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Decisions on Cuba rooted in politics, not principle

Sir Ronald Sanders

Sunday, April 22, 2012    

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US President Barack Obama vetoed Cuba's attendance at this month's Summit of the Americas in Colombia for domestic political reasons. He was not alone in applying domestic considerations. Every other hemispheric leader adopted a position on Cuba that related to his/her own political concerns.

Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper supported Obama in denying an invitation not only to the Colombia Summit but also to the next one in Panama in 2015 because he had an eye on the importance of maintaining a close link to the US. The US is Canada's biggest trading partner, and to preserve that position, the Canadian Government needs to be seen by all parties in the US as supportive of US policies.

Of course, unlike other countries in the Western Hemisphere, including all who now call for Cuba's participation in the Summit of the Americas, Canada has always maintained diplomatic relations with Cuba, and trade has continued briskly between the two nations. Therefore, notwithstanding Fidel Castro's lambasting of Stephen Harper after he criticised Cuba's human rights record, there are more than enough economic benefits for Cuba in its relations with Canada for the Castro Government not to allow this event to mar the overall association between the two countries.

As for the Caribbean countries, almost all of them now benefit from Cuba's scholarship programme for their young people to study at Cuban universities, as well as Cuba's programme of supplying doctors and other forms of technical assistance. They know that the Cuban Government provides this assistance at great cost to itself.

The resources could be used to address serious problems within Cuba, particularly shortages of food and medicines. They also know that Cuba is now no military threat to the United States and has no interest in military adventurism anywhere in the hemisphere.

Further, despite that fact, Cuba still remains on the US State Department's list of "state sponsors of terrorism". Caribbean governments also know that this listing is without foundation and should be abandoned.

In calling for Cuba's inclusion in meetings of the Summit of the Americas — in the face of opposition from the US Government — Caribbean governments are paying back Cuba for its generous assistance to them.

Of course, Barack Obama is correct when he makes the following observation about Caribbean governments and the relatively new "democratic" governments in Latin America: "I am sometimes puzzled by the degree to which countries that themselves have undergone enormous transformations, that have known the oppression of dictatorships or have found themselves on the wrong side of the ruling elite, and have suffered for it, why we would ignore that same principle here."

It is obvious that Obama, the man, is concerned that "Cuba has not yet moved to democracy, has not yet observed basic human rights". It is the same concern that Stephen Harper identified. There is validity in the unease, and the Cuban Government must do more — and do it more openly — to end its regime of intolerance to dissent and its resistance to political change.

Other countries in the hemisphere, including all the nations of the Caribbean, have learned to accommodate political dissent, to respond to demands of workers, to hold elections, and to change governments by peaceful means.

The question that always arises on this issue is whether Cuba should be encouraged to undergo the required change by isolation or by engagement. The US has chosen isolation through the trade embargo and resisting Cuba's attendance at the Americas Summit. The matter of membership of the Organisation of American States (OAS) is no longer relevant since the Castro Government has described the organisation as "an unburied corpse". But that is more bluster on the Cuban Government's part than an accurate assessment of the OAS.

The organisation is now more concerned with democratic governance in its member states than it used to be, and the Cuban Government would find it difficult to measure up to the criteria for securing and maintaining membership.

Neither Obama nor Harper has sought to defend their denial of Cuba's participation in the Americas Summit, while they engage with China in several fora despite the latter's human rights record. Yet, if they argue that engagement with China is essential to promoting change, it should be equally necessary in Cuba's case.

Hence, they should drop their objection to Cuba's participation in the Summit and use it as a forum for setting and applying principles to which all countries, including Cuba, would have to adhere.

But Obama, the president of the US who is seeking another term in office, has to deal with carrying the State of Florida in the upcoming Presidential election. Florida, where many influential anti-Castro, Cuban-Americans live, is important to winning the Presidency.

Given the strong anti-Castro feeling there, Obama could not afford to offend the Florida electorate by agreeing to the Cuban Government's participation at the Colombia Summit, nor could he signal now that he would agree to its attendance in Panama in 2015.

Like every other leader, domestic politics dictates international policy, even when it leads to actions that are plainly unproductive.

A clear indication that anti-Castro sentiment is very much alive and well in Florida is the passage by the legislature last March of a Bill designed to punish the Castro Government by restricting state and local governments from signing procurement contracts with any companies that do business with Cuba.

The constitutionality of such a bill has been questioned since "only the federal government (and Congress) has the legislative competence to conduct foreign policy and impose sanctions". But it would be a foolishly daring Obama who would veto the Bill.

Domestic politics in the US trumps a more sensible policy of engagement with Cuba. The crazy thing is that it suits the Castro regime since they can continue to blame the "Yankee imperialists" for the deprived conditions the Cuban people suffer. For the Cuban leadership, as for all other hemispheric leaders, the imperatives of domestic politics triumph.

Sir Ronald Sanders is a consultant and former Caribbean diplomat

Responses and previous commentaries: www.sirronaldsanders.com

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