obama) came to power and I think it's proved to be very slow and very difficult," expert Michael Shifter told AFP.

"The politics are very complicated. They are complicated here and they are complicated in Cuba," said Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based policy forum on Western Hemisphere affairs.

With Republicans stronger in Congress this year, he said, it is even less likely there will be attempts to lift the embargo, to end curbs on US firms doing business in Cuba, and to remove restrictions on Americans visiting Cuba.

Ruling out a dramatic US-Cuba opening in the short term, Shifter said he could see a growth in "cultural exchanges, people-to-people contacts" as well as greater economic contacts, which he said might fuel modest changes.

"Cuba has a severe economic crisis, and they are moving slowly but moving toward trying to (make) economic changes, and I think that might set off a process that begins to open things up a little bit," Shifter said.

The harsh rhetoric of the past is likely to be heard as both sides mark the dramatic Cold War events of April 17, 1961 when 1,400 Cuban exiles launched what became a failed US-backed invasion of Cuba's south coast.

Sabatini said "it's just going to create a lot of noise," all the more so because the anniversary also coincides with the Cuban Communist Party Congress starting April 16.

"You will see a lot of reference to Yankee intervention and the need to prevent those sorts of abuses in the future. It is still used as an effective tool of instilling fear in the hearts of Cuban citizens," he said.

He said Cubans also remember an amendment Washington imposed on pre-Communist Cuba's constitution in 1901 that allowed the United States to intervene at will. And intervene it did.

Meanwhile, the United States maintains its naval base in Guantanamo, Cuba against Havana's wishes.

And the University of Miami, in Florida, meanwhile, will commemorate the Bay of Pigs events by inviting veterans of the failed invasion. Florida is home to almost a million Cuban Americans.

"The fight is (virtually) still going on both sides across the Florida straits," Sabatini said. "It gives you an idea why we are stuck in this inertia."