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Authors see chance for breakthrough in U.S.-Cuba relations

(Reuters) – The authors of a new book detailing 55 years of informal communications between the United States and Cuba see a rare opportunity to normalize relations, provided President Barack Obama wants to seize the moment.

William LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh co-wrote “Back Channel to Cuba,” which was officially released on Monday and explains the informal and secretive “back channel” means that Havana and Washington have used to speak to each other despite their hostilities.

Based largely on declassified documents, the book created a stir with its revelation that former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger ordered contingency plans for a military strike in order to “smash Castro” in response to former President Fidel Castro sending Cuban troops to Angola in 1975.

The authors are in Havana for a dual presentation of their work and a similar book by Cuban authors Elier Ramirez and Esteban Morales, also released on Monday, that is based on previously unreleased Cuban documents.

LeoGrande is a professor of government at American University and Kornbluh is director of the Cuba Documentation Project at the non-governmental National Security Archive.

They say Obama will have the stage to lift bilateral relations out of the shadows next April in Panama at the Summit of the Americas. As host country, Panama has verbally invited Cuba, which would participate for the first time.

Obama might meet Cuban President Raul Castro there in what could potentially be more substantive than their handshake during a brief encounter at Nelson Mandela’s funeral last December.

“In the coming months this is the opportunity for diplomacy, culminating in the opportunity for Obama to fulfill a campaign promise he made in 2008,” Kornbluh said, referring to Obama’s stated willingness to meet with leaders of U.S. adversaries such as Iran and Cuba.

LeoGrande said a number of conditions are uncommonly favorable. Obama is in his second term and final term. The presumed Democratic front-runner for the 2016 nomination, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has already advocated a change in Cuba policy, so he would not damage her politically.

Most importantly, he said, polls show a majority of Cuban-Americans in South Florida now favor a change.

“I am reasonably optimistic,” LeoGrande said. “Obama’s been saying ever since he was a candidate that the policy doesn’t make sense and needs to change. And Raul Castro has been saying he wants to see a policy change. … A lot of things that have prevented change in the United States are old issues.”

A New York Times editorial on Sunday added to the voices urging Obama to alter a Cold War-era policy and move toward restoring diplomatic ties and ending the comprehensive trade embargo imposed on Cuba. Conservatives oppose change, criticizing Cuba’s continued one-party political system and repression of dissidents.

Cuba, meanwhile, has little expectation of U.S. change.

“The philosophy of punishing Cuba remains in effect,” Josefina Vidal, chief of the Cuban foreign ministry’s U.S. division, told reporters in Havana last week.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Richard Chang)

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