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    U.S.-Cuba relations under Obama fall to lowest point

    U.S.-Cuba relations under Obama fall to lowest point
    By Jeff Franks Jeff Franks – Wed Mar 31, 10:36 am ET

    HAVANA (Reuters) – U.S.-Cuban relations have fallen to their lowest
    point since Barack Obama became U.S. president and are in danger of
    getting worse unless the two countries take serious steps toward ending
    five decades of hostility, according to Cuba experts.

    After a brief warming last year, both countries appear to be falling
    back into old, antagonistic ways, obscuring whatever progress that has
    been made and hindering further advances, the experts said this week.

    "The past year has proven that when it comes to U.S.-Cuba relations, old
    habits die hard," said Dan Erikson of the Inter-American Dialogue think
    tank in Washington.

    Obama, who took office in January 2009 and has said he wanted to recast
    U.S.-Cuban relations, lifted restrictions on by Cuban Americans
    to the communist-ruled island and initiated talks on migration issues
    and direct postal service.

    Since then, Cuban Americans have flooded the island and the two longtime
    ideological foes have held their first high-level discussions in years.
    But recent developments have been mostly negative.

    Cuba jailed U.S. contractor Alan in December on suspicion of
    spying and continues to hold him without charges.

    Cuba's government has been condemned internationally for its treatment
    of opponents, including imprisoned Orlando Tamayo, who
    died in February from a hunger strike, and the "," wives
    and mothers of imprisoned dissidents, were shouted down by government
    supporters during protest marches this month.

    Obama rebuked the Cuban government in a strongly worded statement on
    March 24, saying Cuba continues "to respond to the aspirations of the
    Cuban people with a clenched fist."

    U.S. officials think they have done enough to elicit a more positive
    response from Cuba, while Cuba complains that Obama has done too little.


    Miami attorney Timothy Ashby, a former U.S. Commerce Department official
    in charge of trade with Cuba, said neither has done what is necessary to
    overcome 50 years of bitterness.

    "Neither government is willing to take a significant step that would
    serve as a demonstration of genuine goodwill," he said.

    Both nations have taken actions that have not helped the fragile
    improvement begun by Obama.

    Obama angered the Cuban government in November when he responded to
    questions via email from dissident Cuban Yoani Sanchez, who
    Cuban leaders view as at least complicit with their enemies in Europe
    and the .

    In February, Assistant Secretary of State Craig Kelly provoked a bitter
    Cuban reaction when he met with dissidents following migration talks
    with Cuban officials in Havana.

    Cuba, in turn, has soured the political climate by harshly criticizing
    Obama for his lack of action while taking little of its own.

    Its detention of Gross, which U.S. officials say Cuba has refused to
    discuss, has called into question its desire for change even among those
    who want better relations.

    In a letter last week to Cuba's top diplomat in Washington, 41 members
    of the U.S. House of Representatives said the detention of Gross "has
    caused many to doubt your government's expressed desire to improve
    relations with the United States."

    "We cannot assist in that regard while Mr. Gross is detained in a Cuban
    ," said the legislators, who included sponsors of pending
    legislation to end a U.S. ban on travel to Cuba.

    The United States has said Gross was in Cuba to expand services
    for Jewish groups, but conceded he entered the island on a visa
    that would not permit such work.

    His work was funded under U.S. programs aimed at promoting democracy in
    Cuba, which Cuban leaders view as part of a long U.S. campaign to topple
    their government.

    U.S. officials are saying behind the scenes that there will be no more
    initiatives with Cuba until Gross is released.

    Domestic political concerns are among the reasons cited for the lack of
    U.S.-Cuban progress, with Obama mindful of possible criticism from
    conservatives for moving too quickly and Cuban President Raul Castro
    dealing with anti-U.S. hardliners while he tries to fix Cuba's weak .

    "Sadly, there are reactionary forces on either side of the Florida
    Straits," Ashby said.

    The United States could move rapprochement along by removing Cuba from
    its list of nations considered state sponsors of terrorism, a
    designation that has long angered Cuba, Ashby said.

    At the same time, Cuba must release Gross either outright or, if
    necessary, on something like parole if it insists on putting him on
    trial, according to John McAuliff of the New York-based Fund for
    Reconciliation and Development, which promotes better relations between
    the two countries.

    Western diplomats in Havana also said Cuba must treat its dissidents
    better, saying another death would be a serious blow to relations with
    both the United States and Europe.

    (Editing by Tom Brown and Will Dunham)

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