The Obama Mystique in Cuba

Despite positive signals from Castro, there are still hurdles to any improvement in U.S.-Cuba relations

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Havana—There is an American very much on the minds of Cubans, from veteran officials inured to the nearly half century of estrangement from the United States to ordinary people on the streets of this faded but still lively seaside capital. That American is Barack Obama, whose path-breaking arrival at the White House has both captivated Cubans and raised expectations that the U.S.-Cuban political standoff may at last be eased during his presidency.

Obama is seen here as the first American leader in some time who represents change and who might take steps that somehow help bring prosperity to this communist island nation. "We voted for him, too," jokes one 68-year-old Havana man. Says Karel Trueba, a 21-year-old university student in Havana: "Many things will change with him—relations between the United States and the world, including Cuba."

They have reasons for their raised expectations. During his campaign, Obama said that he would roll back some of George Bush's tightening of restrictions on dealings with Cuba. In particular, he advocated removing limits on travel to Cuba by Cuban-Americans and on their remittances for family members on the island. Obama also signaled that he would undertake "direct diplomacy" with no preconditions with Cuba's leaders if such meetings were carefully prepared and would advance both U.S. interests and the freedom of Cubans.

The Obama administration is likely to complete a review of its Cuba policy before announcing any major changes. Obama has also said that he would not initially seek to remove the U.S. economic embargo because it provides the U.S. government with leverage to press Cuba to "take significant steps towards democracy, beginning with the freeing of all political prisoners." Should that happen, Obama told a Cuban-American audience in Miami, Washington would begin steps toward normalizing relations.

Cuba's leaders seem to accept the possibility of reduced tensions, even as their skepticism about what will actually change remains clear. Some suggest that expectations for a new direction under Obama are too high. Says Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, a senior Foreign Ministry official, "So far, nothing has changed."

In Washington, Obama administration officials have noted the generally positive remarks coming from leaders here. Cuban President Raul Castro has described Obama as honest and sincere and said he is willing to meet Obama in a neutral place. Raul Castro has also offered to exchange dissidents imprisoned in Cuba for five Cubans jailed in the United States for espionage. The broader approach to any rapprochement, he said last year, would have to reflect "a gesture for a gesture."

Raul Castro's ailing brother, former President Fidel Castro, has also called Obama "intelligent" and referred to his "sincerity" in one of his ongoing commentaries published in the Cuban press. But Fidel Castro, still head of Cuba's ruling Communist Party, has also warned that it remains unclear how Obama will use his power, and he has called on the U.S. president to return the Guantánamo Bay naval base to Cuba—a move not on Obama's agenda.