Cuba finds strong allies in Caribbean states
By Linda Hutchinson-Jafar
Guyana Chronicle
January 9, 2003

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`It is also clear that the Cubans see the English-speaking Caribbean and CARICOM as a whole as an important ally to cushion the effects of the U.S. embargo' - Dr Keith Nurse, UWI lecturer

PORT of Spain, Trinidad -- Several Caribbean countries and Communist Cuba last month celebrated three decades of diplomatic relations which were forged and strengthened despite early threats of economic and other sanctions by the United States.

With Mexico maintaining diplomatic and economic relations with Cuba after the 1959 revolution and the Cold War affecting relations with other hemispheric countries, the opening of diplomatic ties with four independent Caribbean Community (CARICOM) states in 1972 has been regarded as a significant development.

"Their recognition of Cuba at that time was a landmark in hemispheric affairs and as a driver for regional integration. The CARICOM countries saw Cuba at that time as the most developed country in the Caribbean (in terms of) health, education and welfare," said Professor Anthony Bryan, Director, Caribbean Studies Program, Dante B. Fascell North South Center at the University of Miami.

The four countries which opened diplomatic relations with Cuba are Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Barbados.

Cuban Ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago, Felix Raul Rojas described the decision of Caribbean countries to extend relations with Cuba as a brave gesture of solidarity despite mounting pressure by the United States for the isolation of the Communist regime of President Fidel Castro.

"This valiant position of the Caribbean, this solidarity set a good example for the rest of Latin America that slowly began establishing relationships with Cuba. We respect the role the Caribbean played," the Cuban Ambassador said.

Trinidad and Tobago's Foreign Affairs Minister, Knowlson Gift said with the exclusion of Cuba from the Organisation of American States (OAS), Caribbean leaders mounted a mission to Cuba to extend their friendship and out of this, diplomatic ties were formed.

"The gravity of Cuba's situation could not be under-estimated in the sense that when you are cut off diplomatically from the rest of the world community, you are virtually declared persona non-grata and nobody wants to deal with you.

"We saw ourselves in the Caribbean offering that bridge, that communication link between Havana and the rest of the world and the virtues of that bridging role were later appreciated by many sovereign Western governments," the Trinidadian foreign minister said.

In 1989, Cuba's diplomatic relations included nine other Caribbean states and by 2002, it had grown to 24 Caribbean countries.

Secretary General of the Association of Caribbean States (ACS), Professor Norman Girvan said the establishment of diplomatic relations with the majority of countries in the region in the 1990s provided opportunities for the rapid growth of economic contact.

During the last decade, Cuba, a member of the 25-member grouping ACS, signed eight bilateral investment and economic cooperation agreements with Caribbean territories and one with the CARICOM grouping.

In a recent speech on Cuba, Professor Girvan said with the Communist country embarking on a series of economic reforms giving enterprises greater autonomy and the partial liberalisation of trade and investment, trade between Cuba and the Caribbean grew significantly, particularly in the mid-1990s.

In 1995, trade with the Caribbean amounted to US$655 million and in 1996, it reached $687 million.

Trade with the Caribbean in 1999 was $315 million.

Professor Bryan said Cuba was also valued for its relations with the socialist bloc at a time when several Caribbean countries that would later become a part of CARICOM belonged to the non-aligned movement.

As a result of the action by the four Caribbean states to establish diplomatic relations, Cuba was also able to develop contacts and economic and functional cooperation and membership in several regional organisations including the Latin American Economic System (SELA) and the Caribbean Multinational Shipping Corporation (NAMUCAR).

Professor Bryan also said Cuba gave priority to its relations with Jamaica, Guyana and Grenada because of the blatant anti-American positions taken by their respective governments at certain times during the 1970s.

After the Grenada Revolution in 1979 the U.S., however began, to take an increasingly tough position with Cuba, Jamaica, Grenada and Nicaragua because their actions were seen to be inimical to U.S. interests. But Reagan's Cold War emphasis on military interests in the hemisphere did not augur well for Cuba and its allies.

The U.S. invasion of Grenada in 1983 polarised the Caribbean region and cooled relations with Cuba.

"U.S. condemnation of Cuban military support for the Grenadian People's Revolutionary Government and Nicaraguan Sandinista governments was followed by a serious disaffection of CARICOM governments from support for Cuba. The Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) was Reagan's response to link the Caribbean and Central American economies to that of the U.S. and to isolate Cuba," Professor Bryan said.

In the following years, however, there was less pressure on CARICOM states to continue normal relations with Cuba especially with the end of the Cold War and with it the military or economic support of the former Soviet Union for Cuban military and ideological thrusts into the region.

Professor Bryan said with relations strengthening, the U.S. seems to accept that ties between Cuba and its Caribbean neighbours are logical as long as they do not appear to be contrary to the larger U.S. interest in the region.

"U.S. foreign policy is to maintain political pressure on Cuba but also to permit the building of bridges toward coexistence with Cuba," said Professor Bryan.

Giving an example, he referred to the decision by the Bush administration to allow the sale of foodstuffs and pharmaceuticals to help Cuba recover from the damage of Hurricane Michelle.

He said although CARICOM and other countries worldwide oppose the Helms-Burton Act that keeps the embargo in place, the U.S. is not going to let its official stand on Cuba jeopardise the goodwill of its other Caribbean neighbours with whom it is building alliances against real threats such as drug trafficking, uncontrolled immigration and terrorism.

Dr Keith Nurse, lecturer at the department of International Relations at the University of the West Indies (UWI) in Trinidad said in the post-Cold War context, the strategic importance of the Caribbean with the exception of Cuba has declined in the eyes of the United States.

He said it also makes "perfect good sense" for the Caribbean to be strengthening its relations with Cuba which has emerged as an important economic player in tourism and a country for great investment opportunities.

"Many companies from Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica and elsewhere are moving into Cuba and the U.S. position on Cuba helps in this regard as it creates a space for investors to get into that market which otherwise would have been cornered by U.S. firms and closed off whatever opportunities for us.

"It is also clear that the Cubans see the English-speaking Caribbean and CARICOM as a whole as an important ally to cushion the effects of the U.S. embargo," Dr Nurse said.

There is also internal pressure on the United States by certain business groups and lobbies to bring an end to the embargo against Cuba since they are losing out on a sizeable market and other business opportunities that are going to the Europeans and Caribbean companies involved in the tourism trade.

But only the powerful Cuban-American lobby in Miami because of its political and financial support of Florida Governor Jeb Bush and his brother President George W. Bush seem to be keeping the tide from turning toward ending the embargo.

In the meantime, Americans are vacationing in Cuba, U.S. business exhibitions are becoming routine and influential U.S. legislators and public figures are taking familiarisation tours of the Communist country.

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