Cuba's Raul Castro and US President Barack Obama in Panama in April 2015
Undoubtedly both Presidents Raul Castro of Cuba and Barack Obama warrant credit for breaking the 54-year old barrier to the establishment of diplomatic relations between their two countries. But, President Obama deserves greater praise because he took greater risks and bucked strong opposition in the United States Congress and from the anti-Castro Cuban-American community whose political clout is not insignificant.
He also showed considerable courage in removing Cuba from the US State Department’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorism (SSOT) on April 14. He has been flayed by leading members of the Republican Party, including many of the Presidential hopefuls. Republican Senator, Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American, who is also a Presidential aspirant, said Cuba should remain on the terror list, adding that “The decision made by the White House is a terrible one”. Even the influential Wall Street Journal newspaper, in an April 15 Editorial, scathingly criticised Obama’s Cuban diplomacy, saying that it “has been one unreciprocated offering after another from December’s pledge to normalize relations to the global legitimacy he bestowed by meeting Cuba’s dictator to this free terror pass”. The Editorial went on to speculate, unapprovingly, that its readers shouldn’t be surprised if the President’s lawyers are “inspecting the terms” of the US lease of Guantanamo Bay so as to return it to Cuba.
Successive US Presidents have maintained the US diplomatic cold shoulder and none has sought to remove Cuba from the SSOT list since it was imposed in 1982. Not even in their last terms in office, when they had nothing to lose, did any President try to tear down the wall between the US and Cuba.
It is clear that Obama is a man of history which he has already made and is continuing to mould. He has sought – and is seeking – to put a gentler, more tolerant face on American foreign policy. He cannot do this on all counts. There are theatres of conflict, particularly involving ISIS, that require stern action. But, it should now be without question that Obama’s Presidency has given the United States a more acceptable countenance globally and more particularly in Latin America.
Even with Venezuela where relations continue to be sharp over sanctions placed on several Venezuelan officials for alleged human rights violations, Obama has tried to offer an olive branch. Prior to the Summit of the Americas in Panama on April 10 and 11, he dispatched a senior State Department official, Tom Shannon, to talk with Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro and Foreign Minister Delcy Rodríguez. Two National Security officials also publicly declared that the US had “no hostile designs” on Venezuela, and Obama took the time to meet Maduro privately in the margins of the Panama Summit. Afterwards Maduro is reported to have said that the conversation was "cordial, serious and frank" and could lead to the establishment of new diplomatic discussions to "respectfully open up relations in the next few days".
Obama’s Caribbean policies give governments in the region less to rejoice about. While the people and leaders of the Caribbean are delighted with the fact of Obama’s Presidency of the United States and regard him as a symbol of their own capacity for achievement, there is disappointment that he has not done enough to help them economically. Right now the classification of the Caribbean as a ‘high risk’ area for financial services and the listing by the US State Department of all 15 Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries as either jurisdictions of “concern” or “major concern” for money laundering are causing indigenous and offshore banks to lose correspondent relationships with banks in the US. Without such relationships these banks will be unable to conduct international transactions, threatening their survival with dire consequences for Caribbean economies.
This matter was raised by Antigua and Barbuda’s Prime Minister, Gaston Browne, speaking for Caribbean leaders at their encounter with Obama in Jamaica on April 9. Obama promised to investigate the issue, particularly when Browne pointed out that all of the assets and transactions of the CARICOM financial institutions do not add-up to 0.1% of the global total. What will come of this is left to be seen, but having opened a direct line to Obama on this matter, it is up to Caribbean leaders to ensure that he is provided with the hard evidence.
CARICOM countries can take some satisfaction from Obama’s Cuban policy. When only Canada and Mexico maintained diplomatic relations with Cuba in the Western Hemisphere, it was Caribbean countries that led the way in establishing such relations in defiance of the US embargo. They have also long called for the full normalisation of relations between the two countries as a matter of principle.
However, normalisation of US-Cuba relations has implications for Caribbean countries. Cuba is already a major competitor in the vital tourism industry. The number of Canadian, European and Latin American visitors to Cuba is greater than that of tourists to any CARICOM country. In part, the larger number of visitors to Cuba is due to the fact that its prices are cheaper because of lower wages for workers. Now, with Cuba off the SSOT list, the country will benefit from a number of things, including: eligibility for US foreign assistance and humanitarian aid; elimination of Private Right Action (meaning that the statutory authorisation for individual US citizens to pursue private claims against Cuba in US courts would be eliminated, thereby facilitating trade, banking and international financial relations without the potential fear of asset seizures); the elimination of a rule requiring publically-traded companies to disclose to the US Securities and Exchange Commission their dealings with Cuba; and finally, the elimination of State divestment laws (some US states have laws or policies prohibiting investments in companies doing business with blacklisted countries).
Of particular significance to the Caribbean should be that, once the US Congress approves the delisting by May 29, Cuba will become eligible for loans from the World Bank and other international financial institutions. Cuba will have the capacity to absorb such loans that will rapidly improve its infrastructure and its attractiveness for investment. This emphasises the importance of CARICOM countries sharpening their own policies and working harder across the board to maintain their competiveness.
By the end of Obama’s Presidency, his courage and foresight could leave a more durable relationship between the US and Latin America. Cuba is well on the way to benefitting from his Presidency. The rest of the Caribbean should work to ensure they are not the orphans of his legacy.