Cuba-US relations: cultural warmth, political freeze

HAVANA, Cuba — With so many major American cultural institutions coming to Cuba lately, it’s as if there’s a performing arts pipeline straight from Manhattan to Havana.

Wynton Marsalis and members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center orchestra came for a week of concerts and classes in October. The American Ballet Theater gave its first performances here in 50 years earlier this month. And now the New York Philharmonic is planning a trip early next year, having finally received permission from the U.S. government to travel to Cuba.

The visits, coming with encouragement from the administration of President Barack Obama, have produced a familiar pattern by now: statements of joy and gratitude from Cubans, statements of joy and gratitude from Americans, and a shared sense of bewilderment about the enduring power of U.S. economic sanctions that makes such encounters so difficult in the first place.

But just as these friendly exchanges — and the recent visas granted to Cuban artists to perform in the United States — have produced the impression of warming ties, a cold bucket of American congressional politics may ice things over again.

The massive Republican electoral victory on Nov. 2 will make the possibility of significant changes to U.S.-Cuba policy remote, Cuban analysts said. New policy moves will have to come from the White House, not Capitol Hill, but Obama appears to have little appetite for a showdown with Cuba hardliners in the House and the Senate.

One such measure, which would have restored Clinton-era rules enabling more Americans to engage in “purposeful” travel to Cuba, was floated to the media earlier this year, but it has since faded.

“It is an open secret that the administration wrote new regulations to liberalize non-tourist travel last summer, then failed to implement them out of political timidity,” wrote Phil Peters, a Cuba policy expert at the Lexington Institute, and the author of the Cuban Triangle blog.

Despite Obama’s campaign pledge that he would sit down and talk to America’s enemies, including Cuban President Raul Castro, the White House has responded tepidly to recent economic reforms on the island, and the release of dozens of political prisoners. Obama called those measures “positive,” but said he was waiting to see “the full results.”

According to Peters, “if President Obama doesn’t respond to incremental changes in Cuba with incremental changes of his own, his offer will at some point become a dead letter.”

With the Republican takeover in the House, the top-ranking position on the Foreign Relations Committee flips from Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), an advocate of Cuba policy reform, to Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), a Cuban-American from Miami referred to by the Castro government media as “The Ferocious Wolf” for her stalwart defense of the U.S. embargo. Rising Republican star and senator-elect Marco Rubio is also Cuban-American, and has professed firm allegiance to the policy.

“The founding generation of Cuban emigres — exiles like Ros-Lehtinen and her parents — arrived in Miami traumatized, their lives uprooted and their homes and possessions confiscated,” wrote Arturo Lopez-Levy, a Cuba analyst, in a recent essay for Foreign Policy.

“They rarely if ever returned to the island, and in their long absence constructed a nostalgic image of Cuba that bore little resemblance to reality. They looked at the American policy toward Cuba as a means of catharsis and compensation; with their support, the embargo went from being a means of achieving a policy — the strategic containment of communism — to a policy goal unto itself.”

While recent polls show a major shift in Cuban-American attitudes about the embargo and travel restrictions in favor of a great opening, that hasn’t produced Cuban-American leaders willing to challenge venerable anti-Castro credos.

A bill that would lift prohibitions on American travel to Cuba and ease restrictions on U.S. agricultural sales to the island was approved in the Foreign Affairs committee in June, but it now appears that the lame-duck Congress will let the bill die.

The Obama administration could make changes to U.S. travel restrictions by executive order, instructing the Treasury Department to stop enforcing sanctions against Americans who go to Cuba without permission. But few believe Obama has the stomach for a bitter fight over an issue that would deliver limited political benefits.

According to dissident Cuban economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe, Obama’s political fortunes will have a significant impact on the lives of ordinary Cubans, who have benefited from his policies allowing Cuban-Americans to visit the island and send more money to their relatives.

“For Cubans, Obama’s diminishing power will also become an obstacle (for change). The measures that have allowed for more Cuban-American travel, fewer restrictions on sending money to family members, and an increase in the number of cultural exchanges have brought our countries closer.”