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No bloom yet in U.S.-Cuba ties after April overtures

HAVANA (Reuters) - The United States and Cuba offered a glimmer of hope last month that they might be ready to end years of hostility, but neither side has moved much since then to widen that window of opportunity.

In mid-April, President Barack Obama pledged a “new beginning” with Cuba after slightly easing the 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo against the communist-ruled Caribbean island that reflects decades of Cold War enmity.

But Obama quickly made clear that further moves toward normalization hinged on Cuba freeing political prisoners and showing progress on human rights.

From his side, Cuban President Raul Castro made what some called a groundbreaking public offer to hold talks with Washington about everything, including political prisoners.

But Havana swiftly clarified this by insisting it had no intention of making concessions to satisfy the Americans.

Despite news from the U.S. State Department that informal talks were subsequently held with the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, many observers fear the good vibes of April may be fading as both sides fall back on old positions.

“There is no process, nothing under way. The story now is of deflated expectations,” said Washington attorney Robert Muse, who specializes in Cuba issues.

Obama has said he wants to “recast” U.S.-Cuba ties. On April 13, he ended Bush era restrictions on Cuban Americans’ right to travel and send remittances to their homeland. He also removed curbs on U.S. telecommunications firms who want to operate on the island 90 miles from Florida.

But while Obama has moved away from the aggressive hard line of President George W. Bush, who openly urged the overthrow of Cuba’s government, the insistence that further steps depend on Cuban concessions has disappointed groups pushing for normalization of relations.

Critics say this same conditionality was pursued unsuccessfully by most of the preceding 10 U.S. presidents who served since Fidel Castro took power in a 1959 revolution.

“I don’t see that the Obama administration has really done anything to change the policy, the atmosphere,” said Wayne Smith, former head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana who is now with the Center for International Policy in Washington.

BILLS IN CONGRESS

“We need to make it clear that our policy is no longer as it was under Bush -- to bring down the Cuban government. Our policy is to have dialogue and begin to resolve problems and disagreements between us,” he said in a recent trip to Cuba.

While anti-embargo groups voice frustration with Obama, they generally assume his current position is not fixed in stone and is more likely a product of political bargaining or perhaps inexperience, than a reflection of his true beliefs.

Some say he may be trying to aid the passage of bills pending in the U.S. Congress that would lift the ban on travel to Cuba for all Americans.

“I suspect it has to do with bills in Congress he wants to get through and he’s receiving signals that if he goes too far, they (opponents) will try to block the measures,” said Smith.

Cuba, which presents itself as the aggrieved victim in U.S.-Cuba relations, has done little to encourage Obama.

Fidel Castro, now 82, who was replaced as Cuba’s president by his younger brother, Raul, last year, said Raul’s offer of talks was misinterpreted by the Obama administration.

Since then, Cuban leaders have struck a consistently negative tone by deriding Obama’s embargo-easing steps as minimal, maintaining their harsh rhetoric against the U.S. and offering nothing concrete to get negotiations started.

“We have to do absolutely nothing, except take note of and recognize the corrective steps when they take them,” Ricardo Alarcon, president of Cuba’s parliament, told CNN last week.

Raul Castro had already said in a January television interview: “We are not in any hurry. We are not desperate.”

On the key U.S. issues of political prisoners and human rights, Cuba has said these are sovereign domestic matters.

The European Union, which has restarted talks with Cuba after years of strained relations, got a taste of what may lie ahead for the United States at a meeting last week in Brussels with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez.

He described EU concerns about human rights in Cuba as “obsolete” and “an obstacle to the process of normalization”.

The Cuban side argued there were “no political prisoners” in Cuba, said Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kohout.

Human rights groups estimate Cuba has 200 political prisoners. Raul Castro has offered to send some to the United States in exchange for five Cuban agents imprisoned there.

Supporters of a changed U.S. Cuba policy say they hope Obama will move ahead without concessions from Havana because the wait for compromise could be a long one, especially since there is broad world support for an end to the U.S. embargo.

Editing by Pascal Fletcher

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