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U.S.-Cuba relations may warm in 2nd Obama term, analysts say

By Juan O. Tamayo, The Miami Herald –

MIAMI—The doors to warmer U.S.-Cuba relations will remain open following President Barack Obama’s election to another four-year term, but just how open will likely depend on how Havana handles the case of jailed U.S. subcontractor Alan Gross, analysts say.

Many Cubans on the island feared that a victory by Republican candidate Mitt Romney, who was backed by the GOP Cuban-Americans in the U.S. Congress, would lead to a toughening of Washington’s sanctions on the communist-ruled country.

But the win by Obama, who declared shortly after his first election in 2008 that he wanted a “new start” to the long-hostile bilateral relations, will keep the doors open to measured expansions in travel, remittances, cultural and academic exchanges and perhaps even trade, analysts said.

“I expect continuity of the gradual opening since 2009,” said Mario Gonzalez-Corzo, a Cuba-born economist at Lehman College in New York City.

No major changes in the laws governing U.S. sanctions on Cuba, such as the trade embargo, are likely to be approved by the next Congress, where all but one of the Cuban-American lawmakers who are highly critical of the Raúl Castro government retained their seats.

Voters re-elected Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., powerful chair of the House foreign affairs committee, as well as Reps. Mario Diaz Balart, R-Fla., and Albio Sires, D-N.J. They rejected Rep. David Rivera, R-Fla., the target of several investigations, in favor of Joe Garcia, a Democrat who favors better links to Cuba.

In the Senate, where a single member can stall virtually any vote, Democrat Bob Menendez of New Jersey was re-elected to his second term and Ted Cruz of Texas, a 41-year-old conservative Republican and Cuban-American favored by the tea party, was elected to his first.

But Obama has the presidential power to expand or shrink relations by changing regulations. Since 2009 he has lifted virtually all restrictions on Cuban Americans who travel or send cash remittances to the island and allowed others to visit the island on educational tours known as “people-to-people” travel.

About 400,000 U.S. residents visited the island last year and remittances from the U.S. were estimated at $2 billion a year — both providing powerful support for an island economy all but stagnant and facing tough market reforms. The travelers often delivered consumer goods later sold on the grey market.

“If Obama did nothing else to help the Cubans, he turned the informal economy in a country where the average salary is $20 a month into a powerful engine,” said a foreigner who lives in Havana and did not wish to be further identified.

Dissidents and independent activists who attended a function at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana on Tuesday night favored Obama in a straw poll 64-19, according to reports by foreign journalists at the event.

But the Cuban government has shown no such preference for Obama, saying before the U.S. vote Tuesday that whoever won would continue the U.S. “empire’s” campaign to destroy the Castro Revolution.

“Let us hope that he (Obama) understands that Cuba is not his back yard, that he respects the sovereignty and freedom of the Cuban people,” noted the Twitter account of Yohandry Fontana, believed to be a Cuban intelligence front.

The Obama administration has repeatedly described its policy toward Havana as supporting the Cuban people so they can become more independent of their government, while taking steps to protect and promote U.S. interests.

In 2009 it restarted bilateral talks on migration which had been cancelled by the George W. Bush administration amid complaints that they were unproductive. But it cancelled them again after the fourth round, on Jan. 12 2011, amid Havana’s continued detention of Gross.

Gross, a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, was arrested in late 2009 and sentenced to 15 years in prison for delivering sophisticated satellite phones to Cuban Jews under a USAID pro-democracy program. Havana outlawed any cooperation with the program, saying it was designed to topple the communist system.

Obama administration officials have made it clear that until Gross is released and returns home — his mother and one of his daughters are battling cancer — there can be no significant warming of relations between Washington and Havana.

“We all focus on what this or that (U.S.) president will do about Cuba,” said the foreigner living in Havana. “But we also have to ask if Cuba really wants better relations. And the answer may be, ‘Not while they are holding Alan Gross.’”

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