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One year on, embargo still overshadows US-Cuba thaw

Wednesday, December 16, 2015 - 06:40
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After months of secret negotiations, Presidents Barack Obama (right) and Raul Castro (left) announced last December 17 that they were ready to bury the hatchet after more than half a century of enmity between the small communist island and the capitalist behemoth across the Florida Straits.

[HAVANA] Thursday marks one year since the United States and Cuba surprised the world by announcing they would end decades of Cold War hostility, but the budding rapprochement is still overshadowed by the US embargo.

After months of secret negotiations, Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro announced last December 17 that they were ready to bury the hatchet after more than half a century of enmity between the small communist island and the capitalist behemoth across the Florida Straits.

Since then, there has been one history-making photo op after another, from Mr Obama's and Mr Castro's handshake at a regional summit in Panama in April, to the reopening of embassies in July, to the homecoming of a group of defected Cuban baseball stars Tuesday.

Along the way, the US removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism.

But relations remain limited by the trade and financial embargo the United States has imposed on the island since 1962.

The Obama administration has chipped at its edges where it can, easing restrictions on travel and sending money to Cuba, for example.

But it is unlikely to persuade Congress to lift the embargo anytime soon.

To many in the Republican party that controls both houses, Mr Castro and his big brother Fidel remain bitter enemies of both the United States and the Cuban people.

The embargo still bars Americans from investing in Cuba or visiting the island for tourism, and threatens companies that do business there with heavy fines that can reach into the billions of dollars, even for non-US firms.

The countries are far from having a real trade relationship, said Maria de la Luz B'Hamel, the Cuban trade ministry's top official for North America.

"It's not possible to talk about normal relations while there's an economic, trade and financial blockade imposed by the United States on Cuba that has really not changed substantially," she told AFP.

The US says the ball is in Cuba's court.

"More could be done on the Cuban side to take advantage of new openings," said the top American diplomat in Havana, Charge d'Affaires Jeffrey DeLaurentis.

"Just as we are doing our part, we urge the Cuban government to make it less difficult for its citizens to start businesses, to engage in trade and access information online," he told journalists.

Cuba has remained "cautious" in its response to US overtures, said Jorge Duany of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.

"Many of the unilateral measures proposed by the US government - such as authorizing air and maritime transport, exporting communications technology and allowing credit cards for authorised transactions - have still not been reciprocated by the Cuban government," he said.

For Cubans, although the thaw has fueled an increase in tourism - arrivals were up 15 per cent in the first half of 2015 - the political and economic situation remains largely unchanged.

Dissident journalist Yoani Sanchez complained Tuesday that the promised transformation had yet to arrive, in a blog post entitled "Still no McDonald's, still no freedom." "2015 was supposed to be the year of economic lift-off and opening, but 12 months on the reality remains very far from the dream," she wrote.

The Castro regime's crackdowns on dissent remain a source of discord.

Mr Obama said Monday that he would "very much" like to visit Cuba, but that such a trip would have a prerequisite: "progress in the liberty and freedom and possibilities of ordinary Cubans."

The comment came days after Cuba marked international Human Rights Day by detaining dozens of opposition activists or barring them from leaving their homes to prevent anti-regime protests.

Cuba is prickly about criticism on such matters, insisting its "sovereignty" be respected.

The two countries have nevertheless managed to open talks on a series of delicate issues, including normalising immigration - Cuban migrants who arrive in the US are currently fast-tracked for citizenship, a policy Havana detests - and outstanding claims for compensation from both sides.

Washington is seeking US$7 billion to US$8 billion for American citizens and companies whose property was confiscated in the wake of the Cuban Revolution, while Havana wants compensation for its losses under the embargo - an estimated US$121 billion, it says.

At least one other diplomatic minefield meanwhile remains untouched: the future of the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay.

AFP