Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1242, (16-22 April 2015)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1242, (16-22 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Rethinking America’s Cuba policy

US President Barack Obama is holding out the olive branch to Cuba, with US and Cuban leaders apparently deciding to let bygones be bygones, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Al-Ahram Weekly

United States President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro met for an unprecedented conciliatory meeting in Panama this week at the Seventh Summit of the Americas.

During the meeting, Obama decided to bury the hatchet with Cuba, leading some Cuban Americans to see Obama’s overtures as a betrayal and Cuban-American senators Bob Menendez and Marco Rubio urging Panama to withdraw the invitation to Cuba to attend the summit.

Florida is where most Cuban Americans live, and the Sunshine State is the stronghold of anti-Cuba sentiment. However, Hispanic immigrants from Puerto Rico and other parts of Latin America now outnumber Florida Cuban emigrés and they favour stronger ties with Cuba.

Demographic shifts are underway, and there are many younger more progressive Cuban Americans who bear no malice towards the island.

The Cuban economy remains fragile after decades of sanctions, codified in US legislation. Unemployment remains one of the lowest in the Western Hemisphere, however, because the Communist Caribbean island-nation has a centrally planned command economy with state-run enterprises predominant.

But the public debt to GDP ratio is high. An estimated $25 billion is owed to Russia and another $25 billion to Latin American and European nations. Nevertheless, the country has made great advances in the education and health spheres, making them among the best in the region. 

Today, Cuba is poised to trim its deficit and has made impressive social strides unheard of in Latin America. There is much the US can learn from the Cuban experience. Before the 1959 Cuban Revolution, an estimated half of the rural population was illiterate, as was about 25 per cent of the total population. Forty per cent of the Cuban workforce were unemployed.

Cuba today is busy pushing through reforms, but Castro has made it clear that the priorities of the Cuban Revolution will not change far as the leadership is concerned. The Cuban political establishment shows no sign of rebelling.

Any obstacles to a rapprochement are largely of America’s own making. A leopard can’t change its spots, and both chambers of the US Congress are now controlled by the Republicans. However, Obama does not need the permission of Congress to lift the sanctions against Cuba.

The ace up Obama’s sleeve is his dramatic foreign policy punches and bombshells. The US president is determined to make his mark in his second term in office. Obamacare has been a flop in America, with what passes as the US healthcare system dominated by giant pharmaceutical companies. The only direction open for Obama now is foreign policy.

“In the most significant changes in our policy in more than 50 years, we will end an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests, and instead we will begin to normalise relations between our two countries,” Obama said.

However, when Obama “speaks of ‘our interests’ he is of course referring to corporate business interests, not the public interest,” complained Matt Peppe, a blogger and activist who writes on US policy in Latin America.

“Obama’s correct decision to abandon the Cold War policy towards Cuba needs to be accompanied by a recognition that the policy itself has been immoral, criminal and wrong,” he stressed.” The socio-economic system Cuba adopted after its successful revolution in 1959 “was a threat to American multinational companies”.

“What we have both concluded is that we can disagree in a spirit of respect and civility,” Obama observed of US relations with Cuba. “Over time, it is possible for us to turn the page and develop a new relationship between our two countries.”

Obama and Castro called this week’s talks in Panama “candid and fruitful.” “We are disposed to talk about everything, with patience,” Castro said in Panama after meeting with Obama whom he described as an “honest man.”

Reactions from other Latin American leaders were varied. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff hailed the reconciliation between Havana and Washington as a “courageous effort” to end the last vestiges of the Cold War which she said had cause a great deal of suffering in the Western Hemisphere.

President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of Argentina was more curt, saying that Cuba had made the reconciliation possible and noting that there were forces in the US that still considered Cuba a threat. She said that over the years Cuba had fought with unprecedented dignity against the US blockade and concurred with Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa who said that Obama’s overtures were good, but not good enough.

Latin American leaders have been acutely conscious of American perceptions in the past of the Americas south of the Rio Grande being its “backyard”. Washington severed diplomatic relations with Havana in 1959 after Fidel Castro launched the Cuban Revolution that ousted the then US-backed president Fulgencio Batista.

The 83-year-old Raul Castro’s 49-minute speech at the Panama meeting was emotional and retrospective. Cuba, he noted, had been excluded from six prior summits at the behest of Washington and its lackeys in Latin America.

Former US president Dwight Eisenhower first imposed sanctions against Cuba when the US administration prohibited the delivery of oil to the Caribbean island-nation, prompting Cuba to nationalise US companies and properties on the island.

Former president Kennedy first implemented the Cuban Assets Control Regulations, and since then every successive Republican and Democratic president has perpetuated the sanctions.

In 1996, Congress enacted the Helms-Burton Act, which former president Bill Clinton signed into law. The Cuban Assets Control regulations are cruel and had a catastrophic impact on the Cuban economy. Today, many observers say Cuba is entitled to compensation and even reparations.

Although the mood in Panama was uncertain, the US move is expected to drum up brisk business in the Caribbean island. Castro met with de Kirchner in Havana immediately prior to the summit, basically to bang the drum about the Malvinas, better known in Britain as the Falkland Islands.

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez also held talks with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro as well as with his Venezuelan counterpart.

Sensible statements were made in Panama, and all acknowledged that Obama’s move was a breakthrough. “Our governments will continue to have differences,” the US president said at a news conference wrapping up the meeting. “At the same time, we agreed that we can continue to take steps forward that advance our mutual interests.”

“So often, when we insert ourselves in ways that go beyond persuasion, it’s counterproductive, it backfires,” Obama observed. “We are willing to discuss everything,” he emphasised. “The United States will not be imprisoned by the past.”

The removal of Cuba from the US list of states sponsoring terrorism is a landmark for the Americas. “As circumstances change, then that list will change as well,” Obama told reporters in Jamaica before heading for Panama.

“We’re in new territory here,” proclaimed US deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes. “We are very happy to have President Obama in our country. We congratulate him on all the efforts he’s making to unite our continent. I think it’s a historic meeting. It’s going to be a very successful summit of the Americas,” Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela concurred.

“I think President Obama is going to leave a legacy the way he is supporting Hispanics in the United States and also his new policy for Cuba for us is very important,” Varela concluded.

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