Castro, Obama Pave The Way To Negotiation

This story was written by CBS News foreign affairs analyst Pamela Falk, reporting from the United Nations.
Earlier this week, President Obama announced that he was lifting curbs on travel and money transfers for Cuban exiles living in the United States, and he challenged Cuba to make improvements in the areas of human rights and freedoms.

Thursday, from a summit in Venezuela, Cuban President Raul Castro made a bold response: "We have sent word to the U.S. government in private and in public that we are willing to discuss everything — human rights, freedom of the press, political prisoners, everything."

(AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)
The Venezuelan summit was called by President Hugo Chavez as an alternative to the Summit of the Americas, which Mr. Obama is to attend in Trinidad and Tobago, but to which Cuba was not invited. (In photo, Chavez on right, Raul Castro on left.)

The dialogue-in-soundbites was an unusually direct exchange between an American president and a Castro. It's a poker game between a young, popular president and an old fox; President Obama called out Raul Castro with an offer to negotiate, and Castro upped the ante by putting everything on the table.

The U.S. policy change and offer to negotiate was the Obama Administration's first proverbial toe in the rough waters of the Florida Straits. Any major change, however, will depend on the less certain possibility of actual democratic reform in Cuba.

Curiously, retired Cuban leader Fidel Castro and the Miami exile community agree on one thing; the new U.S. policy does not change much about the trade embargo on Cuba.

And President Obama, speaking in Mexico on Thursday, challenged reporters, asking how they could question the U.S. travel restrictions when Cuba restricts its own citizens from leaving the island.

But, by offering negotiations, Mr. Obama and Castro are clearly trying to pave the way to better relations.

To understand what's next in this poker game between Mr. Obama and the old fox, just look at history. Each time an American president opens the door to Cuba, the Castro brothers have found reason to shut it — and between Fidel and Raul Castro, the regime is now facing its eleventh U.S. president.

The Carter administration went the farthest, opening a quasi-embassy, called an Interests Section, in Havana. (Havana opened an Interests Section in Washington as well, and both remain active today.) But then Cuba sent troops to Ethiopia, putting an end to rapprochement. When President Clinton began lifting parts of the trade embargo, the Cubans shot down two civilian planes.

The changes that President Obama announced include allowing U.S. telecommunications companies into Cuba. It is the most interesting part of the new policy because that change could go a long way toward breaking Cuba's isolation, in terms of access to cell phones and the internet. Cuba has 11 million people and only a half million cell phones.

If Fidel and Raul Castro allow it, it may be the de facto opening of Cuba — at least in terms of information going in and out.

  • Pamela Falk

    Pamela Falk is CBS News Foreign Affairs Analyst and an international lawyer, based at the United Nations.