Obama-Castro handshake just the start of hard work on US-Cuba ties

For decades, the US embargo on Cuba was akin to using a hammer to crack an egg. Abandoning it is the right move - but it comes too late, and its impact will be limited.

"THE Cold War's been over for a long time. I'm not interested in having battles that, frankly, started before I was born."

That's how United States President Barack Obama justified his decision to abandon over half a century of American efforts to ostracise Cuba by openly shaking hands with Mr Raul Castro, the communist island's ruler, on the margins of a Latin American summit which has just concluded in Panama.

By a strange historic twist, Panama was also the venue for the last public meeting between a US and a Cuban president, back in 1958. But the 33 other Latin American leaders attending the latest regional gathering treated Mr Obama and Mr Castro to a prolonged standing ovation, not because they were impressed by the past, but more because they anticipate a future in which the White House's policies towards their region will become less ideologically driven and more respectful of the political choices and aspirations of each Latin American nation.

There is no question that this is Mr Obama's intention.

"It is going to open the door not just to greater engagement with Cuba, but potentially more constructive relations across the hemisphere," explained Mr Benjamin Rhodes, the President's deputy national security adviser.

Yet, however well-intentioned, Mr Obama may have left the initiative rather late in his presidency, and may not therefore succeed in accomplishing what he wants.

To start with, a few "home truths" about the US-Cuban relationship are needed, if only in order to dispel myths which Mr Obama himself is encouraging.

The fact that the US policy on Cuba is almost as ancient as the Cold War, is not - at least not in itself - an argument to abandon it.

Mr Obama has inherited quite a few battles which started before he was born, including the fight for racial equality around the world, a fight which, one assumes, Mr Obama wants to continue. So, "out with the old, in with the new" is never a very persuasive argument in foreign policy; the question is not whether a policy is old, but whether it functions.

Nor is it true, as some of Mr Obama's assistants currently like to claim, that America's tight political and economic embargo on Cuba was the product of some senseless anti-communist right- wing obsession in Washington.

For, in reality, the policy to isolate Cuba was invented and perfected almost exclusively not by Republican presidents, but by Democratic ones, and especially those whom Mr Obama admires most. Having failed to dislodge the Cuban regime in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion by Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-trained paramilitaries, president John F. Kennedy imposed an economic embargo on the island, refusing to deal with its leaders until they were ready to surrender power.

And it was none other than Mr Bill Clinton who in 1996 signed the Helms-Burton Act, which elevated the embargo from one based on an executive order (which a president has the power to rescind) into an act of Congress, meaning that only the American legislature can repeal it. In essence, Mr Obama is now attempting to dismantle a policy put in place by his soulmates.

An isolated case

AND, notwithstanding claims by Mr Obama's assistants that the embargo on Cuba overshadowed Washington's policies towards Latin America, the reality is that the US' regional neighbours viewed the Cuba embargo as an anachronistic but separate episode, not one which prevented them from overhauling their relations with the US.

Over the past two decades, Washington's links with key regional players such as Chile or Brazil have been revolutionised. The Obama administration should not claim in the same breath that the embargo on Cuba was useless and irrelevant, but that lifting it is still a supremely important act for Latin America.

Still, there is no question that the policy which the US pursued against Cuba for more than half a century was counter-productive.

It did not result in the collapse of the island-state's political system: the same CIA which regularly used to predict the "imminent" demise of Dr Fidel Castro, the founder of communism in Cuba, or Raul, his brother and current president, now accepts that the communist regime remains stable.

The embargo on Cuba also locked the US into a straitjacket which provided no flexibility as circumstances in relations with the island required; in effect, Washington was frequently using a hammer to crack an egg.

And while other Latin American countries found ways around the sanctions, their continued existence was a reminder of Washington's old imperial behaviour in the region, of the tradition of the US to dictate terms to its Latin American neighbours, and punish them if they did not accept the diktat.

Dismantling the policy of ostracising Cuba also accorded with the views of the US electorate.

For gone are the days when Cuban exiles in the US - who number two million and are a "swing" voting power in a key electoral state such as Florida - insisted on punishing their old home country.

Almost half of US people claiming Cuban ancestry are now US-born and, according to a recent study by Florida International University, 68 per cent of Cubans in Miami - the epicentre of this expatriate community - favour re-establishing diplomatic links with Cuba.

If anything, the biggest criticism against Mr Obama is not that he has been too bold on this matter, but that he has been too timid and slow.

The US President made known his aversion to the Cuba policy he inherited the moment he came into the White House. And he relaxed some of the most vexing sanctions - such as those forbidding US phone companies from transferring fees for telephone calls to the Cuban government - as early as 2010. He also ordered the US Treasury Department to stop harassing US citizens who went to Cuba without permission. But then, the US initiatives faltered and nothing further was done.

This delay may prove to be fatal to Mr Obama's vision. For, if he had moved on Cuba earlier and in a more resolute manner, Latin American leaders would have perceived this as a fundamental shift in Washington's priorities. Now, however, as the US President approaches his "lame duck" period in office, the move risks smacking of an admission of US weakness.

Congressional support

MR OBAMA'S preference for launching bold moves without consulting Congress, whose support he needs to turn these initiatives into reality, is also unnerving: The opening to Cuba mirrors almost exactly the recently concluded preliminary nuclear deal with Iran, in that both are presidential initiatives for which Mr Obama has scant support on Capitol Hill.

It may be true that the current US Congress is obtuse. But an obtuse Congress is exactly what the US Constitution envisaged, much as Mr Obama may not like the situation.

And there is an equally big danger that the impact of the opening to Cuba will be exaggerated.

The reputation of the US in Latin America is already quite high, and doesn't need major fixing: According to the latest poll from the Pew Research Centre, a US-based think-tank specialising in such surveys, an average of 65 per cent of people in Latin America have a positive view of the US, and that includes even "difficult" countries such as Venezuela and Nicaragua; only in Argentina is support for the US much lower, and Cuba has nothing to do with this.

Nor should anyone assume that, because Mr Obama is dismantling an embargo on Cuba, the US is abandoning sanctions as its preferred weapon.

Mr Obama is also the inventor of a new breed of "smart sanctions", which are much more painful than those imposed on Cuba half a century ago: Just ask the Iranians or the Venezuelans, who were subjected to a fresh dose of US measures last week. So, one form of a blanket embargo is now discarded, but sanctions resulting in a country's enforced isolation remain very much part of Washington's arsenal.

Undoubtedly, the US policy towards Cuba had to change, and better that it did so late, rather than never. Still, the current Obama initiative resembles many others launched by the President in being too timid, too late and unnecessarily over-hyped. A handshake should be seen as but the start of hard work.