Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Cuba in the limelight

by Diego Benitez, WFP International Team

In April of 2012, in Cartagena, Colombia the U.S. secret service got itself embroiled in a prostitution scandal where members of this elite presidential guard were discovered to have misbehaved with Colombian escorts. While this made headlines throughout the country and was mentioned in nearly all of our mainstream media news sources, what should have truly merited attention was hardly whispered. The news that members of the Organization of American States, a hemispheric platform where governments address overarching policy issues, refused to sign a unanimous declaration as an act of defiance against the exclusion of Cuba from the summit was seldom published. In addition, the fact that several member states refuse to reconvene for a following summit unless Cuba is present, was rarely spoken of. Clearly, prostitutes and a blemished secret service make better headlines than sanctions against socialist countries, that much is obvious. Yet, it was an opportunity to get a glimpse of how opinion in Latin America is swaying and it temporarily placed Cuba in the limelight.

But the OAS summit, prostitutes and the secret service is old news, and as it is apt to do news changes. Now we are captivated by legal marijuana, a fiscal cliff, healthcare reform and the post election buzz referencing Latino voters’ critical role in president Obama’s reelection. Some polls declared he won up to 70% of their vote. This is where Cuba returns, because within that Hispanic demographic was the Cuban American vote which gave Obama a record number of its ballots. Overall, these results represent a historic change in the political landscape especially within a Cuban American group that has traditionally opted for Republican candidates.

While some pundits debate on what this shift in Florida means for the Republican party and more specifically how such a dramatic change occurred within a reliably conservative Cuban American electorate, others, from a younger generation, saw an obvious and inevitable swing of allegiance from a party whose candidate has sworn off dialogue with the Cuban nation to a party whose president has relaxed policies allowing families to reunite, send remittances and permit first time travelers to learn about Cuba on People to People exchanges. Doors have been swung open that will be difficult to close shut. If the momentum for change were ever present, it would be now. The fact that Cuban Americans voted for a Democrat like never before offers the greatest opportunity yet for improved relations between Cuba and the United States.  While this does not mean that Cuban Americans now espouse the Castro led government, it does indicate a desire within the younger generations to change a policy that has been proven ineffective, outdated and obsolete; a desire to access a country that was once prohibited to them; to capitalize on potential opportunities and to connect with cultural roots that have been severed for decades. This is an opening waiting to be explored and now Obama has more breathing room than ever imagined to exploit it.

Every Rose Has Its Thorns

While the opportunity for change is present like never before, there are still many thorny issues to overcome. The economic embargo against Cuba has endured for decades and has outlasted nine presidents. Legal marijuana in Colorado and Washington has temporarily captured our imagination, the fiscal cliff threatens us with economic ruin and healthcare reform begins to take shape, yet, the time will soon come when President Obama will be pressed to tackle the Cuba issue and respond to his Latino constituents. This time around, he will face not only a Hispanic electorate that is less inclined to bring Cuba to its knees but also a galvanized bloc of Latin American nations overwhelmingly opposed to the economic policy that isolates it.

A United Latin America

The fact that Latin American countries have been increasingly leaning towards the left is nothing new. Now more than ever the region has worked to promote economic cooperation and regional integration in this less conservative hemisphere. Economic reforms have been widespread and even Cuba, with its economic debilitations and Socialist structure has enacted reforms to keep pace with the wave of change. South American countries are reaping the benefits and flexing newfound muscle in the absence of U.S. presence. Regional organizations such as UNASUR, ALBA and CELAC have gained ground and it has proven challenging for the United States to exercise influence in Latin America when confronted with unified resistance against obsolete policies on one of its member states. The economic embargo that attempts to isolate Cuba from the rest of the world is a hurdle that makes U.S. attempts to fully embrace regional credibility, integration and prosperity, slothful at best. Lifting the embargo will boost U.S. influence and moral legitimacy while eliminating a cold war relic that has harmed the island nation of 11 million people for over fifty years. With three quarters of the Western hemisphere living below the Rio Grande, the United States cannot afford to be excluded from the Latin American renaissance.

To make matters worse, traditionally conservative right leaning countries including Colombia (our closest  South American ally) and Chile (a breeding ground for neoliberal economics) have joined the cause to end the economic embargo and exclusion of Cuba from regional organizations such as the OAS; placing increased pressure on the U.S. to work within a Latin American framework. President Obama felt this pressure last April in Cartagena, Colombia during the OAS summit when he heard the overwhelming sound of a Latin American choir singing to a Cuban beat. The call was for an end to the embargo and the inclusion of a Latin American member state into the regional association. Adding to the choir, the United Nations recently made its 20th annual and almost unanimous vote condemning that damaging policy. However, the economic embargo (known as the “Blockade” in Cuba) is just one component of a multi- tiered effort to isolate the island; it gets worse.

Irony and The Freckled Road Ahead

The hurdles don’t stop where the embargo ends. As part of our strategy to isolate Cuba from the rest of the world we have placed it on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. This list is a short one: Iran, Syria, Sudan and Cuba. Iraq, Libya, South Yemen and North Korea have all been removed. That’s right, North Korea, a once well entrenched member of the “Axis of Evil” has been taken off the list. It raises the question: how on earth is Cuba still on this list when hostile countries armed with nuclear weapons have been removed? The answer is freckled with irony and residual cold war animosity towards Marxism.

According to the State Department a reason to justify Cuba’s continued presence on the list of state sponsors of terrorism is that Cuba has in the past supported revolutionary movements such as the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC). As a point of reference Cuba was placed on the list by the Reagan administration in 1982. What makes this an interesting twist of fate is that the Colombian government is currently engaged in peace negotiations with the FARC and Cuba is a guarantor country, along with Norway, hosting these negotiations. While Colombia sees Cuba as an important actor participating in an historic peace process, the United States manages to see a state sponsor of terrorism instead. Lest the irony be lost here: Cuba is promoting a peace process between two actors of one of South America’s oldest conflicts, not sponsoring war.

While our previous focus on Colombia surrounded a scandal, today we view it with a hopeful eye towards peace. Cuba’s critical role in this process cannot be ignored. The crucial function Cuba is playing in providing a safe atmosphere for peace dialogues may provide her with the much needed momentum to be remove from the list.

What can you do about it?

In keeping in line with our mandate to change policy, Witness for Peace has created a petition to remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. We view this as an important step in normalizing relations between our two countries and ending an age old policy that alienates a geographic neighbor and prevents millions of Americans from exercising out rights to travel there.  Please take the time to view and sign the petition.

As the road towards normalized relations gets paved we hope that this point in history offers both Cuba and the United States an opportunity for increased communication and cooperation. This is a unique moment for a change in policy. As part of this momentum, Witness for Peace continues to offer experiential learning opportunities for qualified applicants to visit Cuba and witness firsthand the Cuban reality. To learn more about our delegation’s visit our website at www.witnessforpeace.org.

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