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Thaw Begins On U.S.-Cuba Relationship Frozen In Time

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

When President Obama gives his State of the Union speech tonight his new approach to Cuba will likely be featured prominently. One of the official White House guests will be a U.S. government contractor who spent five years in a Cuban jail before being released as part of the warming ties. The president is also sending a high-level official to Havana this week for talks on how to revive a relationship that has been frozen in time. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Just a month after he was released from a Cuban jail, Alan Gross will be sitting near First Lady Michelle Obama, a sign of his support for the administration's new course in Cuba. Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, has invited someone else to remind Obama of the ongoing human rights abuses on the island - the daughter of the Cuban dissident Oswaldo Paya, who died in a suspicious car accident in 2012. Still, Obama can count on cheers from some in the crowd including Senator Dick Durbin.

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SENATOR DICK DURBIN: For over 50 years we have been committed to a policy of exclusion, believing that if we had embargoes and blockades, we could force internal change in Cuba. The policy failed.

KELEMEN: The Illinois Democrat is just back from Cuba where he says he and other U.S. lawmakers met with government officials and with opponents of the regime, including a young engineering student.

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DURBIN: He said to us, what President Obama's announcement has done is pull the blanket off the caged bird in Cuba. Those of us who live in Cuba are still in the cage of Communism, but we can see out now about opportunities and a future.

That, I believe, is part of what the president's new policy is all about.

KELEMEN: The assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere is holding talks in Havana this week to re-establish an embassy. The U.S. wants Cuba to lift the limits on the number of U.S. diplomats in the country and give Cubans access to the mission. These are talks that have to be based on reciprocity says Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin America program at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

CYNTHIA ARNSON: So far, the United States has gone a long way in relaxing travel and trade regulations that prohibit in the United States from having deeper contact with Cuban citizens. And the real question is what the Cuban government is going to be doing in return.

KELEMEN: Arnson says the U.S. may have trouble, for instance, as it tries to promote broader Internet access on the island. If Cuba sees this as just another way for Washington to encourage regime change, the negotiations won't go well.

ARNSON: If there's an intelligent, low, incremental way of pushing the envelope, I think that that approach has the potential for being more successful over the long term.

KELEMEN: But Arnson doesn't think the Obama administration has quite figured out how to do that.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.