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Cuba-US relations: cultural warmth, political freeze

What a little music and dance can't fix.

Wynton Marsalis in Cuba
U.S. musician Wynton Maralis and Cuban Grammy winner Chucho Valdez perform in Havana on Oct. 7, 2010. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

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.”