WASHINGTON — When the White House announced on Monday that President Barack Obama would lift some U.S. government restrictions on travel and business with Cuba, his spokesman predicted that it would not satisfy "some who wanted to do more and some who wanted us to do less."
He got that right.
Critics of U.S. policy think Obama, on the eve of his first hemispheric summit meeting, is blowing a golden opportunity to dispense with an outdated Cold War legacy and use the resulting good will to focus the region's efforts on far more pressing issues, like the violence in Mexico or the effects of the global economic downturn.
Predictably, the administration's modest alterations of the United States' Cuba policy have been criticized by conservative politicians representing the Cuban-American community, which still harbors hatred for Fidel Castro and fiercely opposes any rapprochement.
Not so predictable, and almost as fierce, is the criticism Obama is catching from analysts and scholars of Latin American affairs who favor normalizing relations with Cuba.
"This absurd anachronism" of the U.S. embargo of Cuba should be retired and displayed "next to Fonzie's jacket in the Smithsonian," said David Rothkopf, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Obama's decision to liberalize U.S. relations with Cuba "could have been a very constructive step," said Wayne Smith, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy. But the proposed changes are so minor, he said, that they are instead "a real disappointment."
"It's idiocy" to retain a counter-productive Cold War policy, said Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as former Secretary of State Colin Powell's chief of staff, and now leads a Cuban policy initiative for the New America Foundation. Obama must be worried about looking "soft" on national security, Wilkerson said, and so has chosen to continue to bully Cuba.
And Julia Sweig, the director of Latin American issues at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the administration's approach to Latin America seems guided by its fear of touching the "third rail" of foreign policy politics — Cuba.
"The White House in my view seems to have its eye on the next presidential election," Sweig said, noting the importance that older Cuban-American voters have played in the key state of Florida for 50 years. Obama has developed a "political allergy," she said, toward doing the right thing in the Caribbean.
Sweig and other Cuban policy experts gathered at the New America Foundation, a think tank here, on Tuesday were so outspoken in their critique that their host, Steve Clemons, felt obliged to assume the role of defending the administration.
The permission given to U.S. telecommunications firms to offer computers, cell phones and radio and television service to Cuba could prove significant, Clemons said. And perhaps Obama's gesture should be viewed as "the first move in a long dance," he suggested.
Indeed, in a conference call with reporters on Monday night, National Security Council spokesman Denis McDonough said the White House did not want "to freeze any policy" and was hoping these initial changes would serve as a catalyst for further progress.
Obama leaves Thursday for an official visit to Mexico City, and will continue from there to the "Summit of the Americas," a gathering of the hemisphere's heads of states, at Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago. On both stops of the trip, the president will address the deteriorating economic situation in Latin America.
The White House agenda calls for Obama to "send a very strong signal" of support for President Felipe Calderon's battle against drug traffickers and violence in Mexico, said McDonough. And though there were no promises made by White House aides, the stop in Mexico City is a logical location for the two leaders to announce that progress has been made on the difficult issue of regulating Mexican trucking in the United States.
In the summit in Port of Spain, Obama wants to deal with "the very strongly felt perception" that "the United States has turned its attention elsewhere, has neglected its relationship in this part of the world," said White House adviser Jeffrey Davidow. "We see this trip as part of the process of the United States re-engaging with this hemisphere."
A deliberate pace for re-engagement might suffice in other times, the president's critics say. But Obama's election has stirred hopes and raised expectations in Latin America. He now has a moment of opportunity to reach out to the region's peoples, who have chosen, for their own reasons and to the discomfort of the administration, to make U.S.-Cuba relations a litmus test of American sincerity.
Cuba is of little strategic importance to the United States, Sweig noted, but of considerable symbolic importance to the other nations of Latin America. Rogues like Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez cite the U.S. embargo against Cuba as an instrument of imperialism and oppression, and even America's friends in the region — powers like Mexico and Brazil — find it impossible to defend.
It would cost America little, and Obama would gain a lot, if he would recognize the role of America's Cuban policy as "a barometer of change" for Central and South Americans, Sweig said. US allies would be armed, and foes disarmed.
She said Cuba is "an enormous irritant, disproportionate to its (actual) importance."
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