"Working together for a free Cuba"




Overtures From Despots Pose Test to Obama Administration

Human rights groups warn that talks between the U.S. and nations like Iran, Cuba and Syria still have a long way to go, despite recent overtures.

From Syria's Bashar al-Assad to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Fidel Castro the world's despots think they found a new listener-in-chief in the White House.

FOXNews. April 08, 2009. There's something about Barack.

Not three months into his term, President Obama has drawn overtures from top U.S. adversaries that would have been unthinkable under George W. Bush -- whose last official trip abroad was marred by an Iraqi journalist chucking his shoes at the outgoing president.

The gestures from Cuba, Syria and Iran appear a response to appeals from Obama himself. He's presented his presidency as the mark of a new era in which adversaries can approach the U.S. with a clean slate if they drop their hostile ways.

With the new administration striking an open-door policy with democratic leaders and despots alike, human rights groups warn that talks between the U.S. and these nations have a long way to go before they're simpatico.

Cuba's Fidel Castro, Syria's Bashar al-Assad and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may see a friendly face in Obama, but the sticking points between the U.S. and these countries are still many.

Neil Hicks, international policy adviser for Human Rights First, said repression continues to be a serious problem in these countries and should be a "primary concern" for the United States.

"It's short sighted ... to build these relations and try to sweep human rights under the rug," said Hicks. He urged the administration to use this opportunity to seek human rights reform, something the U.S. has not done with allies like Saudi Arabia.

Those concerns, of course, would be on top of those over Iran's nuclear program and anti-Israel threats, as well as Syria's suspected involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (Syria denies involvement) and other issues.

On top of that, the three countries compose three-quarters of the four nations listed by the State Department as state sponsors of terrorism (the other country is Sudan).

The prelude to potential high-level talks with Cuba and Iran took big steps this week. Openings for talks with Syria have been growing.

Three members of the Congressional Black Caucus met with Castro, the ailing former Cuban president Tuesday, as part of a seven-member trip to the communist nation. According to Rep. Laura Richardson, D-Calif., Castro told them, "How can we help President Obama?" The meetings come as Obama prepares to ease restrictions for Cuban-Americans who want to visit family and remit money to relatives.

Ahmadinejad reportedly gave a televised speech Wednesday in which he said his country "welcomes a hand extended to it should it really and truly be based on honesty, justice and respect."

He gave a more receptive message to the U.S. than Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who dismissed Obama's videotaped outreach message to Iranians last month. But Ahmadinejad still warned that Obama would "meet the same response the Iranian nation gave to Mr. Bush" if he is not honest.

The U.S. State Department announced Wednesday that it will reverse Bush policy and participate in groups talks with Iran over its nuclear program.

Al-Assad also has given indications he is open to U.S. engagement, as the U.S. renews low-level diplomatic talks with the country.

Iran's and Syria's support for, or at least tolerance toward, groups like Hamas and Hezbollah is a major factor in their icy relationship with the U.S. Changing that dynamic would be a key aim of U.S. talks with those countries.

But national security issues should just be one component of talks with these countries, human rights activists say.

Reporters Without Borders ranks all three nations at the very bottom of a list measuring press freedom in countries around the world. The group found in its latest assessment of Iran that more than 50 journalists were prosecuted in 2007 --- and that the government shut down at least four publications, in addition to dozens of Web sites.

The jailing of U.S. journalist Roxana Saberi, who was charged with espionage in Iran, is just the latest example. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is calling for her release.

Reporters Without Borders also noted that Syria has blocked access to 100 Web sites, including Hotmail, Facebook, YouTube and human rights sites.

Matt Easton, director of the Human Rights Defenders Program at Human Rights First, said more than 50 activists and journalists rounded up by Cuba in 2003 are still imprisoned.

"It's certainly a problematic country in human rights," Easton said. "There's ... widespread prohibition of freedom of expression and freedom of association."

Human Rights Watch wrote in a report in February that even though Castro has resigned, his "abusive machinery" remains in place with brother Raul's presidency. Abuses range from surveillance to house arrests to prosecutions to unjust court trials.

A report this year by the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation said Cuba still has 205 political prisoners, though that number is lower than in previous years.

Human Rights Watch also reported late last year that the human rights "crisis" in Iran has only escalated. According to the report Iran leads the world in executing juveniles -- with the country accounting for 26 of the 32 juvenile executions worldwide since 2005.

But potential pay-offs to restoring relations with these countries are significant, say analysts.

The U.S., for instance, may be poised to peel Syria away from Iran and other anti-Western Middle Eastern nations, reducing Iran's influence in the region. Such a move could also ease the road to peace for Israel and the rest of the region.

Repairing relations with Iran could ease the U.S. war effort in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan.

A number of U.S. officials simply see the half-century long embargo on Cuba as pointless.

Advocates for dropping the embargo say it would also mitigate Castro's ability to exploit tensions between the U.S. and Cuba in his country.

"We could talk about what happened 50 years ago or we could talk about what's happening today," Richardson told FOX News Wednesday. "Having a 50-year-old embargo is not helping America. Every other country is working with Cuba except us and that should change."
Richardson said she observed a "tremendous amount of freedom" during her five-day stay in Cuba.

"I experienced the freedom to travel. There were no police, you know, following us around," she said. "We had the freedom of speech. There were press conferences every single morning. There was no demonstration of force."

Castro wrote in a newspaper column after the congressional visit that Obama's intentions are "sincere" and he described the meeting as "excellent." But he questioned what initiative the U.S. expects Cuba to take.

"We have never been aggressors nor do we threaten the United States," he wrote.

A Cuban official in D.C. told FOX News the country's hope is the lifting of U.S. embargoes on Cuba.

"We have the same position, to talk with mutual respect," the official said. "Let's see what happens."

FOXNews.com's Judson Berger and FOX News' Nina Donaghy contributed to this report.