Clinton To Focus On U.S.-Cuba Relations On Trip

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As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton embarks on her tour of Latin America, one of the most pressing issues will certainly be American relations with Cuba. Latin American leaders have been increasing pressure for the U-S to change its policies toward that country. Guest host Lynn Neary speaks to NPR’s Tom Gjelten about how Cuban American relations could be affected by this trip.

LYNN NEARY, host:

Im Lynn Neary. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

Coming up, as film lovers look forward to the Academy Awards, TELL ME MORE begins our series on great black movie actresses with a tribute to Dorothy Dandridge. She was the first African-American woman to be nominated for best actress. Thats in a moment.

But first, as Secretary Clinton tours Latin America, shell likely hear about Cuba. And here to explain why is NPR correspondent Tom Gjelten. Hes a long time observer of the tricky and prickly relations between the U.S. and Cuba. He joins us now in our Washington studios. Good to have you with us.

TOM GJELTEN: Hi, Lynn.

NEARY: So, we just heard Moises Naim say that Cuba perhaps is not as important as it once was when youre looking at Latin American policy overhaul. Why not? Or do you agree with him?

GJELTEN: No, I totally agree with him. I think that the only way that Cuba is important to Latin American nations is as a way to demonstrate something else that Moises said and that is their independence from the United States.

Moises pointed out that Brazil is very anxious to show it does not take instructions from the United States. I think you could extend that to all of Latin America. And the issue that really symbolizes that for many Latin American leaders is Cuba.

The United States from the early 1960s has made a really big effort to get Cuba excluded from Latin America meetings, got Cuba kicked out of the OAS, the Organization of American States. And as the region has matured and developed its own political identity, there has been a real resentment that the United States continues to sort of force this issue on them.

In fact, an important meeting that took place last week when in Cancun, Mexico, was a meeting of what used to be called the Rio Group. Basically, its all the Latin American and Caribbean nations except for the United States and Canada but it does include Cuba. So, they are really trying to redefine their own regional organizations in a way that says we are no longer just going to follow the U.S. tune. And I think in that context, its in that context that Cuba is important to them.

NEARY: And in terms of U.S.-Cuban relationships, six months ago or so things seemed to be improving, but now there has been a deterioration again. Why? Whats happening?

GJELTEN: I think it was back actually longer than six months. You know, it really goes back to when President Obama took office in January of last year. About three months later in April he gave a speech at an Inter-American summit in Trinidad in which he said that the United States favors, quote, a new beginning with Cuba.

And here was an African-American president speaking and he said that dont blame me for policies that were put in place before I was even born. And, you know, Cuba now has an Afro-Cuban majority population. So, here you had an African-American president talking about the need for a new beginning with Cuba and speaking to a largely Afro-Cuban population.

And I think that that tone really sort of set off some alarm bells in Havana because I think there is - one of the things that we have seen over the years is a concern on the part of Cubas leaders that if relations with the United States really do take a dramatic turn for the better, it might actually make things more difficult for them at home. It will sort of remove, you know, one of the long-standing excuses they have for the terrible shape of the Cuban economy, for the lack of political rights in Cuba. And so, you know, its interesting after President Obama made that declaration was when we did begin to see a real decline in U.S.-Cuban relations.

And it really culminated last December, Lynn, when the Cuban authorities arrested a man by the name of Alan Gross who was working for a development company in Maryland, who had an contract from the agency of International Development, USAID, to distribute cell phones and some laptops in Cuba. The Cubans arrested him, said he was an agent of the U.S., said he was an espionage agent. Hes been held without charges ever since. So, we really do see relations sort of going back into the cooler, in a sense.

NEARY: And just quickly, Tom, if you could explain a Cuban dissident Orlando Zapata died recently on a hunger strike in prison. Whats the significance of that in all this?

GJELTEN: Well, Orlando Zapata, 42 years old, is one of 75 Cuban political prisoners arrested in March of 2003. He went on a hunger strike and the Cubans actually - the Cuban authorities actually denied him water and put him in front of an air conditioner naked, so that he developed pneumonia. At the last moment, they put him in a hospital but he died hours later.

Its the first political prisoner who has died as a result of a hunger strike in Cuba in about 15 years, a real black eye to the Cubans and an embarrassment to the Castro government.

NEARY: NPR correspondent and long-time (unintelligible) Tom Gjelten. Tom, good to have you with us.

GJELTEN: Any time, Lynn.

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