Since the Cuban revolution, the island’s ties with the United States have been marred by espionage, near war, sabotage, and deep distrust. But since President Obama came to office in 2009, Cuban leader Raul Castro has signaled that he is interested in a new relationship, according to current and former U.S. officials.
Earlier this year, Castro agreed to host peace talks between Colombia and the FARC, a Marxist rebel group that until recently Cuba and its most important ally, Venezuela, had supported. Last week, Obama praised the Cuban-brokered talks during a state visit with Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, U.S. and Cuban officials have held midlevel discussions in Havana and Washington on a range of issues, including direct postal service, migration issues, disaster response, and search and rescue at sea.
“The Cubans regularly say to people that they are ready for a different relationship,” said Dan Restrepo, who served as head of Latin America policy at the National Security Council during Obama’s first term.
Restrepo said the intermediaries who have delivered Castro’s messages are often U.S. citizens with connections to the Cuban government. But from time to time, other sources said, Latin American diplomats and leaders also have passed on the general message from Castro that he is ready for a bargain.
“There has been a string of emissaries, both private citizens and Latin American leaders, who have begun to nudge Obama forward on engaging in talks with Cuba and also carrying a message from Castro that he’s willing to talk,” said Steve Clemons, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation who has exceptionally close ties to the Obama White House and accompanied Vice President Biden on his recent tour of East Asia.
But despite these private signals and messages, the relationship may not be ready for a thaw. Indeed, on Tuesday, as Obama and Castro shook hands in South Africa,authorities detained about 20 dissidents in Havana who gathered to demonstrate on International Human Rights Day.
While human rights have played no role in the U.S. outreach to Iran in recent weeks, they remain at the center of U.S. policy goals for Cuba. The 1996 legislation that codified the U.S. embargo of the island, known as Helms-Burton, explicitly says the embargo shall not be lifted until Cuba releases political prisoners and holds free and fair elections.