By NIKO PRICE – January 22, 2009, 4:40 p.m.
HAVANA (Associated Press) — 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.
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.
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."