Even as president-elect Barack Obama's victory drew high praise and congratulations from leaders across the Caribbean, hopes of any immediate, meaningful change in U.S.-Cuba relations was tempered by the reality of the economic mess and tarnished global image he is inheriting.

During his campaign, Obama pledged to lift travel restrictions so that Cuban-Americans could visit relatives in Cuba and to eliminate caps on how much money they can send back to families, measures adopted in 2004 by the Bush administration.

Despite his vow to ease sanctions against Cuba and his willingness to consider dialogue with the Cuban government, the president-elect did not spell out what it would take to end the 49-year-old trade embargo, which has survived 10 U.S. presidents, Democrat and Republican alike.

Obama said he would maintain the U.S. trade embargo as leverage to secure reforms but would pursue "direct diplomacy with Havana without preconditions."

In May, he told the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami, "As president, I would be willing to lead that diplomacy at a time and place of my choosing, but only when we have an opportunity to advance the interests of the U.S. and to advance the cause of freedom for the Cuban people."

No one should expect a timetable on these policy changes, according to John Kauvlich, senior policy adviser and former president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, based in New York.

"This is a president who is inheriting two wars and the worst economic crisis since the 1930s," he said. "The Cuba issue simply is not a priority. If he were to expend political capital and time on Cuba right now, especially with the U.S. economy in the crapper, he would be eviscerated."

According to a Reuters poll a week before the election, 60% of Americans believe the U.S. should revise its policies toward Cuba, with 68% of those polled saying that Americans should be allowed to travel to Cuba and 62% saying that U.S. companies should be allowed to trade with Cuba.

But Kauvlich said, "I don’t see the level of interest on the part of the U.S. business community that was there even five years ago. No one is struggling because they cannot bring clients to Cuba -- not the cruise lines, airlines or hotel companies."

That opinion is not shared by Tom Donohue, CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who complained that while "the Spanish, the French, the Latin Americans and everybody else on the globe are building resorts or investing in Cuba, we are sitting here with a 50-year-old policy that doesn’t work."

The cruise industry has long said that easing the Cuba travel ban would be a boon, though it was not quite ready last week to proclaim that an Obama presidency meant an end to the ban.

Yet some travel sellers were hopeful.

"The Caribbean could certainly use a new cruise destination, and none would create buzz Cuba would," said a top cruise seller. "Obama is likely to get us closer to that than any previous president."

The Caribbean’s largest island has always been on the industry's radar. When Caribbean cruises were experiencing a price slump last year, Holland America Line CEO Stein Kruse said, "Not if, but when Cuba becomes a destination option for North American operators, another exciting chapter in modern cruise industry history will surely be written."


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