U.S. urges Cuba to do more to improve relationship

 

Alan Gomez, USA TODAY

 

MIAMI — On the anniversary of renewed diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, the U.S. government prodded the island’s communist leaders Wednesday to take greater steps toward economic and political freedom.

 

A senior State Department official told reporters in a briefing that there have been signs of progress over the past year, including increased travel between the two countries and productive discussions between government officials. But the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the new relationship, said the Cuban government needs to allow more trade and connections between citizens and businesses of both countries.

 

For example, the Obama administration now allows U.S. businesses to export goods to Cuba's growing class of private entrepreneurs, but the Cuban government has not allowed those entrepreneurs to import the goods.

 

President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro first announced in December 2014 that the longtime foes would end their 50-year freeze and begin normalizing relations. After months of negotiations, the two sides officially agreed a year ago Wednesday to resume formal diplomatic ties.

 

Since then, more Americans are visiting the long-isolated island, businesses are making small inroads into the Cuban market, and both countries are expanding cultural and educational exchanges. The Obama administration allowed more trade and travel to empower Cuban citizens to fight for democratic change.

 

But Cuba's leaders have been slow to reciprocate.

 

"The United States business community is disappointed with the pace of engagement by the government of Cuba," said John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council in New York. "There was an expectation that the government of Cuba would appreciate the importance of having a broad and deep export and service landscape well in place."

 

Cuba's lead negotiator with the United States, Josefina Vidal, defended her government's progress, saying Cuba remains severely limited by a continued U.S. economic embargo, which only the U.S. Congress can lift. So far, it has no intention of doing so.

 

"It's up to the United States to disassemble the hostile, unilateral politics that created a confrontational character on the links between the two countries," Vidal said in an interview published Wednesday in Granma, Cuba's state-run newspaper. "Cuba doesn't have similar policies toward the United States."

 

There are several notable examples of how the relationship has changed:

 

Dialogue. Last summer, both countries reopened embassies in Washington and Havana. That kicked off a series of high-level meetings on commerce, law enforcement, health care and the environment. According to Kavulich, more than 80 representatives of the Cuban government have visited Washington, and more than 160 U.S. officials have visited Cuba since Obama and Castro started the rapprochement.

 

Travel. The 704-passenger Adonia, operated by Fathom Travel and owned by Miami-based Carnival Corp., became the first U.S. cruise ship to pull into Havana's harbor in decades when it made a maiden voyage in May. U.S. airlines this summer are starting up to 110 regularly scheduled flights a day to Cuba. And Starwood Hotels and Resorts signed an agreement to operate three Havana hotels. The first hotel -the Four Points Havana- is already open.

 

Tourism. An estimated 700,000 Americans visited Cuba in 2015, the State Department official said.

 

Trade. Swiss-based Nespresso will begin selling Cuban coffee in U.S. stores later this year. DISH, the Colorado-based TV provider, launched a channel in June to broadcast shows and movies produced in Cuba. And Cuban musicians, professors, artists, researchers -and even dissidents- are traveling more easily to the U.S.

 

Many hurdles remain. Cuba continues to arrest hundreds of political dissidents each month. Cuba's economy is faltering in ways not seen in decades, in part because its main benefactor, oil-rich Venezuela, is suffering a major economic crisis and massive food shortages. Cuban officials have warned of power outages and other shortages in the months to come.

 

Despite the concerns, the Obama administration said its decision to re-establish relations was the right one. The State Department official said engaging with Cuba remains a far better option than the previous decades of isolation.

 

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