US-Cuba deal ‘was about Latin America’

2014-12-18 06:38

United States relations with Latin America have been rocky at best, with increasing pressure on President Barack Obama to build bridges to Cuba. Cuba, for its part, is struggling economically.

The Obama administration is the first to admit that growing world pressure to make things right with Cuba played a role in yesterday’s end to a 50-year stalemate.

It was bad enough that regional powers ganged up on President Barack Obama two years ago at the Summit of the Americas in Cartegena, Colombia. Instead of discussing regional security, trade and drug problems, they were unrelenting in demands that the US allow Cuba to attend the next summit.

Then there was the annual “show” vote at the United Nations General Assembly, which has routinely and overwhelmingly voted for an end to the US embargo on its off-shore neighbour.

The vote in October was 188 to 2, with only the US and Israel dissenting.

“The rest of the world has moved on from this set of policies,” a senior administration official said in a background briefing to reporters.

“If any US policy has passed its expiration date, it is the US-Cuba policy.”

Julia Sweig, director of Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, predicted that Obama would get an “enormous amount of support” from leaders in Latin America.

She said the lobbying in Cartegena helped convince the US that it needed to preserve dialogue within the Americas.

“The pathway to do this is through Cuba,” Sweig said.

Both Cuba and the United States stand to benefit from warmer diplomatic and economic relations.

Cuba has learned first-hand the perils of dependency on another country, and is still reeling economically from the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s after decades of financial support. Even now, the Caribbean island is dependent, this time on ideological partner Venezuela, for near-gratis oil deliveries.

But Venezuela’s economy is in a downward spiral.

“That 100 000 barrels per day gift of oil is going to end very soon,” Christopher Sabatini, policy director at Council of the Americas, predicted to the Bloomberg news agency.

The announcements yesterday will not totally break the US commercial embargo on Cuba. Only Congress can lift the ban on US tourism, for example, or allow import of Cuban cigars.

Obama pledged to ease restrictions on exports ranging from building materials to equipment for small private entrepreneurs and farmers, and has a deal with Cuban President Raul Castro to allow US telecommunications equipment and internet infrastructure to be exported.

That dovetails with recent economic reforms. Cuban private firms can now import and sell new cars. Some travel restrictions have been lifted, and some Cubans can get self-employment licences and work independently.

In 2012, Castro ruled out the idea of multiparty reforms – a deal-breaker for US democracy advocates such as conservative Senator Marco Rubio, who accused Obama of appeasing Havana with nothing in return.

The gains for the US could come largely from greater acceptance in the world community on the issue.

One Obama administration official said the White House believed the shift will help would help US policy initiatives and US influence in the Western hemisphere on democracy and human rights issues: “It’s not just about Cuba. It’s about Latin America, broadly.”

Peter Schechter, director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Centre at the Washington-based Atlantic Council, said the Obama-Castro agreement meant that “for all practical purposes we have arrived at the beginning of the end of sanctions on Cuba”.

Most importantly, he said, US allies in Latin America and around the world will now be able to talk about the lack of freedom and reform in Cuba. It signals that the time has come to look at Cuba and see what Cuba is without the “crutch of US embargo as an excuse”, Schechter said.

Even more emphatically, Brazil President Dilma Rousseff said the thaw “signals a change” in the history of civilisation. She said she hoped that it will be “an example for the whole world”.

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