Fidel Didn't Really Dash Hopes For Cuba Talks

Fidel Castro is once again demonstrating that he knows how to stir up controversy.

An online essay penned by the former Cuban president Tuesday evening seemed to throw a wrench into the apparent thawing in U.S.-Cuba relations. But some analysts question whether that is really the case.

This screengrab taken from the Cuban government Web site shows the top of former leader Fidel Castro's editorial column, published on April 21, 2009.

It's a "script that has repeated many times before," says Nelson Valdes, a Cuban-American sociologist at the University of New Mexico.

"The United States proposes something. The Cuban government reacts to the proposal and states on what basis it is willing to interact," Valdes says, stressing that, as always, Cuba insisted that in any talks the sovereignty of both countries be respected.
Fidel Castro was just setting the record straight, says Valdes, when he wrote that President Obama had "misinterpreted" the remarks made by his brother, Cuban President Raul Castro.

The media reporting blurred the "nuance and principles" in President Castro's declaration that he was ready to discuss "everything," including human rights, freedom of the press and expression and political prisoners.

That statement set tongues wagging. Now the U.S. government and the foreign press have made it seem as though Cuba is "changing its stance," says Valdes, when in reality "the Cuban position has not changed an inch."

In his latest essay, Fidel Castro noted that his brother's offer to discuss all issues was "a show of courage and confidence in the principles of the revolution."

In other words, Havana is happy to defend its positions on the issues in question, but was not signaling a readiness to make concessions in exchange for better relations with Washington. The former Cuban leader, sidelined by illness in 2006, was clearly put off by Mr. Obama's subsequent call for Cuba to unconditionally release political prisoners and suspend a 10 percent currency exchange fee slapped on the U.S. dollar in 2007.

Earlier this month, the Obama administration lifted restrictions on family visits by Cuban Americans and limits on the amount of financial aid they could send relatives on the island. It's assumed that most of those funds are sent in U.S. dollars, but Cuba's leaders do not welcome the American currency on the island, and not just because of the dollar's falling value.

As part of the application of Washington's economic and trade embargo, the U.S. Federal Reserve went after a Swiss bank for handling U.S. dollars from Cuba. The $100 million fine it imposed in that case discouraged other foreign banks from taking dollars from Cuba, complicating the island's international trade payments.

Havana hoped the 10 percent surcharge would discourage the circulation of U.S. dollars and that visitors would instead spend Euros, British pounds, Swiss francs and other convertible currencies which can be exchanged for the local currency at the going world rate.

Julia Sweig, Director of Latin American Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, was reluctant to say exactly what Fidel Castro's jumping into the breach at this point meant, but she conceded that it, "muddies the waters a bit... but then, the waters were already muddied."

Everybody has been chiming in, says Sweig, "some with more conciliatory and more open-ended statements, some with the same old, same old." She stresses the need to look for "substance over rhetoric."

The biggest sticking point for the Cubans is the U.S. economic and trade embargo, and in his essay Fidel Castro chastised Mr. Obama for clinging to it, predicting that that policy would lead him to failure as it did for his ten predecessors.

Castro ended his essay by implying that unless Mr. Obama does something different, Cuba will be treading water with a different U.S. president who will be, "without-doubt less intelligent, promising and admired in the world than Barack Obama."

That reasoning might also explain why the Castro brothers are disappointed in Mr. Obama's decision to not reject the existing parameters in the relationship to encourage change on the island.

Cuba-U.S. relations dramatically worsened during the Bush administration, and there is no way of knowing who will replace him. Therefore, Mr. Obama's leadership was likely seen as a window of opportunity for the aging Castros to bring closure to the five-decade-old dispute between the two neighbors, and to do it on their terms before the mantle of leadership passes to a younger generation.

Raul Castro is also feeling pressure from his public to improve living standards, and an end to the embargo and the opening of two-way trade and travel with the U.S. would go a long way to improving the government's current financial liquidity problems.

But, given the back and forth messages which have come from the Castro brothers, which seem to leave the country's position largely unchanged, many people consider a real breakthrough unlikely in the immediate future.

A frequent visitor to Cuba and the representative of a large U.S. farm group, whose members see the island as an important market for their products, says it was a mistake to think improvements in U.S. Cuba relations were on a fast track.

Asking not to be identified, as his employer has not issued any statement on the latest developments, he explained his perspective on the future of bilateral relations.

"Many years ago, about 1980, I met a Cuban-born businessperson in Venezuela. We became friends and he told me that nothing would change between the U.S. and Cuba until key people (on all sides of the issue) — a whole generation of people, including himself – died," he said.

"That's kind of been a pretty good guide for me and helped ease out the ups and downs of this whole thing."