New York, United States - Of the 10,000 posters, paintings and other works in the Cuban Art Space in Manhattan, almost all were painstakingly brought to the US by hand on hundreds of plane rides over the years by the institute's director, Sandra Levinson.

Levinson blasts the "total nuttiness" of a decades-old US embargo and travel rules that have stopped her from inviting Cuban musicians and shipping sculptures to New York. She hopes this week's high-level talks on normalising US-Cuba relations will lead to major policy shifts.

"We started the centre in 1972 because of the absurdity of the embargo; we wanted to normalise relations between the people of Cuba and the people of the US," Levinson told Al Jazeera. "After decades of fighting for change, I'm excited. But we're still in the realm of playing politics."

Talks between Roberta Jacobson, the US assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, and the Cuban foreign ministry's US affairs director, Josefina Vidal, will be the highest-level meeting of the Cold War-era foes to be held in Havana in 38 years.

They follow last month's announcements by US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart, Raul Castro, on normalising ties after a half-century of enmity, CIA assassination plots, and a Cuban missile crisis that pushed the world towards atomic Armageddon in 1962.

Policy 'expired'

On Tuesday, during the annual State of the Union speech, Obama said Washington's strategy on Cuba was "long past its expiration date". 

"Our shift in Cuba policy has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere; removes a phony excuse for restrictions in Cuba; stands up for democratic values; and extends the hand of friendship to the Cuban people," he said. "Congress should begin the work of ending the embargo." 

Sitting only metres away was one of the prizes of détente. Alan Gross, an American contractor, was freed from a Cuban jail in exchange for three Cuban spies in US detention - paving the way for overhauls in US policy on the Caribbean island.

Talks on Wednesday and Thursday are limited to migration and turning the US Interests Section, a six-story building near Havana's Malecón seaside promenade, into a full-fledged embassy flying the American flag. The same goes for Cuba's outpost in Washington.

The US wants more diplomats accredited in Cuba, fewer travel restrictions on personnel, more US supplies in Havana, and the granting of embassy access to all Cubans, a senior State Department official said on condition of anonymity.

Talks may lead to greater US-Cuba teamwork on everything from tackling drug traffickers to stopping the spread of diseases such as Ebola - but it is too early to call, said the US official, who is involved in negotiations and was not authorised to speak on the record.

"I'm not oblivious to the weight of history. It's been 38 years since somebody at the assistant secretary level went to Havana… It is a big deal and it's hard to know exactly how the conversation will go," the US official said.

Challenges ahead

The US has improved relations with other one-time foes such as Vietnam and Myanmar, but détente with Cuba is especially challenging because of the number of congressional laws aimed at staunching money-flows to the communist-run island.

"The easy part was the announcement, the hard part is implementation. There are mountains ahead, 50 years of regulations to rewrite," Kirby Jones, president of the US-Cuba trade consultancy Alamar Associates, told Al Jazeera. 

A Cuban gives the thumbs up from his balcony decorated with the US and Cuban flags in Havana on January 16 [AFP]
"You want to start direct flights to Cuba? There are 10-15 doors that need to be opened before United Airlines loads a single plane."

Congress is not the only hurdle. The US designates Cuba as a sponsor of terrorism - alongside Iran, Sudan and Syria - barring aid, arms sales, trade and credit from global institutions. US officials are reviewing whether to delist Cuba and will report to Obama by June 17.

Another obstacle is the US' so-called "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy, which offers fast-track residency status to Cubans who brave the 145km voyage and make landfall in the US. Cuba says it encourages people to risk their lives on rickety boats in shark-infested waters.

Outstanding compensation claims also exist by Cuban-Americans and US firms that had assets confiscated after Fidel Castro, Cuba's revolutionary leader, won power in 1959. Washington has documented some $1.8bn of plantations, homes and other seized assets.

Meanwhile, US politicians are keen to get their hands on fugitives who were granted asylum by Cuba, including Assata Shakur , who is also known as Joanne Chesimard , a Black Panther member who fled the US after being convicted of killing a New Jersey state trooper during a shoot-out in 1973.

Rapprochement is popular at home. A Pew Research Center survey found 63 percent of Americans support re-establishing ties with Cuba. This month's study of 1,504 adults also said only 32 percent said they thought Cuba would become more democratic as a result.

Dividends of détente

From January 16, Americans began benefiting from eased US travel restrictions and can now return from Cuba with $100 worth of cigars and rum. 

Critics of the U-turn, including politicians on both sides of the House and members of Florida's vocal Cuban-American community, say Obama has handed legitimacy and money to Castro as the Cuban leader continues to clamp down on political dissidents.

While US telecoms firms eye Cuba as a potential market, Jennifer Harris, an economist at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank, said  the real winners from lifting the embargo would be US farmers who could export a bonanza of fish, grain, poultry and other foodstuffs.

She also noted while Washington's embargo loses the US some $1.2bn in business each year, it is poorly enforced and easy to circumvent - explaining why the US has been Cuba's fifth-largest trade partner since 2007.

Washington eyes other dividends of détente, including ending its global isolation over Cuba. In October, the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to condemn Washington's embargo for the 23rd time in succession. Only Israel backed the US.

That's already half-way there, at which point the embargo becomes a policy in name only, with people working around it, making legal challenges and modifications to the legislation.

- Carl Meacham, Center for Strategic and International Studies

Thawing relations with Havana make it harder for Bolivia, Ecuador and other critical Latin American countries to cast Washington as a regional bully. It also draws Cuba away from Venezuela, which has bankrolled Havana with subsidised oil.

Economic devastation

For Cuban officials, Caracas was becoming a less-attractive partner due to falling crude prices and a severe economic crisis in Venezuela. Cuba says the US embargo has cost it more than $1 trillion in economic devastation and badly needs more trade and investment.

But Havana remains cautious. Cuban officials did not respond to Al Jazeera's request for an interview, and Fidel Castro, who frequently writes on politics, has not published anything about the thaw with Washington. Rumours circulate about his health.

Raul Castro has warned against expecting big political and economic shifts in Cuba. "We must not expect that in order for relations with the United States to improve, Cuba will abandon the ideas that it has struggled for." 

For Carl Meacham, director of the Americas programme at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think-tank, the wheels are already turning. Despite concerns in some quarters of the US and Cuba, a trade, tourism, and travel boom is inevitable.

"One-third of the policy has been changed by executive fiat. Once Cuba's status as a terrorist sponsor is reversed, that opens the door to even more commercial activity," Meacham told Al Jazeera.

"That's already half-way there, at which point the embargo becomes a policy in name only, with people working around it, making legal challenges and modifications to the legislation."

Follow James Reinl on Twitter: @jamesreinl

Source: Al Jazeera