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19 December 2014, Gateway House

Cuba: end of isolation

The U.S. has finally ended its outdated policy of isolating Cuba. It is a triumph for the proud and courageous Cubans who have withstood so many overt and covert destabilisation attempts by the U.S. It is also a victory for Latin America which has opposed the U.S. embargo and advocated normalization of relations with Cuba

Former Distinguished Fellow, India-Latin America

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In a surprise and dramatic move, U.S. President Barack Obama announced on December 17 the re-opening of diplomatic relations with Cuba. He was honest and candid in admitting the failure of his country’s outdated  policy of isolating Cuba for the last five decades. Having tried every trick for ‘regime change’ in Cuba without success, the U.S. has finally decided to change its own policy, and swallowed its pride.

It is a triumph for the little nation which has withstood the big bully and its numerous overt and covert destabilisation attempts. It should be a personal satisfaction for the legendary Fidel Castro, who has survived several assassination attempts by CIA. The courageous and proud Cuban leadership has stood its ground despite adversities and U.S-inspired conspiracies. Recognising the fact that Obama too has shown exceptional boldness with his initiative, the Cubans have responded with grace, holding their head high and without conceding on their principles. President Raul Castro said in his TV address on December 17, “President Obama’s decision deserves the respect and acknowledgement of our people,” adding, “we must learn the art of coexisting with our differences in a civilized manner”.

It is also a victory for Latin America as a whole. Despite the disapproval of the U.S, all the countries of the region have maintained diplomatic relations with Cuba, consistently opposing the embargo and  calling for their removal in regional and global forums for decades. On December 17, at the Mercosur summit in Parana, Argentina, Argentine President Cristina Fernandez said in her opening statement, “I thought we were never going to see the end of the U.S. Cuban embargo.”

The Latin Americans remember well the U.S. role in the destruction of democracies and violation of human rights in some of their own countries, even as the U.S. did business with communist dictatorships in China and Vietnam. Nor have they forgotten the repeated U.S. military interventions in Cuba after the end of Spanish rule, and especially the humiliating Platt Amendment passed by the U.S. Congress in 1901, under which the U.S. government asserted its right to interfere in the internal affairs of that country. Latin Americans also believe the U.S. embargo perpetuated the dictatorial regime of the Castros. Had the U.S. kept  people-to-people contacts open, the Castro brothers may have been swept away like many other military dictatorships in the region during the wave of democratisation in the eighties.

In a clear message to the U.S, the Latin Americans formed in 2011 the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC)  in which they have included Cuba and excluded U.S. This is a regional forum to discuss its destiny without the usual U.S. interference.

In the last Summit of the Americas held in 2012 in Cartagena, Colombia, all the Latin American and Caribbean heads of state voted to invite Cuba to the next summit. Some had even threatened to boycott future summits if Cuba was not invited. Even the host and U.S. ally President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia said, ‘No Cuba, no summit.’ Ecuador president Rafael Correa had already boycotted the 2012 summit protesting the exclusion of Cuba.

Consequently, the U.S, which had kept Cuba out of the Summit of the Americas – a forum created by the U.S. in 1994 – found itself isolated on the Cuban issue. Facing the united pressure of Latin America, the U.S. reluctantly agreed to the inclusion of Cuba in the forthcoming summit in Panama in April 2015.

The loosening of the U.S. economic restrictions  is timely for Cuba whose patron Venezuela is in a helpless mess, unable to continue its generous supply of oil and aid to Cuba. Hugo Chavez, who worshipped Fidel Castro as his hero, went out of his way to help Cuba which had endured hardship after the end of Soviet aid following the collapse of the USSR. The state-controlled economy of Cuba is in shambles, facing a shortage of foreign exchange, endless queues before empty supermarket shelves, crumbling infrastructure and public services. The end of political isolation and the economic embargo will help Cuba attract foreign investment and tourist dollars, export its goods to the U.S. market and revive its agriculture and industry. The economy needs reform, growth and export markets to transform itself in the same way as China and Vietnam have.

India has always opposed the U.S. economic embargo and isolation on Cuba. The two countries have had warm relations, both bilaterally and multilaterally, including on non-alignment. Fidel Castro gained instant publicity in India when at the Non-Aligned Movement meeting in New Delhi in 1979, Castro famously met former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi with a Latin hug. Of all the countries in Latin America, Cubans are the largest beneficiaries of India’s ITEC (Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation) aid programme. Once the U.S. sanctions on Cuba are lifted and the country starts to rebuild its broken economy, there will be opportunities for Indian business too.

For now though, the U.S. rapprochement will not create a dramatic change in Cuba. President Raul Castro will continue his policy of gradual and calibrated economic liberalisation without letting go of political control, as China and Vietnam have been doing. Ultimately, the change in Cuba will come from within, rather than from an outside prescription.

Ambassador Viswanathan is Distinguished Fellow, Latin America Studies, Gateway House. He is the former Indian Ambassador to Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Venezuela, and Consul General in Sao Paulo. 

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