"These recent steps indicate a desire on both sides to try to move forward, but also a recognition on both sides of just how difficult it is to make real progress," said Robert Pastor, a professor of international relations at American University and former national security adviser on Latin America during the Carter administration. "These are tiny, incremental gains, and the prospects of going backwards are equally high."
Among the things that have changed, John Kerry has taken over as U.S. secretary of state after being an outspoken critic of Washington's policy on Cuba while in the Senate. President Barack Obama no longer has re-election concerns while dealing with the Cuban-American electorate in Florida, where there are also indications of a warming attitude to negotiating with Cuba.
Cuban President Raul Castro, meanwhile, is striving to overhaul the island's Marxist economy with a dose of limited free-market capitalism and may feel a need for more open relations with the U.S. While direct American investment is still barred on the island, a rise in visits and money transfers by Cuban-Americans since Obama relaxed restrictions has been a boon for Cuba's cash-starved economy. Under the table, Cuban-Americans are also helping relatives on the island start private businesses and refurbish homes bought under Castro's limited free-market reforms.
Several prominent Cuban dissidents have been allowed to travel recently due to Castro's changes. The trips have been applauded by Washington, and also may have lessened Havana's worries about the threat posed by dissidents.
Likewise, a U.S. federal judge's decision to allow Cuban spy Rene Gonzalez to return home was met with only muted criticism inside the United States, perhaps emboldening U.S. diplomats to seek further openings with Cuba.