Cuba, US move closer on immigration, science, disaster aid

Havana, Oct 25 (EFE).- Immigration, academic-scientific exchange, logistics, trade and assistance in natural disasters are some of the issues on which Cuba and the United States have moved closer this year, although they are still far from a so-called “thaw.”

The latest example of the intensification of bilateral relations is the Cuba-United States Business Forum, which kicks off on Wednesday in Havana, an initiative that has not been held since 2016, when it was a clear move by then-Presidents Raul Castro and Barack Obama to foster closer ties.

There have been other gestures and signals made in both directions in recent times, experts agree, nevertheless acknowledging the historic distance between the two countries since the 1959 triumph of the Cuban Revolution and the division of the world into competing and mutually antagonistic blocs during the Cold War.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken earlier this month said that Washington was ready to review whether Cuba deserves to be kept on the list of countries deemed to be sponsors of terrorism, an important obstacle to US investment on the communist island.

Recently, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez urged “holding a dialogue” on the “basis of equality and mutual respect,” adding that “This year is an opportune time to normalize relations.”

The current occupant of the White House, Joe Biden, in May eliminated some of the sanctions on Cuba imposed by his predecessor, Donald Trump, including the limits on remittances and on commercial flights to the island to cities other than Havana.

Nevertheless, most of the measures included in the decades-long US embargo on Cuba remain in place, a critical ongoing issue for the Cuban government, which has just launched a campaign titled “Better without the blockade.”

In the opinion of Cuban sociologist Rafael Hernandez, an expert on bilateral relations, “the search for an agreement” is “logical” at this complex time and would receive the support of the international community.

“Political will is the only thing lacking. Nothing more or less,” he said in an interview with EFE in which he warned about potential US double-dealing.

The reference point for Hernandez is Obama and Castro’s “thaw,” those 25 months between late 2015 and early 2018 during which relations appeared to be on the so-called “road to normalization.”

It was a “smart” move, receiving government support on both sides of the Florida Strait and which benefited the two nations in multiple areas, he said. During that period, 23 bilateral accords were signed.

“It’s about resuming a dialogue at the point where it was left and trying to reactivate the accords which had been reached. Not suddenly changing things, (but rather) returning to the point where we were,” he said.

Analyst William LeoGrande warned, meanwhile, in remarks to EFE that “Cuba remains a controversial issue in the internal politics of the US” and that “with the mid-term elections just around the corner, the White House will not want to do anything to endanger the chances of Democrats in Florida.”

He also said that Biden has made human rights and democracy “a central element of his foreign policy,” and thus he can show himself to be “reluctant to enter into warm relations” with Havana after the repression of anti-government demonstrations on the island.

Among the recent bilateral contacts has been the donation of 100 complete sets of personal protective equipment that the US Agency for International Development (USAID) is delivering to Cuba because of the serious industrial fire that in August destroyed a fuel depot in Matanzas, killing 17 people.

In addition, USAID recently allocated $2 million to helping island residents affected by Hurricane Ian, which lashed western Cuba in September, killing three people and damaging 100,000 homes and 21,000 hectares (about 53,000 acres) of crops.

Cuba, which in the past has accused USAID of financing dissident groups on and outside the island, has confirmed the shipment of the equipment and thanked the agency for the hurricane aid, which will be channeled via the International Red Cross.

These activities come during a fiscal year (October 2021-September 2022) in which record numbers of migrants have been trying to reach the US – particularly Cubans – and illegal migration has become a key US foreign policy issue.

According to US Customs and Border Protection, 224,607 illegal Cuban migrants have been intercepted during this period.

The exodus of Cubans has already marked the bilateral immigration dialogue last April in Washington, another mechanism reactivated by the Biden administration after Trump suspended it in 2018.

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