UNITED NATIONS — With two rounds of regulatory reform since December, President Obama has expanded opportunities for Americans to travel, spend money and set up businesses in Cuba. So far, Cuba seems to have done little beyond reopening its Washington embassy.
In a meeting here Tuesday with Cuban President Raúl Castro, held on the margins of the U.N. General Assembly, Obama pressed for a more energetic Cuban response. “The President welcomed the progress made in establishing diplomatic relations,” a White House statement said after the meeting, “and underscored that continued reforms in Cuba would increase the impact of U.S. regulatory changes.”
Prior to the meeting, which began with a smiling handshake and included top national security aides on both sides, senior administration officials were more direct in their description of Obama’s message, saying that if Cuba wants progress on its demand that Congress lift the long-standing U.S. embargo, it must demonstrate that it is prepared to take steps opening its economy and respecting human and political rights.
Lawmakers who are supporting bills against the embargo, which the Republican leadership has thus far declined to bring to the floor, “are desperate for gestures” from Cuba, “and they aren’t getting those gestures,” said one official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss administration thinking. “There’s been no real give at all” from Havana.
“At the beginning, we were saying, ‘You don’t have forever’ to make progress,” the official said. While the Cubans may think they are on a schedule pegged to Castro’s stated intention to depart from office in 2018, “they’re really on a schedule for Obama’s stepping down” in January 2017.
Opponents of the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement, first announced by Obama and Castro on Dec. 17, have repeatedly noted that Cuba’s detentions of political dissidents have only increased since the announcement. Some dissidents’ attempts to see Pope Francis during his recent visit there were blocked.
While most detentions do not result in arrest and dissidents are usually released within hours, many have been roughed up by security forces with the aim of disrupting any bid at political assembly or public expression.
Another way to demonstrate human rights progress, the official said, would be to allow access to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has never been permitted to visit Cuban prisons.
Although the 1961 trade embargo and other subsequent legislation restrict most direct U.S. exports to Cuba, prohibit credit transactions and most interactions with the U.S. financial system, and ban U.S. tourism, Obama has pushed through regulatory changes that broadened the number of Americans who can travel there for specific purposes, allow correspondent banking in Cuba, and permit U.S. businesses in certain sectors to set up offices and hire workers in Cuba.
Bilateral dialogues are underway on civil aviation, telecommunications and other potential areas of interaction.
In an assessment distributed Friday of what has happened since December, the New York-based U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council described the U.S. measures as “chum” that Cuba is using to attract investment and cooperation from other countries that may fear losing out to U.S. businesses.
On the plus side, the council noted that while Cuban agricultural imports from the United States have decreased significantly this year, health-care product purchases have increased. Both items are largely exempt from the embargo. Direct telephone service between the United States and Cuba has resumed, and Cuba has authorized a wireless-device roaming agreement with Verizon. Limited postal service between the two countries has resumed, and Cuba has allowed the lodging Web site Airbnb to operate there.
But despite significant outreach from U.S. Internet providers and other telecommunications companies, Cuba has not taken up any offers. No new U.S. companies have been allowed to establish a presence in Cuba or to hire Cuban workers.
“Visits to the Republic of Cuba by Members of Congress, Governors, trade organization members, advocacy group supporters, company representatives, and sole proprietors increased,” the council said in its assessment. “None have resulted in payments by the Republic of Cuba for any of the newly-authorized exports from the United States.”
In his speech Monday to the U.N. General Assembly, Castro briefly mentioned the opening to the United States, repeating his demand that the embargo be lifted and offering a litany of long-standing Cuban foreign policy positions, including independence for Puerto Rico.