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Beginning of the end for US Cuban embargo

  • 22 April 2009
While the Fifth Summit of the Americas ended without an agreed final declaration, the gathering of hemispheric presidents will be better remembered for US President Obama's pledged to 'seek a new beginning with Cuba.'

While Cuba was not present at the gathering of 34 leaders — under Washington's instigation it has been barred since 1962 from the Organization of American States (OAS) — it was never out of sight. The nearly five decades of US embargo on the island took over the agenda from the very first day.

In the inaugural speech of the Summit, Argentinean President Cristina Kirchner urged Obama to lift the embargo on Cuba and to build new relations between the Americas. The US embargo has never been just a 'Cuban problem'. It has been — along with the Cuban exclusion from the OAS — a historic point of friction between Latin America and the US.

Obama responded swiftly. 'The United States seeks a new beginning with Cuba,' he told the gathering. His remark, and his pledge to talk to Raúl Castro — who replaced his aging brother Fidel as Cuban president — are the clearest signals in decades of the US policy shift toward La Havana.

President Obama's new approach to Cuba began unfolding a few days before the Summit of the Americas. On 13 April he announced that travel restrictions to Cuban-Americans visiting the island were to be scrapped, and that the limit on remittances sent to Cuba from the US would be raised.

He also gave the green light to US telecommunications companies to start flirting with business on the island. In addition, the sending of goods to Cuba such as clothing, seeds, medicines and veterinary products, are no longer considered 'banned donations'.

While it is true that Obama left in place the core measures that form the embargo, his announcement is a major step in thawing relations between Washington and La Havana.

The measures were widely applauded, even by the staunch anticommunist Cuban-American community of Florida. Ramón Saúl Sánchez, one of the most respected Cuban exiles living in the US and leader of the Democracy Movement, not only congratulated Obama's decision, but also favoured a change of US policy toward Cuba.

The relaxation of the embargo announced by Obama came in the context of growing US public opinion favouring a change of policy towards La