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Cuba, US try talking, but face many obstacles

Friday - 6/21/2013, 1:29pm  ET

FILE - In this June 4, 2009 file photo, Cuban coast guards, right, stop seven men trying to migrate illegally to the U.S. on a foam raft near Havana's Malecon. No one was arrested, according to police. The United States and Cuba have agreed to resume bilateral talks on migration issues next month, a State Department official said Wednesday, June 19, 2013, the latest evidence of a thaw in chilly relations between the Cold War enemies. (AP Photo/Javier Galeano, File)

Associated Press

HAVANA (AP) -- They've hardly become allies, but Cuba and the U.S. have taken some baby steps toward rapprochement in recent weeks that have people on this island and in Washington wondering if a breakthrough in relations could be just over the horizon.

Skeptics caution that the Cold War enemies have been here many times before, only to fall back into old recriminations. But there are signs that views might be shifting on both sides of the Florida Straits.

In the past week, the two countries have held talks on resuming direct mail service, and announced a July 17 sit-down on migration issues. In May, a U.S. federal judge allowed a convicted Cuban intelligence agent to return to the island. This month, Cuba informed the family of jailed U.S. government subcontractor Alan Gross that it would let an American doctor examine him, though the visit has apparently not yet happened. President Raul Castro has also ushered in a series of economic and social changes, including making it easier for Cubans to travel off the island.

Under the radar, diplomats on both sides describe a sea change in the tone of their dealings.

Only last year, Cuban state television was broadcasting grainy footage of American diplomats meeting with dissidents on Havana streets and publically accusing them of being CIA front-men. Today, U.S. diplomats in Havana and Cuban Foreign Ministry officials have easy contact, even sharing home phone numbers.

Josefina Vidal, Cuba's top diplomat for North American affairs, recently traveled to Washington and met twice with State Department officials -- a visit that came right before the announcements of resumptions in the two sets of bilateral talks that had been suspended for more than two years. Washington has also granted visas to prominent Cuban officials, including the daughter of Cuba's president.

"These recent steps indicate a desire on both sides to try to move forward, but also a recognition on both sides of just how difficult it is to make real progress," said Robert Pastor, a professor of international relations at American University and former national security adviser on Latin America during the Carter administration. "These are tiny, incremental gains, and the prospects of going backwards are equally high."

Among the things that have changed, John Kerry has taken over as U.S. secretary of state after being an outspoken critic of Washington's policy on Cuba while in the Senate. President Barack Obama no longer has re-election concerns while dealing with the Cuban-American electorate in Florida, where there are also indications of a warming attitude to negotiating with Cuba.

Castro, meanwhile, is striving to overhaul the island's Marxist economy with a dose of limited free-market capitalism and may feel a need for more open relations with the U.S. While direct American investment is still barred on the island, a rise in visits and money transfers by Cuban-Americans since Obama relaxed restrictions has been a boon for Cuba's cash-starved economy. Under the table, Cuban-Americans are also helping relatives on the island start private businesses and refurbish homes bought under Castro's limited free-market reforms.

Several prominent Cuban dissidents have been allowed to travel recently due to Castro's changes. The trips have been applauded by Washington, and also may have lessened Havana's worries about the threat posed by dissidents.

Likewise, a U.S. federal judge's decision to allow Cuban spy Rene Gonzalez to return home was met with only muted criticism inside the United States, perhaps emboldening U.S. diplomats to seek further openings with Cuba.

To be sure, there is still far more that separates the long-time antagonists than unites them.

The State Department has kept Cuba on a list of state sponsors of terrorism and another that calls into question Havana's commitment to fighting human trafficking. The Obama administration continues to demand democratic change on an island ruled for more than a half century by Castro and his brother Fidel.

For its part, Cuba continues to denounce Washington's 51-year-old economic embargo.

And then there is Gross, the 64-year-old Maryland native who was arrested in 2009 and is serving a 15-year jail sentence for bringing communications equipment to the island illegally. His case has scuttled efforts at engagement in the past, and could do so again, U.S. officials say privately. Cuba has indicated it wants to trade Gross for four Cuban agents serving long jail terms in the United States, something Washington has said it won't consider.

Ted Henken, a professor of Latin American studies at Baruch College in New York who helped organize a recent U.S. tour by Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez, said the Obama administration is too concerned with upsetting Cuban-American politicians and has missed opportunities to engage with Cuba at a crucial time in its history.

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