A regional Colleague
December 7, 2002
Thirty years ago tomorrow, the Caricom member states established diplomatic relations with Cuba. To commemorate the anniversary, all, or nearly al, of the heads of government will be going to Cuba today, many of them in a Cubana airline plane from Barbados.
The decision to establish diplomatic relations in 1972 was seen, at the time, as an important and courageous step in crafting an independent and unified foreign policy. It did much to relieve Cuba's regional isolation as at the time it only had relations with Mexico. It was not of course popular with the American government which to this day maintains an embargo against Cuba. There are now pressures from farming and other interests to ease the embargo and there are politicians in both the Democratic and Republican parties who support such a move, but the recent appointment by Secretary of State Colin Powell of Mr Otto Reich as his special envoy to the region is not encouraging as Mr Reich is known to oppose any easing of the embargo.
Since the ending of its vital economic relationship with Russia and the imposition of a special period to deal with the difficult internal economic situation Cuba has done a China, so to speak; that is to say while retaining tight political control, it has opened up to private investment, particularly in areas like tourism and mining, though not in the spectacular manner pioneered by Deng Xiaoping. Cuba is of course a one-party state and there is no press freedom. Democrats in the region and overseas find it impossible to accept this and there have been considerable pressures for change, with little success. But at the end of the day, despite these major problems, there is considerable solidarity for President Fidel Castro and his government in the region, even among those who cannot accept many of his policies. It goes back to the heady days of the revolution against the corrupt Batista tyranny, the victory and the subsequent break with America, and the considerable achievements in the areas of education and health. Many saw Fidel as a regional hero, trying to establish an independent course, a middle way, but escaping from the claws of the American eagle only to fall into the clutches of the Soviet bear. Much of what he said about always having been a Marxist-Leninist was seen as a rationalisation of the new status quo. He has remained to many a symbol of the difficult struggle for real independence by small countries despite his obvious failure to normalise the situation democratically.
It is good therefore that the regional leaders - many of whom have over the years received considerable practical assistance from Cuba - have shown and continue to show solidarity. They should try to do a little more than this. They should look for a formula that might help to secure Cuba's entry to the OAS and to the Free Trade Area for the Americas by committing it to a gradual transition to electoral democracy and try to sell this both to President Castro, Latin America and the United States of America. That would represent a real coming of age for Caribbean diplomacy and would be the ultimate solution to bringing Cuba in from the cold in the region.