Wednesday, February 21, 2018

New day for Cuba-US ties?

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Mark Fraser

 THE new chairman of the Caribbean Community, Dr Ralph Gonsalves, Prime Minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines, has identified a core set of issues for priority responses during his six-month stint that concludes with the annual Heads of Government Conference in July.

While, like his counterparts in St Lucia and Dominica, he is grappling with the horrific consequences of last month’s devastating floods, Mr Gonsalves, has, understandably, placed among his cluster of priorities, the urgent need for more focused attention by the region’s governments and institutions on the climate change phenomenon.

At the same time, apart from ensuring an agenda that addresses pressing fiscal management and economic challenges, he has identified Cuba-US relations and the denationalisation of thousands of people of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic among urgent matters.

The latter is a problem rooted in slave labour on the sugar plantations of the DR with its notorious history of exploitation of poor black Haitians. Their descendants have now been rendered stateless by a new law that discriminates against them.

The Caribbean Community has already signalled to the European Union its intention to cease cooperation with the DR as a member state of Cariforum (Caricom plus the DR) unless it reverses this shocking piece of legislation endorsed by its constitutional court.

Next month’s half-yearly Inter-sessional meeting of regional leaders is also expected  to pursue a new initiative seeking to get US President Barack Obama to engage in efforts to forge a new relationship with Cuba. 

Most Caribbean and Latin American leaders are aware of Cuba’s desire for a “civilised relationship” with the US. They are conscious of the significance of a call last week by President Raoul Castro.  

In addressing Cuba’s National Assembly, President Castro offered a most significant political gesture to the US while emphasising the resolve of the Cuban people to defend their political sovereignty and territorial integrity:

“Let no one doubt,” Castro said, “that those of us who have devoted nearly a lifetime to those ideals (for which the Cuban revolution was fought) are, for obvious reasons, among  the most interested  in advancing at greater speed…

“While in recent times we have been able to carry out some exchanges on issues of mutual benefit between Cuba and the United States, we believe that we can solve other issues of interest and establish a civilised (my emphasis) relationship between two countries, in line with the wishes of our people, the vast majority of US citizens and the Cuban émigrés….

“As far as we are concerned,”  President Castro added, “we have expressed on many occasions our willingness to maintain a respectful dialogue with the United States, on equal terms and without compromising the independence, sovereignty and self-determination of our nation.

“We do not ask the United States to change its political and social system, nor do we agree to negotiate ours. If we really want to advance in our bilateral relations, we will have to learn to mutually respect our differences and get used to coexisting peaceably with them. That’s  the only way. Otherwise, we are prepared to endure another 55 years in the same situation.”

His called for a “civilised relationship” with the US deserves serious consideration by President Obama’s administration.

Caricom played a most vital role—when it was not fashionable to do so—back in 1972, in cracking the US international isolation of Cuba with a quartet of independent states—Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Barbados and Jamaica— establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba. 

It now has the opportunity to engage in a new creative effort with Washington to make a reality of President Castro’s call for a “civilised relationship” with the US.

Those elements who, surprisingly, are tilting at political windmills in injecting the old argument about racist attitudes in Cuba against black Cubans—now that it’s no longer fashionable to indulge in simplistic talk about a “communist dictatorship” in Havana—should also consider the significance and timing of Castro’s interest in promoting a new relationship with the US

It is of relevance to note here a parting observation by the Barbados Daily Nation in its editorial of January 6 that addressed the significance of President Castro’s call:  “We must wait to learn what positive response, if any, may come from the eloquent President Obama, who offered a very surprising handshake with President Castro at the recent memorial  service in South Africa for the international freedom fighter and human rights icon, Nelson Mandela…”.       

Now we  must also monitor Caricom’s expected initiatives to help foster President Castro’s quest.