A year after Barack Obama became US president, pledging “a new beginning” in relations with Cuba and winning praise from Fidel Castro, vitriolic rhetoric is once more flying between the two governments.
Governments, investors and residents – both on the island and off – who had hoped that relations would improve are wondering whether recent events will plunge them back to thegloom of the past 50 years.
Fidel Castro, the veteran revolutionary ex-president who has not appeared in public for nearly three years but remains active behind the scenes, has lashed out at Mr Obama. He has accused the US leader of attempting to roll back populist movements and leftwing governments in Latin America, and of putting a “friendly smile and African-American face” on “imperial policies”.
Mr Obama answered questions put to him recently by Havana’s best-known opponent, the dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez – praising her courage and efforts. The move will have angered Cuban authorities who regard such high-level recognition of opponents as provocative and disrespectful. A round of immigration talks set for December was soon postponed.
The mood at the Cuban foreign ministry is grim, despite the Obama administration’s lifting of travel and remittance restrictions on Cuban Americans and an initial round of immigration and then postal talks that were praised by both sides.
“We expect nothing more [from Washington] during Mr Obama’s first term,” said one official, speaking off the record. “We invited them to discuss a series of substantive issues and they responded with trifles, sanctions and subversion.”
Wayne Smith, who opened the US mission’s interests section under Jimmy Carter’s presidency, said US-Cuban relations appeared at stalemate.
“The Obama administration is now suggesting that it cannot take further measures until it sees Cuban willingness to accept democratic changes,” he said.
“The Cubans, on the other hand, take the position that it is not their intention to change their internal political system as the price of moving the process forwards.”
Islanders are being mobilised in community and workplace rallies to denounce a US decision to include Cuba on a list with 13 Middle Eastern and African nations from which all airline passengers will receive extra screening.
The US state department repeatedly branded the Communist-run island a state sponsor of terrorism when asked what it had to do with the attempted Christmas bombing of a US airliner, for which a branch of al-Qaeda claimed responsibility and which triggered the security clampdown.
The anti-US rallies are the first of their kind since Fidel Castro became ill in 2006. Mr Castro resigned as president in favour of his younger brother, Raúl, 78, who hit out at Mr Obama in a year-end speech as he announced the arrest of a US citizen for handing out satellite communications equipment to dissidents.
“The US government has not given up on destroying the revolution, and on producing a change in our social and economic regime,” said the Cuban president.
Havana says the US citizen, whose identity is not known and who entered the country as a tourist, is under investigation for working for US secret services. Washington insists he was simply working for a Maryland-based aid organisation called Development Alternatives Inc, on contract with the US Agency for International Development to promote democracy in Cuba.
“Havana clearly views President Obama’s moves as marginal and wants action on more fundamental issues such as the embargo and US political programmes inside Cuba, and the arrest of a US government contractor appears to be part of that effort,” said Phil Peters, a Cuba expert at the Washington-based Lexington Institute.
US diplomats said Mr Obama had always made the lifting of US sanctions on Cuba conditional on the island moving towards democracy and showing greater respect for human rights.
“The bilateral dialogue on issues such as immigration is supposed to resume in February.
“Let’s hope that it does and that it leads towards a more constructive posture on both sides,” said Mr Smith.