Wed Jan 18, 2017

By Marc Frank




The Obama administration and Cuba continue to sign cooperation agreements this week, scrambling to complete negotiations on a range of issues with just days to go until Donald Trump is sworn in as U.S. president, potentially bringing a chill to relations.

An agreement to cooperate on air and maritime search and rescue in the Florida Straits was signed on Wednesday in Havana, and another setting territorial limits in contested Gulf of Mexico waters was scheduled for signing on Wednesday or Thursday, according to diplomatic sources.

A third agreement on health protocols for dealing with issues such as bird flu was scheduled for signing on Wednesday, but postponed for later this week. It would be the last of 22 accords that have been concluded in the last 18 months.

Seeking to reverse more than 50 years of U.S. efforts to force Communist-run Cuba to change by isolating it, Democratic President Barack Obama agreed with Cuban President Raul Castro in December 2014 to work to normalize relations. Since then the two countries have restored diplomatic relations and Obama has taken a number of steps to increase travel and trade with Cuba.

Trump, a Republican who will be sworn in on Friday, has threatened to end the detente if Cuba does not make further political and other concessions, although he has not specified what these should be.

The prospect of a fresh chill has prompted both governments to wrap up negotiations on five agreements since the November election, including one on fighting international crime and another on preventing and containing oil spills.

The Obama administration last week ended a 21-year-old special arrangement by which all Cubans arriving in the United States, including without visas, were entitled to stay and seek residency. The policy had long been criticized by the Cuban government.

John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council which has followed business ties between the two countries for two decades, noted that while there had been a large array of recent agreements and memorandums of understanding, not all were binding treaties.

“The commercial, economic and political bilateral relationship between the United States and Cuba remains tentative, fragile, and immensely subject to the impact of winds from the north and winds from the south,” Kavulich said.

The Trump transition team has included five Cuban-Americans who are vocal opponents of detente and who have close ties to Cuban-American lawmakers calling for a return to efforts to isolate Cuba. A number of Trump appointees, including his national security advisor, Michael Flynn, have expressed opposition to the effort to normalize relations.

Obama has used executive orders, which can be scrapped by Trump, to circumvent the longstanding U.S. trade embargo on Cuba and ease some restrictions on travel and business. The embargo can be lifted only by the U.S. Congress, which is controlled by Republicans.

(This story corrects paragraph 8 to say that not all the deals were binding treaties, rather than none of the deals)

(Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Frances Kerry)