Some Cuban exiles hope Obama can help


Bernardo Benes is plotting to reprise his role as broker of the one humanitarian breakthrough in U.S.-Cuban relations in the 50 years since Fidel Castro’s revolution came to power.

Benes, who negotiated the 1978 release of 3,600 political prisoners and the right for Cuban exiles to visit family on the communist island, plans a freelance mission to his homeland to sound out President Raul Castro on what the Havana regime wants from President-elect Barack Obama.

“I want to be a loose cannon,” said the 73-year-old retired banker. “I know Raul Castro will meet with me. We were teammates on the soccer team at the University of Havana. They trust me. My only hesitation is that they might think I have a message from Obama and they would be disappointed that I don’t.”


Benes, like other supporters of improved relations with Cuba, sees in Obama’s victory an opportunity to ease one of the most intractable relationships of the last half-century.

Obama vowed during the campaign to work toward thawing the ice with perennial adversaries like Cuba, Iran and Syria. But his suggestion to meet with Raul Castro without preconditions outraged those exiles who want to continue to isolate Cuba until dissidents are freed and multiparty elections scheduled.

Obama won Florida’s 27 electoral votes but not a majority of the Cuban American vote. And the state’s three Republican Cuban American members of Congress won reelection on pledges to hold firm on the nearly 47-year-old economic embargo of the island.

Cuba policy analysts differ on how much the next administration can improve relations, since the harsh sanctions were written into law a dozen years ago and require acts of Congress to change.

The victory of Florida’s congressional hardliners on Cuba policy -- all of whom supported Republican presidential candidate John McCain -- could be a blessing for Obama if he wants to break with the failed strategy of forcing reform by withholding trade and contact, said John McAuliff of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, which advocates improving ties with Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Cuba.

“President-elect Obama owes nothing to these folks who were key supporters of McCain,” McAuliff said of Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and brothers Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart, whose aunt Mirta was married to Fidel Castro in the 1950s.


The three Republicans weathered fierce challenges for their House seats, contending that the Democratic Obama would cozy up to the Castros.

In South Florida, where anti-Castro sentiments run strongest among the wealthiest and most powerful, the Democratic challengers asserted only timid proposals for changing Cuba policy, such as revoking a 2004 administrative directive limiting family visits to the island to once every three years.

Easing family travel restrictions would prompt demands from other U.S. citizens to tour the island, McAuliff speculated. Lifting the travel ban would show a new foreign policy face to allies who see the sanctions as U.S. bullying, he said, pointing to the recent U.N. General Assembly vote of 185 to 3 urging the U.S. to repeal the embargo.

The Republican House members, though, have been casting their victories as an endorsement of the status quo.

“It is the clearest possible signal that Cuban Americans remain steadfast and united in their support of freedom for Cuba,” said Lincoln Diaz-Balart, who beat former Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez by 16 percentage points. “It means strong support for maintaining sanctions until all political prisoners are freed, all political parties, the press and labor unions are legalized, and free elections are scheduled.”

Mauricio Claver-Carone, a lobbyist for the embargo with the U.S. Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee, said the representatives’ reelection was insurance against Obama making any major revisions to Cuba policy.

“The results were very clear,” he said. “The Cuban American community does support sanctions.”

Exile reaction to Obama’s proposal to meet with Raul Castro makes it unlikely he will head for Havana “right off the bat,” said Jake Colvin, a trade policy analyst and advocate of U.S.-Cuba engagement. But there’s much the new president can do quickly to improve ties, he said.

Lower-level diplomatic contacts, cooperation in fighting drug trafficking and illegal immigration, and ceasing the detention of foreign terrorism suspects at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay are all within the president’s power, Colvin said.

“There are relatively incremental things he could do to restore people-to-people travel, educational exchanges, withdraw the Bush administration restrictions imposed in 2004. All that would send a pretty good signal to the rest of the world that change is in the works,” he said.

Some who support normalizing relations with Cuba say they hope for change under the Obama administration but have been disappointed too often to count on it.

“We keep saying Cuba has to do something to get rid of the embargo. We have to do something. We’re the ones embargoing them,” said Albert Fox, founder of the Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy.

Benes, who was quietly dispatched by President Carter to negotiate opening contact between Cubans on the island and those who fled the 1959 revolution, believes there is desire in the Cuban leadership to end the Cold War’s last battle.

The Cuban government hailed Obama’s victory in a statement, and Foreign Investment Minister Marta Lomas said Havana hoped for an easing of the embargo. Dissidents also told foreign news agencies that they welcomed the U.S. leadership change and hoped Obama would fulfill promises to seek better ties.

“It’s really stupid what we have done for 50 years. Nobody benefits,” Benes said. “It’s a complex we have that is preventing this. Nobody wants to accept that they’ve failed.”

Benes will go to Havana via a third country, he said, without any political mandate. He said he doesn’t need a Treasury Department license exempting him from the travel embargo because he is a credentialed journalist with Our Elder Brothers and Sisters, a foundation he runs for strengthening interfaith relations.

But he said he won’t go until he has someone in the Obama transition team willing to hear whatever he finds out in Cuba.

“I know people will call me naive, but you can get a lot accomplished under the cover of naivete,” he said. “I know because that’s what was said when I went to Cuba to bring back the first group of political prisoners.”

Williams is a Times staff writer.