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BEHIND THE HEADLINES: Normalising Cuba/US relations

Tony Best

BEHIND THE HEADLINES: Normalising Cuba/US relations

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Prime Minister Freundel Stuart and his CARICOM colleagues stand a good chance of being a part of history in April next year.

That’s when they sit around the table in Panama for the seventh Summit of the Americas, which will take place April 10-11. For the first time in more than half of a century, a Cuban head of state and an American president will have a chance not only to meet but to exchange ideas about the future economic and social development of the Western Hemisphere.

It’s an opportunity that United States President Barack Obama and Cuba’s head of state, Raul Castro, shouldn’t allow to pass them by. For as successive Barbados leaders, dating back to Errol Barrow in the 1970s and their foreign ministers have said at the United Nations (UN) in New York, and the Organisation of American States (OAS) in Washington for decades, it’s about time that Cuba and the US normalise their relations. And that would mean an end to America’s crumbling and indefensible economic embargo against Cuba, allowing it to go the way of the Model T Ford and the dinosaur.

As recent as last September Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of Foreign Trade Senator Maxine McClean, told the UN General Assembly that the “long-standing economic embargo on Cuba continues to be of serious concern to Barbados”.

She went on: “The government of Cuba has always demonstrated a willingness to assist the Caribbean, and indeed the developing world, in our quest for development. We join with the overwhelming majority of UN member-states in opposing this unilateral action and look forward to a time soon when it will be relegated to the pages of history.”

Hopefully, that day is around the corner and when it comes the English-speaking Caribbean island-nations and coastal states are well placed to take some of the credit for paving the way for such a historic step.

More than 40 years ago Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Barbados and Jamaica took the decisive step of establishing diplomatic relations with Havana and as more and more of their neighbours became sovereign states they, too, joined the determined campaign to show it was in the Hemisphere’s best economic and political interests for the economic isolation of Cuba to end. Most South and Central American states followed suit and when they threatened not to attend anymore summits if Cuba wasn’t present, the deal was clinched.

When the Cuban leader and his counterparts in CARICOM had their fifth summit in Cuba last Monday they quite rightly demanded the “immediate end to the economic, commercial, financial embargo imposed” by Washington against Cuba. But many of them would be the quick to admit that they don’t expect such a dramatic move before the meeting in Panama.

However, they would welcome a concrete signal from President Obama before the April session that a change in US economic policy was in the making. For example, he can give all Americans permission to use their passports for travel to Cuba. Obama had previously opened the door by giving Cuban-Americans the green light to visit their relatives back home, as well as to send remittances to their Cuban relatives.

Although that policy change wouldn’t be sufficient, the full relaxation of the travel ban would give the Cuban economy a major boost. Obama can go a step further within the next few months by removing Cuba from the State Department’s list of states classified as sponsors of terrorism. There isn’t any evidence to justify Cuba’s presence in that toxic group, which included the Sudan and Syria.

Next, Washington should recognize publicly and with enthusiasm what the Financial Action Task Force has done. The inter-governmental group has made it clear to countries everywhere that Havana has erected strong barriers to money laundering, much like Barbados, the Bahamas and others in the region.

That too would give the Cuban economy a significant boost.

With two more years in office before term limits end his presidency, Obama can help to cement his legacy by acknowledging that Cuba’s place was among its Latin American and Caribbean neighbours as full participants in the various hemisphere organizations, beginning with the OAS.

While Obama can expect considerable pushback from the hard-core conservative opponents on Capitol Hill, elected officials who are out-of-step with the younger but politically potent members of the Cuban-American voters in Florida and New Jersey, he would have the backing of almost 60 per cent of the American people, who said in a nationwide poll that relations with Havana should be improved.

But how would Barbados and other tourism dependent Caribbean countries fare with full relaxation of travel and restrictions on American investment in Cuba? If officials of the Caribbean Tourism Organization mean what they say when they insist that the opening up of Cuba to travel by Americans wouldn’t have a significantly negative impact on their business, then they should have nothing to fear. After all, it’s going to take years for Cuba to build the hotel rooms and the attractions to accommodate the expected influx of visitors and the competition for tourists would force the island-nations to upgrade their own accommodation so they wouldn’t fall far behind Cuba.