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Saturday, April 11, 2009

Obama’s Stand on Cuba

by Circles Robinson

This month’s upcoming Americas Summit is a perfect chance to see inside the crystal ball of future US-Latin American relations.

With the US election campaign long over, and President Obama to reach his first 90 days in office while at the April 17-19 meeting in Trinidad and Tobago, the time to act is now, not later.

While there is no indication of much policy change in the more complicated near east, except for a slight shift in focus from Iraq to the occupation of Afghanistan, Latin America is the one place where numerous analysts are saying Obama is offered a low-hanging fruit ripe for the picking.

The analogy refers to rapprochement with Cuba and an about-face from a half-century policy of hostility towards the Caribbean neighbor. Doing so would please most Americans, US business people and Cubans and upset few people outside of the hardcore Miami exile crowd.

A CNN survey taken on April 3 found that 71 percent of those polled said that the U.S. should reestablish diplomatic relations with Cuba, while only 27 percent opposed such a move.

However, that low-hanging fruit—written up in US newspaper editorials as a win-win situation for both countries, and a move that would do a lot to improve the poor US image throughout the continent—is not going to be there forever.

Ripe fruit either is picked or eventually drops and rots. It takes a full year for such a delicious opportunity to present itself again and if a storm in the wrong season occurs, it could take two years for a similar fruit to appear.

Out of Touch Ambassador

Obama’s advisor, Ambassador Jeffrey Davidow, who heads the administration’s prep team for Trinidad and Tobago, has shown the same disrespect for the region that has earned the US such a bad name.

Davidow accused Cuba of being the only undemocratic nation in the hemisphere, the “odd man out,” and thus should not be part of the Summit or its agenda. He speaks as if these are the former times when the US was capable of pressuring the hemisphere to accept its dictates.

"I think it would be unfortunate, actually, to lose the opportunity for this hemisphere - at the beginning of the Obama administration - to set down some guidelines and make some progress jointly by getting distracted by the Cuban issue," Davidow said at a conference on Thursday.

Such an attitude is provoking a whirlwind of meetings and discussions between the different Latin American leaders that could lead to pressing Obama to show his real commitment to change in the US relationship with the region.

Obama already got a dose of friendly advice from Brazil’s Lula da Silva at the White House in March. Lula, who some say may be playing a behind the scenes mediation role, has publicly advised Obama to engage with Cuba and end the blockade.

The same message of the need to open dialogue was brought home by seven US Representatives, led by Barbara Lee (D-CA), who just go back from five days in Havana meeting with top Cuban authorities including President Raul Castro and former President Fidel Castro.

Ambassador Davidow is forgetting that while Cuba was indeed isolated 50 years ago, when the embargo was imposed, it’s now the US that is practically alone in the hemisphere and the world on its Cuba policy.

Just last November, 185 countries voted in the United Nations in favor of a Cuban resolution demanding the US end its blockade. Only two countries joined the US in opposing: Israel and Palau, a tiny former US colony.

The Blockade not the Travel Ban is the Big Issue

My friends in the US, who supported Obama, hope he is working behind the scenes towards dialogue with Cuba and change in US policy. Privileging Cuban-Americans to visit their families or even allowing US citizens to visit Cuba is not the biggest issue for Cuba or Latin America. After all, that is just punishment on US citizens by their government.

What the region’s leaders are demanding is an end to the economic blockade that has hampered Cuba’s development and caused much suffering.

Somehow, Cuba has still managed to provide an incredible amount of medical, educational and sports training assistance to dozens of countries abroad, in a rare policy of “sharing the little it has and not just leftovers or extras.”

The Americas Summit should provide a better picture of what “change” really means and what is just campaign rhetoric. I, like many of my friends in the US, am hoping for the best.

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