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    New chill enters US-Cuba relations after Obama's brief thaw

    New chill enters US-Cuba relations after Obama's brief thaw

    President Obama has made several goodwill gestures toward Havana, giving
    US businesses the hope that Cuba relations could improve. But the Castro
    regime appears unwilling to compromise.

    By Howard LaFranchi, Staff writer / March 30, 2010

    US business is setting its sights on Cuba, but the interest comes just
    as President Obama is stepping back from his policy of engagement with
    the Castro regime.

    With more Cuban-Americans traveling to the island country as a result of
    loosened US restrictions aimed at improving Cuba relations, Cuban
    oil, , and infrastructure are beckoning as promising markets
    for American investors and farmers.

    But the opening of Cuba's totalitarian political system – the sine qua
    non of increased American ties – is nowhere in sight, Cuba economic
    experts say, meaning the perennial hopes of US business are likely to be
    dashed once again.

    "The Cubans are being very clear that they will accept absolutely no
    conditions in terms of normalization with the – none,"
    says Anna Szterenfeld, Latin America editor of the Economist
    Intelligence Unit.

    Mr. Obama seems to have come to the same conclusion. Last week he
    released a statement suggesting disappointment in the Cuban regime's
    response to the gestures he made last year as part of what he envisioned
    as a mutual warming.

    "Instead of embracing an opportunity to enter a new era, Cuban
    authorities continue to respond to the aspirations of the Cuban people
    with a clenched fist," Obama said.
    Cuban crackdown

    The immediate cause of the presidential statement was the very public
    in Havana days earlier of a protest by the so-called Ladies
    in White, the relatives of Cuba's political prisoners. Video circled the
    globe of government-affiliated counterdemonstrators heckling and
    attacking the marchers, who included the mother of Orlando
    Tamayo, an imprisoned who died in February after a prolonged
    hunger strike.

    Mr. Zapata's death set off a round of hunger strikes by other political
    prisoners that have evoked strong condemnation from other normally
    friendly governments, such as Mexico and . "I join my voice with
    brave individuals across Cuba and a growing chorus around the world in
    calling for an end to the repression," Obama said.

    It is in this unlikely atmosphere that signs of interest in US
    in Cuba have blossomed. Proposals await in Congress for
    ending the travel ban on Cuba – the Obama administration last year eased
    restrictions on Cuban-Americans returning to visit family. US farmers
    would like to see further easing of conditions on sales to Cuba.
    Last week, US business representatives met with Cuban officials in
    Cancun, Mexico, to discuss investment opportunities on the island.

    So why the interest?
    US and Cuba need each other

    The US and Cuba have mutual economic interests, Cuba experts say. The US
    is attracted to the very sectors Cuba is interested in developing, like
    the island's significant offshore oil deposits and other raw materials
    like nickel. And, ironically, Cuba now finds itself overly dependent on
    one patron government – – much as it was dependent on the
    Soviet Union before its fall.

    "Cuba is in a desperate situation so I think they will be required to
    introduce more market reforms," says Teo Babún, president of
    Cuba-Caribbean Development and author of The Business Guide to Cuba. At
    the same time, he adds, "Many of their products are needed in the US."
    And as a result, he says, "[Eventually] we're going to find the right
    formula between the two."

    Mr. Babún was participating in a panel discussion, sponsored by the
    Americas Society/Council of the Americas in New York, that drew more
    than 100 participants either on site or via webcast Tuesday.

    The turnout suggested, as Americas Society senior director of policy
    Christopher Sabatini noted, "There's a lot of interest in Cuba."

    The question is whether that perennial interest will meet the conditions
    for a real relationship any time soon."

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