Analysis: For Cuba and US, making up is hard to do


HAVANA – Raul Castro says Barack Obama seems like a good guy, and his brother Fidel says he's certain of Obama's honesty. The new U.S. president wants to sit down and negotiate, and is in a better position to do so than any other since Eisenhower.

But making up is hard to do. To restore relations and end the U.S. embargo, Obama would have to drop demands for democracy on the island, or Cuba would have to accept them — both unlikely scenarios.

Never since a young Fidel Castro traveled to the United States in 1959 have hopes for U.S.-Cuba relations been higher, nor the obstacles to closer relations fewer. Among the positive signs:

• An ailing Fidel Castro handed the presidency to his brother Raul in 2006, removing a symbolic hurdle to closer ties.

• Obama didn't need the anti-Castro vote in Florida, once thought indispensable. In any case, a recent poll indicates most Cuban-Americans in the heart of Florida's exile community want an end to the embargo that bars most U.S.-Cuba trade and travel.

• A stream of Latin American leaders has visited Havana in recent weeks, and the region is beginning to speak with one voice against the U.S. embargo.

• Obama took heat during the campaign for saying he'd sit down with a Castro — and won anyway.

• And the Castros, who covered Havana with images of former President George W. Bush as a bloody-fanged vampire, actually seem to like the new president.

Argentine President Cristina Fernandez was convinced of this after a private meeting with the elder Castro Wednesday, telling reporters that Fidel told her Obama is an honest man — "un hombre sincero."

Raul Castro chimed in: "He seems like a good man."

Fidel Castro said Thursday in his first essay in more than a month that he watched Obama's inaugural speech and has had "no doubt of the honesty with which Obama ... expresses his ideas."

Obama's Cuba policy appears clear: He'll quickly end limits imposed by the Bush administration on the number of trips Cuban-Americans can make to see relatives, and on the amount of money they can send home. He signed an order Thursday to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, which Cubans considered to be an affront to their patrimony — the U.S. naval base was built on land permanently leased from Cuba under terms imposed when American troops occupied the island in 1903.

But Obama said during the presidential campaign that he would keep the embargo in force, using it as a bargaining chip for democratic change in Cuba.

"The road to freedom for all Cubans must begin with justice for Cuba's political prisoners, the rights of free speech, a free press and freedom of assembly, and it must lead to elections that are free and fair," Obama said as he outlined his Latin America policy last May.

Cuban officials recoil at the thought of a U.S. president telling them how to run their country.

"It would cost us our dignity. Under pressure we won't do anything," Miguel Alvarez, senior adviser to the president of Cuba's National Assembly, told The Associated Press. "That's very Cuban."

One problem, says Dan Erikson of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, is that there is no high-profile figure in the United States with a background in Cuba to lead the charge for normalization, like war veterans John Kerry and John McCain did for U.S.-Vietnamese relations.

Erikson said it will be hard to overcome the "inertia" of U.S. policy, which for 50 years has been based on the increasingly improbable hope that isolating the island and draining it of foreign capital will weaken the government's hand and allow an opposition to flourish.

"This despite the fact that almost no one thinks this policy will be successful at its goal: achieving democracy in Cuba," he said.

Many observers suggest the U.S. could have far more impact by unilaterally ending the embargo and removing the sanctions Cuba's government uses to explain away the island's poverty and other restrictions on what Cubans can say or do. That way, Cubans would be able to judge their rulers on their own merits.

"I don't see any downside to ending the embargo. The embargo at this point is an anachronism that makes us look foolish," said Wayne Smith, the former chief of the U.S. mission in Havana.

Ending the embargo would require backing down from entrenched positions neither side seems ready to abandon. It would also require an act of Congress, since lawmakers wrote key parts of the restrictions into law in 1992 and 1996.

But relations also could be revolutionized if either side takes smaller steps that carry minimal political cost.

Cuba, for example, could free political dissidents from its prisons. Raul Castro said last month he'd be willing to send them and their families to the United States in exchange for the freedom of five Cubans locked up in U.S. prisons as spies.

The United States could lift restrictions that bar most Americans from traveling to Cuba, sending a million ambassadors of democracy fanning out across the island every year. Cuban officials say they'd happily take in the tourists, for the hard currency they would bring to the economy.

"If you remove the travel restrictions, the embargo becomes irrelevant," a Cuban official said on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss policy.

While the politicians mull their next moves, ordinary Cubans are infused with a hope the island hasn't seen in quite some time.

"Everything changed over there today," Havana resident Roberto Gonzalez marveled as Obama took the oath of office Tuesday. Gonzalez, 40, mugged for tourist photos with a dachshund wearing an "Obama-Biden" pin, hoping he might make a few dollars in tips.

"I can see the day that Barack Obama will step onto Cuban soil," he said. "That day isn't very far off."

No point in talking to the Taliban

Friday, January 23, 2009
by Farhat Taj
Some weeks ago I was with a family in the NWFP. The family had staying with them many relatives from a Taliban-occupied tribal area. I asked one of the relatives his views on a dialogue with the Taliban. We were talking in Pashto, but the young man's prompt reaction came in English: "Dialogue? Taliban? My foot!" Then he returned to Pashto. "All those who want a dialogue with the Taliban should go to hell. No dialogue with the Taliban. The army must kill them all. But the army does not want to kill them."

The remarks typify the widespread feelings of hatred towards the Taliban and of disappointment in the army's failure to curb them in the tribal areas and the NWFP. People just want the writ of the government restored and the Taliban brought before the law.

Most of those in Pakistan who seek the dialogue are outsiders who do not care to come to the Pakhtun areas and see the ground realities and the sufferings of the people. They are either intellectually lazy or are insensitive to the trauma of the terrorised people.

One of these advocates of a dialogue between the government and the Taliban is Masooda Bano. After reading her article in The News titled "What a Thought" (Jan 16), I sent her an email asking the following questions.

1) Which Taliban/militant leaders in the Pakhtun areas are you proposing for a dialogue? Please name those leaders.

2) Please elaborate why you think there should be dialogue with those leaders. Please elaborate one by one with reference to each leader?

3) If not the Taliban/militant leaders, who else are you proposing as partners in the dialogue?

4) Under what conditions should a dialogue with Taliban/militants take place, or should it be unconditional?

5) Are you from the NWFP or FATA?

6) If not, when was the last time you came to the NWFP or FATA?

She never replied to my email. If she had replied, I would have had a better idea of the logic behind her suggestion for the dialogue. One person with whom I discussed her suggestion said the writer is backing the Taliban by asking for what they themselves ask--a dialogue. "The Taliban ask for dialogue just to get more time and space to reorganizes," said a woman.

Masooda Bano referred to words two British ministers to conclude that there is "recognition at the global level that the use of force perpetuates rather than curtails militancy," which provides the Pakistani leadership with "just the right support to build a strong case for replacing military operations in the NWFP and tribal belt with dialogue." The Pakhtun who experience the full range of Talibanisation, day and and day out, know that Taliban atrocities are not going to end with a dialogue. The Taliban have an agenda of a savage social order to be imposed on the people. The Pakhtun are not ready for that and this is the reason why they are bearing the brunt of the Taliban savagery. Hatred against the Taliban in the Pakhtun areas is at an all-time high and so is disappointment, even resentment, about the Pakistani army for its failure to stop the Taliban. All over the NWFP and FATA one can find people who even discuss possibilities of Israel and India to be asked for help. Their argument goes like this: "We are not killed by Israel and India. We are killed by the Taliban and the Pakistani army. So, who is our enemy, then?" Many people in the Taliban-occupied territories of the NWFP and FATA told me they constantly pray for the US drones to bomb the Taliban headquarters in their areas since the Pakistani army is unwilling to do so. Many people of Waziristan told me they are satisfied with the US drone attacks on militants in Waziristan and they want the Americans to keep it up till all the militants, local Pakhtun, the Punjabis and the foreigners, are eliminated.

The Pakhtun are not ready to accept that the strong Pakistani army is unable to eliminate the key leaders of all the Taliban groups and their headquarters. People argue: When the Pakistani army leadership wished, it eliminated Nawab Akbar Bugti in the most brutal manner, in complete disrespect for the wishes of the Baloch and other Pakistanis. How come the army does not eliminate the murderous gangsters like Taliban leaders Baituall and Fazllulah when the Pakhtun are asking for it? People want the army to eliminate the entire leadership of all Taliban gangs, their headquarters and hideouts in targeted operations based on good intelligence. The Pakhtun are not ready to accept that the mighty ISI cannot provide actionable intelligence to the army for prompt targeted operations.

In my article of Jan 15 I explained that there cannot be a dialogue with the Taliban because there does not exist any common ground that is mutually respected by both the government of Pakistan and the Taliban. Such a ground, I argued, can be the law of Pakistan, the code of Pakhtunwali or Islam--none of which is respected by the Taliban. Now I would say that it is not even practical and feasible to have a dialogue with the Taliban. The Taliban are not a homogeneous group. There are not one, two, three, four or five Taliban leaders. The Taliban are made up of a large number of militant and criminal gangs. (Perhaps the ISI knows the exact number.) How many dialogues must the government initiate? How many criminal gangs must the government appease?

The Taliban groups have a broad-based combined agenda--i.e., imposition of their own version of religion on the Pakhtun through terror and violence. But the groups operate independently of each other. They, however, support, or at least do not mess up with, each other's activities in the implementation of the agenda. Thus, for example, a group of local Taliban in North Waziristan have a peace deal with the army. According to the written version of the agreement (which has been seen by NWFP and tribal journalists), the deal binds the Taliban not to allow any activities in their area that can be against the law of Pakistan. But some South Waziristan Taliban gangs, linked with the Punjab-based sectarian groups Sipah-e-Sahaba and Lashkar-e-Jangvi, move through the area of North Waziristan Taliban to come to the area between Kohat and Parachinar to terrorise Shia Pakhtun in the area. After having committed their acts of terrorism in the Shia reas, they go back to South Waziristan via North Waziristan where the Taliban that have agreement with the army never ever try to stop this traffic in the Shia areas.

Taliban gangs in both Waziristan routinely terrorise the people of Waziristan. This is one of the key reasons why so many people of Waziristan have preferred to live as internally displaced people in other parts of Pakistan.

An internally displaced woman of Waziristan with whom I discussed Masooda Bano's article has this message for her: "Would you like to live under Taliban rule? If yes, you are most welcome to come to Taliban-occupied Waziristan or Swat. If not, why do you float pro-Taliban suggestions like the dialogue which will force the Pakhtun to live under their inhuman order one way of the other? Or perhaps you believe that the Pakhtun are naturally cut out for brutal life under the Taliban."

The NWFP government had an agreement with groups of the Taliban in the NWFP. According to the agreement the arrested Taliban militants for involvements in terrorist activities were to be released after a judicial procedure. Later some Taliban leaders argued that they do not believe in the law of Pakistan and insisted the arrested Taliban must be released without any judicial procedure under the law. The government refused, and this put the agreement in trouble.

The Pakhtun are sick and tired of this dialogue and the so-called peace agreements with the Taliban. They want the Taliban brought by force under Pakistani law. As a Pakhtun I understand the outsiders, whether ignorant or insensitive, do not understand and respect this law.

The writer is a research fellow at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Gender Research, University of Oslo and a member of Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy. Email: