Expert: Long Road Ahead to Restore Cuban-U.S. Relations

INDIANAPOLIS (WOWO): While President Obama‘s announcement on US talks with Cuba is a first step, a retired professor who served on a US-Cuban relations panel says normal relations with Cuba are a long way away.

Obama announced that the US would restore diplomatic relations with the Communist country and re-open an embassy in Havana for the first time in more than five decades. The announcement coincided with the release of Alan Gross, an American who had been in a Cuban prison for five years after Cuba accused of him of spying for the US. Cuba also released a US intelligence agent who had been imprisoned for nearly 20 years as well as 53 Cubans who were political prisoners. The US released three Cuban spies who had been in prison in the US since 2001.

While Obama was optimistic about the future of US-Cuban relations, Cuban leader Raul Castro was more cautious in his remarks according to Mike Erisman, a retired Indiana State University political science professor. Erisman served as co-chair of the Latin American Association‘s Working Group on US-Cuban Relations, and he says Cubans took Obama‘s announcement to mean that a possible end to the economic embargo put in place by President Dwight Eisenhower in October 1960 and expanded by President John Kennedy in February 1962.

“That will be difficult with an incoming Republican congress, with some of the Cuban-American representatives there holding influential positions,” Erisman said. “During (President) Clinton‘s administration, Clinton essentially turned control of the embargo over to Congress.”

Some denounced Obama for the move; Republican Senator Marco Rubio and Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, both of whom serve on the Senate‘s Foreign Relations Committee, criticized the president‘s action, with Menendez calling it “a swap of convicted spies for an innocent American.”

Others have argued that, like what happened with the old Soviet Union, Cuba‘s Communist regime would be more at risk without the economic embargo in place. Erisman isn‘t sure. “Cubans are very nationalistic. Even Cubans who disagree with the government are very sensitive about outside countries interfering with their affairs.” Erisman also believes Fidel Castro, who ceded power to his younger brother in 2008, still plays an influential role in Cuba‘s foreign affairs, even though he is 88 years old.

Obama said he remained concerned about Cuba‘s record on human rights, which Erisman says will remain a point of contention in future talks because of the way the two countries define human rights. “Cuba would say that the United States does not have a national health care system. That‘s a violation of human rights from their perspective. From our perspective, it‘s a policy issue,” Erisman said.