WASHINGTON (AFP) — After decades of tense ties, President-elect Barack Obama has an opening to bring change to relations between uneasy neighbors Cuba and the United States. Washington and Havana do not have full diplomatic ties. And the United States has had a full economic embargo on Cuba since 1961. Ties between communist-ruled Cuba and Washington remained strained during the two administrations of President George W. Bush. Then in July 2006 Fidel Castro stepped aside after major surgery and almost 50 years in power, and his brother Raul Castro took the helm formally in February. Cuban President Raul Castro, 77, and Fidel Castro, 82, have underscored that Cuba is ready to talk -- if the United States is ready to drop its age-old carrot-and-stick diplomacy.
And Obama seems to be eyeing some change in US handling of the Americas' only one-party Communist country. He said on the campaign repeatedly in recent months that if elected he would ease restrictions on travel to Cuba by Americans and on remittences sent to Cuba by US-based relatives. Yet for now Obama has ruled out lifting US sanctions saying that they could be used to keep pressuring Havana. Prevailing US law says the trade embargo cannot be ended while Fidel Castro or Raul Castro is in power -- legislation approved under the last Democratic US president Bill Clinton. Another option that could be in the works would be for Washington to take Cuba off its State Department list of countries it officially says promote terrorism. That could go a long way in improving relations on the diplomatic front, according to Archibald Ritter, at the Norman Patterson School for International Affairs in Ottawa. Meanwhile, the United States is keenly aware of business opportunities looming just 90 miles away.
Despite the embargo, US farmers have become the top suppliers of food to Cuba -- because it is sold in cash only, as part of a loophole allowed in the wake of a major hurricane that damaged Cuban crops. And Cuba's belief that it has much more significant oil reserves than previously thought also is not lost on US oil giants currently missing out on the exploration phase. "I think ... petroleum can play a very major role in the near term future. Whether the Cuban estimates of reserves are reliable or not, we can say there is a potential," said Terry L Maris, a University of Ohio Cuba expert.