December 15, 2009 / 5:09 PM / 10 years ago

Contractor arrest may ruffle Obama's Cuba overture

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba’s arrest of a U.S. government contractor employed to help Cuban dissidents may rattle U.S. President Barack Obama’s initiative to improve ties with Havana but should not derail it, analysts said.

A member of Cuba's Communist Youth League holds a Cuban flag outside the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana during an event asking for the release of five Cuban agents arrested by the United States a decade ago in Havana June 18, 2009. REUTERS/Enrique De La Osa

The U.S. State Department has confirmed the Dec 5. arrest of the unidentified American, who The New York Times reported was handing out telecommunications equipment such as cellphones and laptops on the communist-ruled island.

Havana has not commented publicly on the detention but may choose to turn it into the latest in a long list of diplomatic and espionage disputes that have roiled U.S.-Cuban relations for almost half a century.

But some analysts believe its impact will not seriously hamper Obama’s efforts to create an improved, more communicative relationship with Cuba.

“It may cause an interruption in the near term, but ultimately I don’t believe it will affect the new dialogue on migration, re-establishment of postal service, and other matters,” said Phil Peters, a Cuba expert at the Lexington Institute in Virginia.

Cuba has not yet granted American diplomats in Havana access to the detained man, who is not a U.S. government employee, a State Department spokesman said in Washington.

Maryland-based Development Alternatives Inc, which says it has a federal contract to support “just and democratic governance in Cuba,” described the American held as a sub-contractor employed “to assist Cuban civil society organizations”.

These Cuban dissident groups are termed “mercenaries” and “traitors” by the Cuban government, which has often accused the United States of supporting them openly and also covertly in a bid to undermine communist rule on the Caribbean island.

Obama promised this year to “recast” Washington’s relationship with Cuba and took initial steps such as lifting restrictions on family visits and slightly softening the 47-year-old trade embargo on the island. This included freeing up opportunities for U.S. telecommunications companies in Cuba as part of an increased “people to people” contact strategy.

A friendlier atmosphere led the Cold War-era enemies to resume migration talks in July and the Cuban government initially acknowledged a new attitude from the White House.

But Cuba has since then accused the Obama administration of continuing to meddle in its affairs by supporting and funding dissident groups in the same way as previous U.S. governments.

To back this argument, Cuban state television recently broadcast images of two U.S. diplomats attending a march last week by dissidents to mark Human Rights Day.

CUBA WARY OF TELECOMS CHALLENGE

Cuban President Raul Castro, 78, who took over from his ailing elder brother Fidel Castro in February 2008, has ended previous curbs on ordinary Cubans using cellphones and computers, but satellite phones and walkie-talkies are banned.

The Internet, access to which is heavily controlled on the island, has become the latest frontline for Cuban dissidents, such as well-known blogger Yoani Sanchez, who are seeking to challenge government clamps on the media and political activity outside the one-party communist system.

U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said on Tuesday Washington regarded its support for human rights in Cuba as important. This included “providing and helping groups provide a capability to network and to communicate.” Countries like Cuba and China that feared the “flow of information” were going against the trend of this century, Crowley added.

Dan Erikson, a Cuba analyst with the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, said the arrest could be a warning Obama’s administration not to pursue USAID-funded programs in support of human rights and “civil society.”

“It is clearly intended to send a shot across the bow to future U.S. grantees who seek to circumvent the Cuban government to work with the island’s civil society,” he said.

The U.S. contractor’s detention may also fuel criticism of Washington’s foreign policy in Latin America, where a new generation of leftist leaders such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez has already expressed disappointment with Obama.

“It shows Washington’s policy on Cuba hasn’t changed at all under the Obama administration. They keep using the same espionage, infiltration and subversion tactics of previous years,” Eva Golinger, a left-wing Venezuelan-American attorney and commentator, wrote on a leftist political website.

Fidel Castro warned on Monday that Obama’s “kindly smile” could not be trusted, saying Washington was plotting against leftist Latin American governments, including Venezuela’s.

Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn in Washington, Editing by Helen Popper, Pascal Fletcher and Doina Chiacu

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