The meeting between US President Barak Obama and the Cuban leader Raul Castro, held in Panama during the Summit of the Americas, was the first formal talks between the two countries in more than fifty years.
Cuba was participating at the summit for the first time, a move welcomed by all Latin American countries and judged a signal of the clear intentions to pursue the road of reconciliation.
Both leaders confirmed their intentions to reopen a channel for discussion and at the same time confirming the limits of it. President Obama described the meeting as candid and fruitful confirming that the two countries will obviously have differences and mutual interests, with the right of disagree. Cuban leader Raul Castro also repeated the same line quoting that “we are disposed to talk about everything, with patience. Some things we will agree with, and others we won’t”. He also defended the Cuban revolution and its political system but at the same time he described President Obama as an honest man who is not responsible for the past wrong doings.
The meeting, however, was not an official talk to take decisive steps towards the normalisation, and instead was for many the official declaration of intentions and a formal reintroduction of Cuba into the Summit of the Americas.
The fact that the road is going to be long and full of obstacles in not a heresy and on both parts there are suspicions and dangers ahead.
Still Ahead Between Cuban Justified Diffidence and US Certified Ambiguity
Cuba is open to a dialogue to restore full diplomatic relations and move away from hostility but is not ready to discuss any political change in the structure of power. For Cuba the immediate necessity is the end the embargo that is strangling the island and its people, a remnant of the Cold War which is not only outdated but inhumane and hypocrite.
Cuba’s cautious overture is also based on the fact that it still sees the US as a danger to its stability and independence, a common view shared with other Latin American countries. Cuba’s declaration of openness to discuss everything but with the right of disagree is a clear message that every meeting should be on the same level and that Havana will not accept diktats or attempts to limit its independence. This position has been especially reinforced by the Lider Maximo Fidel Castro who, breaking silence lasting months, expressed diffidence towards the US, declaring that he does not trust them. Nevertheless, he also supported his brother’s policy and the necessity to open a dialogue with the Washington.
Therefore for Cuba the positive conclusion of this process will rely especially on US shoulders and their willingness to lift the embargo, clear Cuba from the states sponsoring terrorism, the acceptance of Cuba’s political system.
On the other side the US are on the verge of an historical move, but it also expect from Cuba some concessions such addressing political structure, how to liberalise opposition to the government, cooperation in human rights investigations. For the first time in decades there is a clear sign in the US that the embargo may see its last days, as it cuts across the political spectrum although with different views and perspectives. Nevertheless, it is also true that US politics towards Latin America have not been all roses and ribbons, and Fidel Castro’s views are not unrealistic and found support across the continent. This is especially true when we take into account the relations with some of the governments in the region. From the reluctant acceptance of moderate leftist governments in Brazil, Uruguay and Chile, to the sometimes hostile approach to Peronist Argentina, to the open opposition to the socialist-radical block that put relations with Washington on a red line.
Presidents Evo Morales of Bolivia and Rafael Correa of Ecuador on several occasions accused the US of political interference and neo-colonial approach even with assassinations attempts, whilst ties between Venezuela and Washington remain fractious since the successful Bolivarian revolution of former president Hugo Chavez. Especially the relations with Socialist Venezuela and President Nicolas Maduro for many analysts resemble the old US tactic of political interference for a change of regime. The US imposed sanctions last month on a group of Venezuelan officials it accuses of human rights abuses. President Obama also issued an executive order declaring Venezuela a threat to US national security that Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has described as “disproportionate”.
The summit also highlighted differences between President Rafael Correa of Ecuador and the US. The Ecuadorian president said the US had failed to live up to its ideals by declaring: “Let’s talk about human rights. In Ecuador we don’t have torture, the death penalty or extrajudicial renditions”. In response, President Obama said the US does not claim to be perfect and to be open for change.
However, and it may sound a paradox, it is not only the above international dimension or the US incoherent approach to Latin America that can harm this process, it is also the uncertainty surrounding next year US presidential elections that could postpone or even block the dialogue altogether.
Make it or Brake it: How US Elections Could Affect the Dialogue
Unlike Cuba, where the one party system will not create surprises at the leadership, in the US the next year presidential elections will see the end of Obama’s administration and a new chapter opening. The Democrats will have in Hillary Clinton their main candidate, but even her victory will not automatically pave the way for an acceleration of the process which will depend on how the Congress will shape and whether Democrats will regain the majority. Nevertheless, Hillary Clinton is the best chance for Cuba to continue the dialogue as she has been behind the thaw and long ago she advanced the necessity to end the embargo. Whether is a necessarily economic move, a change of regime in disguise or simply an electoral move to obtain the so called “Latino votes”, Obama’s thaw surely scored the first strike by dividing the Republican field and giving to Hillary Clinton an important gift. This is not anymore a monolithic block when discussing the Cuban issue and it may surprise that the two candidates Mr Rubio and Jeb Bush, by supporting hardliners, may find themselves reaching for full votes in Florida but losing the moderate and immigrants votes elsewhere. Inside the Republican Party there will be a struggle on how to balance carefully the choices and where to put its weight, especially after Obama attacked Israeli PM Netanyahu’s policy and the Jewish community vote is now more important than ever. By backing the status quo, that some republicans see as an outdated and counterproductive policy both economically and diplomatically, they may end up losing more than accepting a change which will open a wider support across the continent. The fact that many republicans are not concerned by Cuba is backed by rhetoric with which they attack Obama’s policy on the Iranian nuclear programme, its relations with Israel and especially what they consider a softer approach to Russia.
While a Republican victory is still considered for Cuba the worst case scenario, at the same time we will should probably not hurry in conclusions and not forget that history has many times put the historic changes in the unlikely hands of those “gifted with stubbornness” and Republicans may be on the verge of something similar.
President Obama will have a hard job ahead for the last year of his presidency to try and push further the dialogue and end the embargo which will be the start of an irreversible process. However, for President Obama, more than Cuba’s reluctance to open political dialogue or Fidel Castro’s heavy shadow, the main battle is at home, where the contenders for the presidency, and the factions inside the parties, will use this opportunity for increase or blow up their chances of becoming the first US president to visit Havana since the revolution.
The relations between US and India have not always been easy but without doubt the two countries are increasingly looking at strengthening their partnership. Although they still maintain some differences, it is a common strategic interest that is bringing them together.
Key recent developments include the rapid growth of India’s economy and bilateral trade, the close links between the Indian and American technology industries, a geopolitical coalition to balance the rise of an increasingly aggressive China, the weakening of U.S.-Pakistan relations over various ongoing disputes. Today, India and the US share an extensive cultural, strategic, military, and economic relationship culminated with President Barack Obama being the first US president to be chief guest of the 66th Republic Day celebrations of India held on 26th January 2015.
Nevertheless, for many years the two countries were at the opposite of the geopolitical spectrum. US support of Pakistan and China reflected the necessity to counterbalance the Soviets and their relationship with India, with the latter looking at Moscow for support although its non-aligned status. Reason why Barak Obama while on one side hailed the India military partnership on the other he could not for a moment not feeling uneasy seeing Russian military hardware parading under his eyes.
The US never abandoned India as an option or stop to consider its importance. Since the end of WWII US promoted India’s independence as a tool to improve conditions in colonial countries and avoid creating a fertile terrain for Soviet influence and, until Kennedy presidency, the US tried to cultivate a relation especially to avoid communism spreading in Asia after China’s revolution. But this system collapsed due to the tensions between USSR and China and following the assassination of Kennedy that opened a new era in American policy. Nixon presidency changed US perception of India, and they started to consider China as the best option to counter the Soviets and Pakistan to tap India’s wings as a response for their relationship with Moscow.
This situation, with high and lows, changed at the end of the Cold War when, having the Soviet threat disappeared, US and India found themselves in a new geopolitical scenario.
India position: Pragmatism rather than hypothesis
India reasons for rapprochement with US are based on countering the two traditional threats: Pakistan and China. The first perceived as regional and the other global, with the second far more dangerous for India’s stability and independence.
Countering Pakistan is something that India considers, under a basic strategic direct goal, a necessity having the unresolved dispute in Kashmir. US, in the past a strong Islamabad ally, has recently moved away from Pakistan due to security concerns, Taliban’s role and increase of Islamist insurgence, distrust in the security forces especially following the Osama bin Laden legacy. India saw in this cold relation the opportunity to deprive Pakistan of the most powerful ally, the only one basically to counter effectively India on a diplomatic role. Pakistan, by losing the US support, left to India a strong advantage both under a strategic and diplomatic sphere, allowing New Delhi to have two members of the UN Security Council on its side against China.
Nevertheless, India convergence is also a pragmatic choice and designed to clearly mark a line on where the US should stand as they face a common and most powerful threat: China.
China has always been the greatest danger for India’s security, its borders and, due to Beijing military superiority, a real danger for its integrity. Whilst keeping the Soviet Union-Russia relations on the table India has always considered the necessity to counterbalance its diplomatic gap against Pakistan and China. Now this has changed for two fundamental reasons: the first is that the US share a common ground of strategic necessity in Asia and the other is that Russia, although still seen as strategically important, has also developed stronger Chinese ties on the international scenario and this open questions on whether India could still count on them in case of a new tension between New Delhi and Beijing.
The new US policy in the Pacific has therefore opened a new opportunity for New Delhi by still fostering ties with Russia but on the immediate they see in US actions a real strategy to keep China under control.
US: India not only for China containment
US diplomatic and strategic plan for Asia is shaping: abandoned Pakistan for concerns over reliance, trust and security, and facing the prospect of a powerful rise of China in the Pacific created the perfect conditions to open a direct dialogue with India. A strong relation with India respond to many US questions: how to counter Islamic insurgency in the area, how to avoid Kashmir being hijacked by Islamist, how to counter Pakistan deteriorating security, how to counter China with a powerful regional country and lastly how to isolate further Russia.
The US primarily abandoned Pakistan after debacles in security and India is seen as a better option to keep under control the neighbour and at the same time have a valuable support in the area as west of Pakistan is basically a no-go area for Washington. Pakistan does not offer anymore security in counter terrorism whilst India proved better in supporting the US since 2001. But the main reason, as for India, is the perception of China. The shifting of policy towards the Pacific to contain China has seen the US engaging in a difficult but important diplomatic offensive. Washington strengthened the ties with its traditional allies Taiwan, South Korea, Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and Japan, but also they understood the need to find new strong players also on diplomatic and military level. Under this view the US abandoned their remnants of Cold War ostracism and understood that traditional enemies could now be the aces they were looking for: Vietnam and India relations can become that sort of radical, resolute and incorruptible block to counterbalance Chinese rising in the Pacific. India under this paradigm opens for the US even a broader assumption: India although strategically and geographically not Pacific-centric represents nonetheless a valid card in the view of China stepping into the world scenario as a superpower. India is seen by Washington as an important piece in the plan to isolate China and create a sort of “cordon sanitaire”, more military rather than economic, as it happened to Bolshevik Russia. The problem for the US is that their approach to international relations is always subordinated to other aspects that may be of primary importance for Washington but secondary for their partners, and most of the times they foster unbalanced relationships, thus paving the way for divergences.
The US necessity to counter China by increasing India’s support has also opened a new scenario: break India’s diplomatic and military relations with Russia. When US-Russia relations are at the lowest levels since the end of the Cold War, Washington consider the Indian reproach an opportunity to further weaken Russia on a global scale both economically and militarily. The US, as India, are looking at the growing relations between Russia and China as a real danger for geopolitical equilibrium in Asia, and are therefore considering ways to contain the repercussions. However, is on this point that the US and India may found themselves again apart.
India has always been proud of its independent military policy and strategic role and, although fostered relation with the Soviets in the past, never abandoned its neutralist policy. As France within the US allies, India does not want to be in a subordinate position, consider the rapprochement a necessary cooperation for a common goal but not as an umbrella to shade under and accept military diktats. This explain why India although seek US diplomatic and military support against China and Pakistan, on the other still value Moscow friendship. India’s pragmatic policy is to counter immediate and direct threats and avoid being pushed into the new worldwide tension between Russian and US which resembles of the Cold War times. In a word India still considers itself non-aligned.
India and US are part of a new diplomatic and geopolitical strategy under way in the 21st century. India is a rising regional power and likely to be a serious candidate for superpower, exactly like China. But whilst India design is based on traditional security concerns over Kashmir-Pakistan-islamist insurgency and the Chinese stability threat, the US have a broader strategic plan involving China on a global scale as well as Russia. India has also not changed the policy of non-alignment, seen as a proud independent way forward for an Indian role, while the US although looking for new partnership are generally cold regarding military cooperation on same level. The new partnership is therefore strong on convergent auspices and prospects, but may end breaking up if especially the US do not take into full account India’s immediate necessities and understanding their international strategy.
The question of succession emerged following inevitable natural courses and political necessities of the ruling party. Mugabe is now 90 and is very unlikely that due to health problems will be able to maintain power at the next presidential elections in 2018. On the other, the possible scenario of a sudden incapacity of Mugabe to govern without a succession plan in place evoked the fear of a possible collapse of the regime.
Therefore, when Zanu-PF started the long debate exploring the options available, the battle for power was restricted to the representatives of the two dominant factions within party: Joice Mujuru and Emmerson Mnangagwa. The first is a popular figure who identifies as a moderate; the second is a hard-liner with powerful links to the military and security establishment.
Zimbabweans, and international analysts, were already debating on the two political figures when a sudden and dramatic change in Zanu-PF delicate balance came out in the open. The sacking of Mujuru and the rise of Mugabe’s wife within the party ranks have reset the political system and speculations are rising on the real significance of Mugabe’s strategy.
Grace Mugabe: Mujuru’s destroyer-Mnangagwa ally?
On 09th December 2014 President Mugabe officially sacked Zanu-PF Vice President Joice Mujuru after accusing her of corruption and plotting to kill him. He also dismissed seven government ministers in connection with the alleged plot including State Security Minister Didymus Mutasa (another long-time ally of Mugabe) and Energy Minister Dzikamai Mavhaire, who was seen as close to Mujuru.
Vice President Mujuru represented a wing of the party that is wary of the years of economic and political stagnation in the country and within the party. They favor a moderate approach with the opposition and have strong support among the unprivileged members of ZANU-PF. This bloc advocates an open-market and reviving relations with the international community, including Western powers. When in December 2013 Mujuru won the party’s provincial elections, she was tipped as one of the likely successors. The obstacles were identified in the unstable party allegiances, concerns over widespread corruption, and her heterogeneous front that lacked ideological cohesion as well as support in key state institutions such police, army and judiciary — the main foundations of Mugabe’s longstanding power. But even before that Mujuru has been destroyed by the rising to power of Mugabe’s wife, Grace.
Grace Mugabe, using the mighty power of state propaganda, conducted a campaign against her for months at public rallies, telling the vice-president to resign or apologise. She openly accused her opponent while state media made sensational claims of senior government officials going abroad scouting for a hit man to assassinate Mugabe. Mrs Mugabe in October openly refused to shake Mrs Mujuru’s hand at an official ceremony and at rallies openly said that the vice-president should be sacked from government because she was described as “corrupt, an extortionist, incompetent, a gossiper, a liar, ungrateful, power-hungry, daft, foolish, divisive and a disgrace”, accusing her of collaborating with opposition forces and neo-colonialists to undermine the country’s independence.
Mrs Mujuru tried to defend herself confirming her loyalty to Mugabe and describing the accusations as “repugnant” and “ridiculous”. She accused state media of publishing lies as part of a plot to destroy Zanu-PF. Her options are now limited: staying in the party will lead to an obscure, isolated and discredited figure but leaving could be far more dangerous especially if she joins the opposition. The intelligence services are known to keep files of “dirt” for use against those who defect.
Grace Mugabe, 49, once her husband’s secretary, is now a senior party figure, having been appointed leader of Women Zanu-PF and speculation is building that she may seek to succeed Mr Mugabe when he retires or dies. Grace Mugabe has grown into a powerful businesswoman and sees herself as a philanthropist, founding an orphanage on a farm just outside the capital, Harare, with the help of Chinese funding. She is described as tenacious and ambitious with her fans applauding her style and forthright nature, while her detractors have nicknamed her “Gucci Grace” and “DisGrace” because of her alleged appetite for extravagant shopping. Along with her husband, is subject to EU and US sanctions, including travel bans. She is usually modest and reserved in interviews but her recent political career also shown a sharp and direct approach to adversaries. She is very popular within Zanu-PF youth league mainly for her stand against corruption and charitable work but senior leaders see her approach as ruthless, a danger to party unity, politically naïve, materialistic and distant from her husband more ideological background. Her spectacular rise generated speculation of becoming a potential successor, an ambition she has not declined although indirectly supported the other candidate, Justice Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa, by spending generous words and describing him as “loyal and disciplined”.
Mnangagwa, a powerful, feared and questionable figure, presides over the so-called “hard-liners” or “old guard” that have played a strong and dominant role in Zimbabwe’s history. Mugabe’s long reign of power would not have been ensured without the support from this formidable repression apparatus that is seeking to maintain its privileges. Although Mnangagwa does not have support from the party’s base level, he has established strong ties with the intelligence and military. His role has grown along the years and strengthened by Mugabe’s strategy of putting the military and security sector in command. But can Grace comments be interpreted as a further acknowledgement of his chances to become Mugabe’s heir or are part of a wider plan?
What is Mugabe’s strategy?
Different theories have been put forward to explain Grace’s role and Mugabe’s actual goals. The first theory is that Mrs Mugabe has no chance of becoming president, and has been used by Mnangagwa’s faction to stop Joyce Mujuru group. The second theory is that President Mugabe is promoting his wife primarily in order to keep all the Zanu-PF factions under his control and a third that see Mrs Mugabe as a real presidential candidate due to her husband endorsement.
All theories have some truths but probably the most correct is that they are all part of Mugabe’s strategy, one of his famous tricks and political games. Mugabe does not trust anyone except himself and his actions in these months can find roots in the party’s orthodoxy and practices similar to those adopted in the Great Purge in USSR where fabrication of accusations, plots and purges helped destroying political opponents. But if Mugabe is not Stalin in proceeding further with the physical annihilation of the opponents, nevertheless he achieves the same results. Mujuru’s political views and openness towards dialogue with the opposition and international powers, has been seen as a major danger for the party élite and its privileges. Mujuru’s camp has been deemed as “expendable” to preserve power and Mugabe’s position which could have been under question in a more liberal regime. Mugabe at the same time cannot directly appease Mnangagwa as whilst he could ensure continuity of power and keep foreign powers and opposition parties at bay, on the other could become too strong and plunge Zimbabwe into a military dictatorship.
Mugabe therefore resorted once gain to his preferred policy of divide et impera by taking control over the succession process and weakening the potential candidates. Grace served the purpose at the right time by attacking Mujuru without Mugabe’s direct involvement and propelling into politics a figure that can attract some sectors of the civil society. Her charitable work appeals to the same people from whom Mujuru found support and she is also unquestionable from hardliners due to her relationship with Mugabe. Recovering the grassroots within the party and isolating the Mujuru’s “deviationists” will strengthen the party élite and at the same time preserve Mugabe’s circle of power. But Mugabe’s tactic also weakens Mnangagwa’s old guard introducing a familiar figure legitimated by a powerful investiture that the hardliners cannot just ignore. The strategy is to keep the party under his feet, unbalanced and where factions are not able to prevail on the other without his consent. Mugabe is in a way building a safety net where a Zimbabwe under Grace Mugabe could be internationally acceptable rather than a Zimbabwe bordering military dictatorship, but at the same time by keeping the old guard in charge of security and stability. This can also open to a theory in which Mugabe uses both for the same purposes, by adopting a Korean model. Creating a “Zimbabwean Kim dynasty” he can ensure continuity of power and privileges for himself and his circle of power and on the other by protecting the military first policy can still count on Mnangagwa’s faction as the tutor of order.
Whether these theories are right or wrong would be only a matter of time to find out, but it is certain that this could be the last attempt of Mugabe to shape Zimbabwe’s future under his own desires and a mistake in his calculation can have disastrous effects for the entire country.
World leaders have welcomed the historic deal reached between Cuba and US on easing their diplomatic tensions and restrictions as a concerted aim to reverse 50 years of hostility.While the agreement is seen as the major achievement in the diplomatic relations between the two countries it leaves nonetheless a long road ahead to normalise completely the relations and inevitably raise the major question on the embargo’s fate.
US-Cuban relations are frozen since early sixties, becoming the best synonym of Cold War antagonism: US failed attempt at the Bay of Pigs, the near nuclear holocaust in the missile crisis, a long list of failed attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro, Cuban military actions in Africa, support for Latin American guerrillas, the infamous embargo to strangle the regime and its people.
The two presidents, Barak Obama for US and Raul Castro for Cuba, in a contemporary TV speech announced the end of travel restrictions and efforts to re-establish diplomatic relations following more than a year of secret talks in Canada and at the Vatican, directly involving Pope Francis. The Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, whose country never broke off ties with Cuba, welcomed what he called an “overdue development”. Pope Francis joined leaders from Latin America and Europe in praising the historic deal.
As part of the deal, US contractor Alan Gross, 65, was released from Cuban prison in return for three Cubans held in the US. President Obama also said the US was looking to open an embassy in Havana in the coming months. In exchange for Alan Gross, who was in poor health, and an unnamed American intelligence officer, Washington released three members of the so-called “Cuban Five” who were serving lengthy sentences for espionage.
In addition, it has also been agreed that the amount of money, which can be sent in remittances, will quadruple from $500 (£320) to $2,000 per quarter. Telecom providers will be allowed to improve Cuba’s infrastructure so that more Cubans can access the internet. Cubans will also be able to import construction materials to build private homes, a move aimed at easing the severe shortage of suitable homes on the island. Travel restrictions to Cuba will be relaxed, making family visits and cross-border humanitarian projects easier.
Reactions: same old, same old
The reactions around the world welcomed in large part the agreement and mark even more, if there any need, the total distance from reality of those opposing the deal.
The European Union, which is in the process of normalising ties with Cuba, described the move as a “historical turning point”. All Latin American countries hailed the announcements as a historic day for the entire subcontinent. Chilean Foreign Minister Heraldo Munoz hailed it as “the beginning of the end of the Cold War in the Americas”. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, whose predecessor Hugo Chavez was a close ally of Fidel Castro, said it was a “moral victory” and “victory for Fidel”.
Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said increased US engagement in Cuba in the future should “encourage real and lasting reforms for the Cuban people and the other nations of the Americas should join us in this effort”.
However, not everyone applauded the move, with dozens of Cubans living in exile in the US state of Florida protesting after the announcement on Wednesday. Mainly they see this as a betrayal, a unilateral concession to Castro’s regime and accuse Obama of being a traitor. Hardliners within the Republican Party, like Senator Marco Rubio, slammed the deal as “inexplicable”, adding that it did nothing to address the issues of Cuba’s political system and human rights record.
The important community of Cuban bloggers welcomed in large measure the deal, seeing in this a great opportunity for a growth of Cuban civil society and a step forward for political progress.
However, the power to lift the embargo stay within the US congress, dominated by Republicans, and although even the media are calling for a lifting, signalled a shift among US opinion makers for a softening of the US stance on Cuba, it is clear that a long and difficult battle awaits Barak Obama. He is likely to face stiff opposition from representatives from Florida, where many Cuban exiles who fled Castro’s Cuba settled. Florida Senator Marco Rubio promised on CNN to block the nomination of any US ambassador to Cuba and other anti-Castro legislators suggested Congress would remove funding for any normalised ties with the country. However, if it is true that this anti-Castrist block is still powerful and may have also ears in Washington, on the other it would be erroneous thinking to it as a monolithic group. To many analysts, Obama’s move cannot have happened without an assessment on the real positions on the matter within and beyond the Democratic Party, suggesting that President Obama has considerable support in Congress. Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin America programme at the Wilson Center, says that there are many Republicans who are not resisting this or are neutral. In addition, it was highlighted the fact that the plane that brought Alan Gross back to the US had three members of Congress on board, including Republican Jeff Flake, from Arizona.
But if these were the reactions, mostly expected and understandable, is the the speculation on what it led to this historic rapprochement, what reasons and political calculation is behind the two presidents’ agreement.
US and Cuba Isolation is the Key to the Change
When In December 2013, at Nelson Mandela’s funerals, US President Barack Obama and Raul Castro shake hands in the first such public gesture since 1959, many analysts saw that as something more than a simply diplomatic good etiquette. During the following months, speculation on talks, pressure on embargo lifting in the US and EU media and the question surrounding Alan Gross’ deteriorating health have contributed to further the claims that something was going on between Cuba and US.
The reasons behind the agreement cannot be explained under a simplistic Cold War historic paradigm, instead there are political, economical, strategic and propagandist reasons more suitable to sustain the argument.
For both Cuba and US, the issue of prisoners started to assume a central focus in the dialogue: Alan Gross and his possible death while in detention and the unpopular arrest of the Cuban five where two major embarrassment for both presidents. The deteriorating health of Alan Gross has been behind the rapid overture as his death in a Cuban jail would have been an almost insurmountable obstacle for any possible negotiation. On the other side, this was also the opportunity for Cuba to close the issue surrounding the Cuban five and obtain the release. In few words, both countries had more to lose than to gain in leaving unchanged their positions.
Nevertheless, if this is true that the hostages exchange was the first point of contact and the first reason of starting negotiations, what made these talks evolve into a diplomatic breakthrough is something else.
US: A necessary deal, a potential Trojan horse
President Obama on his TV speech said the “rigid and outdated policy” of isolating Cuba had clearly failed and that it was time for a new approach. He defended the US policy as justified at the time but counterproductive on the long term, failing to achieve the supposed target. The reasoning under a Cold War paradigm, that Cuban communism could infect US or spill to other countries in not believable anymore and died 24 years ago. Recent political development in Latin America have nothing to do with Cuba or its revolution, the “turn to left”, more or less radical, has been obtained through the legal democratic electoral process and not with an armed revolution. Even considering the Zapatista’s Chiapas, the only real recent uprising under a guerrilla strategy, its results created more uneasiness in the Mexican government rather than in the US.
US and Obama’s administration had other reasons for this change: political (Latin America rapprochement, worldview of US role, electoral strategy), economic (review on embargo’s effects, growing competition), strategic (set a foot back in Latin America, counterbalance of powers, change of regime policy).
Obama’s administration had to revert its policy on Latin America that became synonym of disinterest and distrust. The turn to the left of several countries, the open opposition of Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia, the ambiguities of the Plan Colombia, their silence on the Falklands/Malvinas have further isolated and weakened the US. By reaching an agreement on Cuba, the US can start not only a dialogue with Raul Castro but also with the leftist governments of the subcontinent, change its image from a country opposed to independent political will to a country now ready to sat at a table and negotiate at the same level.
The Cuba’s agreement is also a necessary condition to change on the world scenario what is perceived as a “double standard” or hypocrite figure: promoting democracy where is convenient and blocking it where US interests are at stake. Including Cuba on the states sponsoring terror while keeping an eye shut on the repression in Egypt post Mubarak, appeasing the brutal military intervention, is a major embarrassment for example. The US have no problem in discussing with China and have normal relations, although their poor score on human rights, or recently the re-approaching with Iran in anti ISIS efforts just show how unbalanced and discredited is their policy: hailed in the Western allied government, despised by all the developing countries.
Finally, there is a purely internal political dimension. While Obama will not stand for the next presidential election, and seen the recent humiliating defeat in the Congress dominated by Republicans, the Democrats will have to find a good strategy to recover. CIA scandals, accuses of racism within police forces are used by Republicans to distance the minority groups from their usual electoral recipient. This deal, if on a side may anger Florida’s Cuban community, on the other it is also true that the Latino community as a whole welcome the move and may have effects on electoral polls.
Considering President Obama own strategy, he has been accused from all fronts in this second term: Republicans attack him for being too soft against Russia, Syria, Iran and North Korea, many Americans for being unable to sort arms controls, speed up reforms, control of terrorism and lately racism on police forces. This deal inevitably put a new light on his administration, as being the first American president to actually do something real for addressing this remnant of Cold War history. He may not be able to lift the embargo straight away but by opening the debate inevitably put the responsibility of the failure on the opposition and on the Cuban Government. If successful, he will make history and the Democrats will surely benefit.
On the economic sphere, the approach is to review in the long term the relations with Cuba aiming at end of the embargo. Its continuation is not only a heresy for trade market and capitalistic system on which the US is found, but it is also a loss of investments in an island that could offer the US incredible revenues. The risk of isolating itself is to give to competitors an advantage that will be impossible to recover when the embargo will be lifted. In addition, while the US cannot trade, others are already doing it or plan to do, with the risk also to have at the doorstep powers that are certainly not US friendly such China and worst of all Russia. Dialogue and embargo lifting will also undermine the role of regional powers like Venezuela that is the major partner and economic supporter of Cuba.
This inevitably opens the strategic scenario. The US 21st century policy is inevitably looking at the Pacific to contain the rising of China’s military might, but in the immediate Russia is the major obstacle and Cuba could be seen as dangerously needed by Moscow to thwart US interests. The strategy could be this time to pull Cuba on US side by reaching a deal and avoid pushing it towards Russia. By setting a friendlier relation with Cuba and assuring a sort of barrier against possible enemies, will allow Washington to reset its Latin American relations and damage the radical block represented by Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. This is the reason why Cubans and all other traditional US antagonists while welcoming deal, on the other are also conscious that the “change of regime policy” may be hidden somewhere. The Cuban regime therefore will surely continue to keep an eye on the communication agreement to avoid that this will be a Trojan horse to fuelling unrest.
Cuba: an unexpected diplomatic window to keep open with prudence
President Raul Castro gave his speech at the same time as President Obama announcing to Cubans this historic deal. He delivered his speech in a sober manner, with none of the triumphalist notes one could have expected on the day when a US president announced a major shift in relations with the “Communist-monster”. He mentioned his brother Fidel Castro a number of times, implying not only that the talks had been given the approval of the leader but also as confirmation that the Lider Maximo has been part of it indirectly.
However, Cuba like the US is also at a crossroad. Politically Cuba has to break the isolation and any US pretext for further sanctions or worst a change of regime. The recent changes in the Latin American political scenario have strengthened Cuba’s position, with all countries more or less in favour for an end of the embargo. Politically, as said the hostages issue has surely helped Cuba in negotiating with the US, but as per Obama political calculation in Havana is not a coincidence. Castro knows perfectly that a probable next republican government will not only block any Cuban effort to rediscuss the embargo but also its hostility can even mean a direct attempt for a change of regime. The time is also right for Raul Castro to change his image from being simply Fidel’s brother and achieve a status of his own, a real president, that exact like Obama has for many been subject of critics.
Exactly as per the US, in reality many of the reasons that may explain the willingness of Cuba to discuss are also strategic. Venezuela, due to falling oil prices is in economic decline, its support is not as strong as it used to be and without this source the already fragile Cuban economy will surely reach the bottom. In addition, Venezuela itself is subject of US sanctions and desire for a change of regime, which Cuba consider to be only a matter of time before the US will turn to Cuba again. Nevertheless, the paradox is that exactly the US double standard policy combined to the counterproductive stance with Russia has in reality opened a diplomatic space for Cuba to move. Russia is an immediate and present danger for US policy in the world, and Cuba may be seen as an attractive tool in Moscow for the tit-for-tat Cold War policy style: if the US are playing near the Russian border, so can do Russia with Venezuela and Cuba. But Cuba is probably also playing its cards in avoiding to get embroiled into the renewed US-Russia competition, and instead using this as an opportunity to obtain the maximum from both. A sort of neutrality which will be very welcome in Washington. Strategically speaking, on the embargo matter, the US are isolated in keeping a non sense blockade generating suffering on people, while from UN to EU, from Latin America to Pope Francis the calls are increasing for the end of this historical failure.
The US-Cuban deal is a start of a long road to close 50 years of distrust, hatred and isolation. While the short term goal is for both to dialogue and reopen a communication channel, on the long term is the embargo issue that may be the real challenge. No negotiation will be successful without addressing the embargo lifting and promoting a free Cuban trade, but on the other both countries are required to make further steps by abandoning the Cold War mindset and not using this renewed opportunity to unbalance the adversary. Unfortunately, recent political developments give less hope that powers will act sensibly or a far from echoes of world dominance and control. The embargo could be difficult to end and may be thicker than the Berlin Wall, but keeping it alive will make this world less safe and a dangerous weapon to revert to a division that was thought to have been relegated to history books a quarter of a century ago.
Latin America’s turmoil, political crisis, and unrest have found the best example in the never-ending Colombian conflict. While the rest of the subcontinent assisted in recent years to economic growth, political change and to a positive future outlook, on the other Colombia still struggle to achieve stability, security for its population and the end of the civil conflict that is now on for 50 years.
Recently Colombia returned to the main news following the kidnapping of an army general by the Farc, then released after government negotiations. Nevertheless, this reopens the debate on the conflict and on the effectiveness of the latest peace plan launched in La Havana in 2012.
Colombia, in common with other Latin American nations, experienced a revolutionary movement fuelled by the inequality, segregation and poverty that ravaged these societies especially in the fifties and sixties. Following the Cuban revolution and the rise of Marxist movements across the continent, in 1964 a group of Marxist revolutionaries including Manuel Marulanda founded the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia Farc, followed by the Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional, ELN.
These movements for decades fought under the common framework of a socialist revolution within the traditional guerrilla’s praxis, obtaining control of vast areas of the country, and even establishing popular support. Nevertheless, especially in the 80’s and 90’s, when the revolutionary furore declined and popular support decrease, the conflict started to change from a traditional Marxist revolutionary struggle against the state into a war where soon other protagonists joined: drug cartels, paramilitaries and other criminal gangs.
In a country where the presence of the state has always been weak, the result has been a war on multiple fronts, with the civilian population caught in the crossfire and often deliberately targeted for collaborating with one side or the other. Human rights advocates blamed paramilitaries for massacres, disappearances, cases of torture and forced displacement while rebel groups are behind assassinations, kidnapping and extortion. The governments have not always acted in a clear and legal way, often been colluded with paramilitary groups and repressing civil organisations.
Some attempts to reach a solution have been made along the years, although have all failed for various reasons. The only successful precedent was the M-19 guerrilla’s demobilisation in March 1990 under President Virgilio Barco. Despite the assassination of its presidential candidate, Carlos Pizarro, in April that year, the M-19 party came third in the presidential elections and many former M-19 rebels also helped to draft the current constitution. In 2011, former M-19 member, Gustavo Petro, was elected mayor of the Colombian capital, Bogota, considered the country’s second most important elected post.
Different story is for the peace talks; the first agreed ceasefire was signed by the government of Belisario Betancourt and Farc in 1984, but collapsed two years later when 22 rebels are killed by the military and the rebels retaliate with an ambush on soldiers. Another attempt was made in 1991 with peace talks held in neighbouring Venezuela and later moved to Tlaxcala, Mexico, where they failed in 1992. Between 1992-1998 Farc are at their strongest in numbers, area occupied and military capability when they kidnap about 200 members of the police and military. This paved the way for the third peace accord attempt made in 1998 by the government of Andres Pastrana, which agreed to grant the rebels a safe haven the size of Switzerland. This has been widely regarded by many analysts as a serious mistake: by 2002 Farc rebels have been able to reorganise and use the safe haven to import arms, export drugs and build up its military strength. The talks came to an abrupt end after the rebels hijacked a plane in February 2002 and kidnapped Senator Jorge Gechem. Three days later, the rebels also seized presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt. The peace process was widely seen as a complete failure and led many Colombians to believe that no dialogue was possible with the rebels.
However, successful was at least the demobilisation of the right-wing paramilitaries, with roots in vigilante groups set up decades ago by landowners for protection against rebels. The main group was the AUC ,Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, which officially has demobilised in 2003, leading to at least 31,000 paramilitaries handing in their weapons under a peace deal. Nevertheless, that plan opened a scar that it is ultimately becoming the main point of attrition in the recent talks between government, rebels and the public opinion. In 2005, a controversial law was passed that made paramilitary fighters eligible for reduced jail terms, of no more than eight years, if they gave details of their involvement in torture, killings and other crimes. Critics argued that paramilitaries guilty of serious human rights violations could end up serving only reduced jail terms. This opened up a series of accusation of complicity between government and paramilitaries to divert the plan and favour a lenient approach. Eventually, the extent of the paramilitaries’ influence over local, regional and national politics came to the light in 2007 in a scandal dubbed the “parapoliticos”, where members of congress were jailed and dozens more politicians investigated for links to the AUC.
In this high and lows of previous attempts, signs of a change start to appear that led inevitably to the recent talks. The rebels started to lose power and, although Farc is still Colombia’s largest guerrilla group and one of the world’s richest rebel movements, according to the Colombian military there are now some 8,000 fighters, down from 16,000 in 2001. The rebels, who a decade ago controlled nearly a third of Colombian territory, now mostly operate in remote rural areas or through hit-and-run attacks. Several Farc commanders have been killed or captured in the last few years: in 2008 senior rebel leader Raul Reyes is killed in a bombing raid and Farc founder Manuel Marulanda dies of natural causes. Nevertheless, the rebels are by no means defeated and have demonstrated great capacity to adapt. The second largest rebel group, ELN, has also saw its numbers almost halved in the last 10 years, announcing that it is willing to enter into peace talks shortly after the negotiations between the government and the Farc began. The government itself, lead now by Santos consider the solely military option as unviable and counterproductive.
Sources from the Unit for Attention and Reparation of Victims of the Colombian government estimates that 50 years of conflict have killed at least 220,000, more than five million are internally displaced, 6.2 million registered as victims.
The Peace Talks: Could This be the Right Time?
The past failures inevitably favoured the hard liners within the government who found a voice in the former President Alvaro Uribe, in office from 2006 to 2010. Uribe pursued a hard-line stance against left-wing guerrillas while making tentative of peace overtures. This period saw military action against the rebels as a pre-condition to force them to the table of negotiations. Nevertheless, even this strategy did not work out and his successor, Juan Manuel Santos, took office in 2010 vowing to seek an end to the conflict. In October 2012, the government and the biggest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), launched peace talks.
President Juan Manuel Santos confirmed that initial informal discussions with the Farc started shortly after he took office in August 2010 and then developed into direct exploratory talks with the rebels’ representatives in the Cuban capital, Havana, in February 2012. These discussions concluded with the signing of an agreement that set out a six-point agenda for the formal negotiations which were launched in Oslo in October 2012 and began in Havana the following month.
President Santos made it clear from the beginning that military operations against the Farc will continue until a final deal has been reached, marking a difference with previous peace processes where ceasefire and safe haven were agreed, which many believe were used by the rebels mainly to regroup and strengthen. At the same time, the decision to continue with the military operations has also tested the Farc’s real intention to negotiate and reach a deal. The rebels’ decision to continue contacts even after government forces killed Alfonso Cano, the rebel leader who started the negotiations, in November 2011, has been presented as proof of their willingness to secure a deal. In addition, Farc announced that they would stop their policy of kidnapping people in order to show goodwill although after the recent seizing of an army general in November 2014 they clarified that that policy applied only to civilians. Farc also continued its attacks on military targets, seen as a measured response for government stance against a ceasefire.
The agenda approved in the negotiations covers six issues:
- Land reform
- Political participation of rebels
- Drug trafficking
- Rights of victims
- Disarmament of the rebels
- The implementation of the peace deal.
Scepticism, political hijacking, memories of failure and real hopes
Currently the real significance and effects of this plan is under discussion and subject to different interpretations. Negotiators in the Cuban capital have reached agreements on agrarian reform, political participation for Farc and how to jointly fight the illegal drug trade. The land reform, which they said would result in a radical transformation of rural Colombia, provides for the creation of a land bank to reallocate land, especially that which was seized illegally during the decades of conflict.
In November 2013, the two sides agreed on a political future for the rebels, should a peace deal be reached. This included guarantees, conditions and support for the creation of new political parties, a sort of revival of the M-19 plan.
In May 2014, the two sides agreed on a plan to deal with the illegal drug trade. The Farc, which controls large patches of rural Colombia, is believed to be partly funded by money generated by the illegal drug trade.
In June 2014, Farc and government negotiators in Havana announced they would set up a truth commission to investigate the deaths and human rights violations during five decades of conflict. This follows decades of legal battles by relatives of kidnapped Colombian soldiers demanding justice for them.
Although the pace has not been as fast as declared, many regard this plan as more realistic if compared to past attempts. At least 4 out of 6 points of the agenda has seen an agreement, never in the past talks have gone such distance and Farc for the first time is not advancing requests for a radical transformation of Colombia’s political and economic structure. Numerous opinion polls in recent months have suggested that a large majority back dialogue hoping to see an end of the conflict, but just over half say they are optimistic about the outcome mainly due to previous negative experiences and recent developments.
Detractors argue that the negotiators have left the most difficult issues at last, namely how Farc will lay down its arms and whether commanders will face prosecution for atrocities. Thousands of people have joined protests in Colombia against a possible amnesty for Farc rebels as part of a peace process. As it happened during the AUC demobilisation, common Colombians and relatives of victims fear that a lenient process will undermine the quest for justice leaving open scars that inevitably could resurface even if a peace is achieved. In addition, the issue is also exploited for political gains by different antagonists of President Santos. Many of the marchers were supporters of former President Alvaro Uribe, and the rallies in several cities across the country were organised by the Colombia Quiere movement backed by his Centro Democratic Party.
Uribe calls on the army to support the protests by fighting and defeating the guerrillas, saying that this is the only way to avoid the country being delivered to terrorism. Uribe and his allies have argued that the Farc should answer for killings, kidnapping and drug trafficking; they have also accused President Santos of overlooking rebel atrocities in order to drive through the peace process and gain electoral visibility.
Nevertheless, this request for army involvement is not only part of Uribe’s belief but also a response for what Colombians perceive as deteriorated security. While Colombians welcome the process that could lead ultimately to the demobilisation of rebels, on the other there is fear that the void of power will be filled by common criminals and drug cartels. One of the factor alimenting this opinion is the emergence of what the government calls Bacrims, namely criminal bands, which are involved in drug trafficking and extortion. These groups emerged after the demobilisation of the AUC paramilitaries in 2006. Although violent crime and kidnappings related to guerrillas and government have decreased in recent years, is the cocaine trade that has been the main motor of the recent violence and fear. The eastern border area has seen a growth in criminal gangs which smuggle subsidised goods and drugs between Venezuela to Colombia. The fear is that following a peace accord many rebels may join illegal activities or gangs may exploit the absence of the state institutions in ex guerrilla’s strongholds. On the other hand a peace accord, with the shift of resources away from battling the rebels and towards fighting common crime, could increase citizens’ safety. Particular importance, as part of the peace process, will assume the task on how to include ex fighters into the new life whether by joining military services or community groups, as to strengthen the democratic process. Criminal gangs often attack civic and community groups seen as a challenge to their authority.
Another point of concern is that even if the government signs a peace deal with the Farc, it will still have to deal with Colombia’s second largest rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN). President Santos made clear to ELN that he wanted to see actions rather than words and demanded the 3,000-strong rebel force to release the hostages it still holds, and stop its attacks on civilians and the security forces before the government would engage in negotiations. On 28 August 2013, a day after the rebels released a Canadian mining executive they had held hostage, President Santos announced to be ready to talk to the guerrilla group as soon as possible. In June 2014, the government and the ELN announced in a joint statement that they had been holding exploratory peace talks since January and had agreed on some points of an agenda to discuss in formal talks.
Effects on the economy
President Santos has predicted that peace will add at least 2% annually to the already booming economic growth. While Colombia’s economy has been growing at a rate of about 4% in the past decade, analysts say that growth could have been doubled if it had not been for the armed conflict.
But Colombia, as per other Latin American economies, has still unresolved issues. Unemployment continues to be a major problem, which in 2011 was the highest in the whole of Latin America. Although the government announced last May that the unemployment rate had dropped to its lowest level in 14 years, at 8.8% it remains almost double that of neighbouring Ecuador. According to 2012 World Bank figures, Colombia is the seventh most unequal country in the world, with inequality levels similar to those found in Haiti and Angola. In addition there will be the cost of reconstruction which the peace commission in the Colombian senate recently put at $45bn (£28bn) over the next decade. Major investments are needed in areas such as land distribution, infrastructure and industry, as well as in local government and agriculture, if peace was to be achieved in areas which for a long time have been neglected by the state. In addition, while poverty levels have dropped from 47.7% in 2003 to 32.7% in 2012, income inequality, which fuels social tension, has remained virtually unchanged. The countryside has suffered most from the presence of the guerrilla, with a lack of investment in infrastructure and education, with poverty levels well above 50% according to Colombia’s national statistics office.
However, the peace agreement could start reverting this deficit and redirect resources in rebuilding the economy which will benefit from investments and renewed confidence in the market once stability has been achieved. A peace accord would create a context for sectors of Colombian society who still view each other with distrust, such as unions, businesses, and the security forces, to start working together. A peace deal would also allow more space for leftist social movements too often stigmatised as guerrilla supporters and to express their concerns about the key problems affecting Colombian society. The possible transformation of rebels groups into political parties could not only offer an alternative to address social problems in Colombia but also may see Colombia joining the “turn to the left” and the socialist revival that has been successful in recent years in other countries without resorting to arms.
The International Scenario
Colombia civil war and its effect, finally, cannot be considered only as an internal matter. The effects and the possible consequences will have undoubtedly repercussions in other Latin American countries and beyond. The guerrillas role and the government military actions backed by the US has created tensions with neighbouring Ecuador and Venezuela, that consider the Plan Colombia sponsored by Washington an attempt to militarise the subcontinent and cover actions aimed at destabilize these countries. While the common Marxist and socialist ideology my explain the support that Farc and ELN have received by the leftist government of Ecuador and the Bolivarian revolution, especially during Chavez presidency, it is mainly the US paranoia with this experiments spreading to other countries that led to consider a support to Colombia not only as a purely matter against drug trafficking.
The US played an ambiguous role on the subject. It is true that more than 90% of all cocaine on American streets comes from Colombia directly or indirectly, and the US administration was keen to tackle the supply at source. Since 2000, Washington has spent several billion dollars on training and equipping Colombian forces, and providing intelligence to help tackle drug traffickers and eliminate coca crops. But Human rights groups, rebels and civil organisations say the Plan Colombia in reality was a disguise to assist Uribe in his military campaign against rebels whilst not taking care of paramilitaries or disbanded group trafficking in drugs. Actions by Colombian army has led to border tensions culminated on several occasion to a near declaration of war especially with Venezuela, accused by Bogota to support and funding the rebels, while Chavez accused the government of staging actions aimed with US support to destabilize the Venezuelan government. The fact that drug trafficking is assuming an international dimension is also testified by the effect on Mexico that is struggling to contain the drug cartels. For many analysts there is a link between the rise of Mexican cartels and the deteriorated security in Colombian areas known to be the haven of trafficking.
The peace plan if it will work out will need to address not only how to decommission Farc and Eln but also to make sure that their areas of operation will not fall under the control of local criminal gangs, drug cartels or foreign criminal organisation. The Plan Colombia under this danger may assume a total different significance as all the parties involved will benefit by tackling the issue at source. The only problem will be to ensure that strategic and geopolitical calculations will not interfere within this framework and it is just on this where the leftist governments of South America have more than one concern looking at recent developments.
The recent anniversary for the fall of Berlin Wall, united with the increased tensions between Unites States and Russia have brought to attention the Cold War in both the memory of what it used to be and what it can be in the near future. If the official Cold War ended from the wall disappearance, it is also true that not everything was confined to the past and some remnants of that era survived and maybe could be at the centre of a renewed version of that tension. If the Warsaw Pact was dismantled thus paving the way and hopes (soon disillusioned) of a more peaceful world, on the other NATO did not cease to exist continuing in its controversial role as a western military umbrella. But it is another heredity of the Cold War years that is increasingly generating attention and discomfort in the West and even in the US: the Cuban embargo.
Since the collapsed of the Soviet Union, the Cuban embargo, which limits American businesses from conducting business with Cuban interests, is still in effect and is the most enduring trade embargo in modern history.
El Bloqueo: Origin and Consequences
The United States embargo against Cuba, known also as el bloqueo, is a commercial, economic, and financial embargo imposed on Cuba on 19 October 1960. Currently, the Cuban embargo is enforced mainly with six statutes: the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917, the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, the Cuba Assets Control Regulations of 1963, the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992, the Helms–Burton Act of 1996, and the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000.
All these acts introduced further restrictions to the existing embargo of which the most important are:
- The Cuban Democracy Act, signed into law in 1992, with the stated purpose of maintaining sanctions on Cuba so long as the Cuban government refuses to move toward “democratization and greater respect for human rights”.
- The Helms–Burton Act, passed by Congress in 1996, which further restricted US citizens from doing business in or with Cuba, and mandated restrictions on giving public or private assistance to any successor government in Havana unless and until certain claims against the Cuban government are met.
Despite the nature of the embargo, the US blocked physically the island with a naval action only during the Missile Crisis on 1962. In fact the US does not block Cuba’s trade with third-party countries which are not under their jurisdiction. Nevertheless, many points at the fact that in an unbalanced alliance where the US are clearly the major market and a strong player and influencers, foreign countries that trade with Cuba could be penalised in which has been condemned as an “extraterritorial” measure that contravenes the sovereign equality of States, and freedom of trade. Cuba on the other end can, and does, conduct international trade with many third-party countries and it has been a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) since 1995.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates that the embargo costs the U.S. economy $1.2 billion per year in lost sales and exports, while the Cuban government estimates that the embargo costs the island itself $685 million annually. The self-proclaimed non-partisan Cuba Policy Foundation estimates that the embargo costs the U.S. economy $3.6 billion per year in economic output.
The embargo has been criticized for its effects on food, clean water, medicine, and other economic needs of the Cuban population. Criticism has come from the Cuban government, citizens and groups within Cuba, international organizations and leaders including Barack Obama. Some academic critics, outside Cuba, have also linked the embargo to shortages of medical supplies which have resulted in a series to epidemics of specific diseases, including neurological disorders and blindness caused by poor nutrition. George P. Shultz, who served as Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan, calls the continued embargo “insane”. Some American business leaders openly call for an end to the embargo as, they argue, as long as the embargo continues, US business cannot benefit from market restrictions especially against those countries that actually trade with Cuba. Some religious leaders oppose the embargo for a variety of reasons, including humanitarian and economic hardships that imposes on Cubans. In 2010 seventy-four of Cuba’s dissidents signed a letter to the United States Congress in support of a bill that would lift the U.S. travel ban for Americans wishing to visit Cuba. The signers include blogger Yoani Sanchez and hunger striker Guillermo Farinas, as well as Elizardo Sanchez, head of Cuba’s most prominent human rights group and Miriam Levi, who helped found the Damas de Blanco, or Ladies in White, a group of wives and mothers of jailed dissidents.
A 2008 USA Today/Gallup Poll indicated that Americans believe that diplomatic relations “should” be re-established with Cuba, 61% in favour, 31% opposed. In 2009, U.S. Polling indicates that the American public is currently in favor of ending the embargo, 51% against 36%. In January 2012, an Angus Reid Public Opinion poll showed 57% of Americans calling for the end of the travel ban that prevents most Americans from visiting Cuba, with only 27% disagreeing.
After taking office, the current US President Barack Obama outlined a series of steps that Cuba could take to demonstrate a willingness to open its society, including releasing political prisoners, allowing United States telecommunications companies to operate on the island and ending government fees on U.S. dollars sent by relatives in the United States. President Obama stated that, without improved human rights and freedoms by Cuba, the embargo remains, U.S.–Cuba relations stay frozen and Cuba also remains one of the four countries (Iran, Sudan, and Syria) in the world designated as a State Sponsor of Terrorism by the United States Department of State. Nevertheless, President Barack Obama also introduce some changes as easing the travel ban, allowing Cuban-Americans, students and religious missionaries to travel to Cuba if they meet certain restrictions. Beyond Cuba’s human rights violations and its “state sponsored terrorism” designation, the United States claims $6 billion against the Cuban government.
The Last brick of the Berlin Wall or the first brick of a new one?
Born as a reprisal for Cuba’s alignment with the Soviet Union, the embargo was defined also as a sort of cordon sanitaire against communism spreading to the rest of Latin America and as a warning to other countries. All NATO members observed the embargo quite strictly during the Cold War, but since its end its existence started to create uneasiness even in the US allies.
US still support the embargo even though the USSR collapsed in 1991, the Warsaw Pact has been dismantled and thus disappearing any sort of threat to US security. The idea of claiming that Cuba in itself could pose a threat to US stability is as unrealistic as unjustified, especially when compared to more aggressive countries such North Korea or Iran. Although it is true that Cuba maintained an efficient military apparatus, that proved to be quite strong during the Cold War, it is now clearly on a position to self defence and cannot be a match to the military might of Washington. Cuba does not interfere in other Latin American countries policies nor tries to overthrow any government. Nevertheless, Cuba was included by the Bush administration into the “axis of evil” that, even among US allies, generated perplexities and questions whether this was a farce.
One of the main reasons advocated by US for keeping the embargo is Cuba’s poor performance on freedom and democracy, although other countries that do not score better than Cuba, like China, have political and trading relations with the US. For many the embargo is a bitter revenge for daring an independent action and is judged also a sort of cowardly attack on a country clearly incapable to stand the challenge. On the other hand many questions that the same reasons that led to the Cuban embargo forty years ago are not dissimilar from the recent experiences in Venezuela or in Bolivia, therefore highlighting that the rules of the Cold War do not apply anymore.
Whilst President Obama and the Democratic Party are possibly open to a discussion if there is willingness in La Havana, the republicans on the other that count on the electoral support of Cuban dissident in Florida, are more cautious or even hostile to an end of the embargo. For these irreducible lifting the embargo would be considered a sign of weakness especially under the current international scenario.
The problem is that the risks associated with the status quo are probably more dangerous than the prospect of an end of the embargo.
On foreign policy the main risks associated could be the “hijack” of the Cuban issue for a new Cold War scenario, possibly now developing. Russia may find a renewed interest in supporting again Cuba to undermine US strategy. On the other side, fuelling the tensions and leaving the embargo in place could well be the pretext to keep it in place for the irreducible in Washington.
US will also face scepticism in their mission for world’s democratic change whilst blocking Cuba and still having relations with some countries that have questionable regimes, such in Middle East, China or Iran.
The main risk is therefore associated with a real prospect of isolation and allies leaders keeping distance. Washington could find itself isolated in maintaining a blockade that no one respects, undermining also the ability to fulfil the political targets on the international scenario. The UN General Assembly has, since 1992, passed a resolution every year condemning the ongoing impact of the embargo and declaring it to be in violation of the Charter of the United Nations and international law. Israel is the only country that routinely joins the U.S. in voting against the resolution as has Palau every year from 2004 to 2008. On October 26, 2010, for the 19th time, the General Assembly condemned the embargo, 187 to 2 with 3 abstentions. Israel sided with the U.S., while Marshall Islands, Palau and Micronesia abstained.
Human rights groups including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have also been critical of the embargo.
Under a financial and economical prospect, the blockade could facilitate the introduction of other competitors in a market closed to US businesses, putting them in a clear disadvantage once the blockade would be lifted. The US have lost a good side of business in all these decades and if at first the soviet motif was a powerful mantra to justify a clear economic loss, today, and with an increasing number of countries now trading with Cuba, is like a “shoot to own foot”. The risks associated with this blockade are also to push Cuba towards countries like China and even Russia that can find in the Caribbean an easy way to counterbalance US policies.
Another risk is associated to the possible meltdown of the Cuban regime. We have already witnessed regimes collapsing with consequent humanitarian and security disasters. Cuba for its vicinity to US borders could pose a grave risk to security in the event of a sudden collapse of institutions without a proper transition. The embargo could facilitate that collapse whilst an end could offer the Cuban leadership the possibility to open and prepare the reforms needed.
While Russia and United States fight on different terrain, only at word for the moment, that ranges from Middle East to Eastern Europe, and tensions are reaching the Pacific where the US are reshuffling their forces to counter Chinese growth, the risk of a new cold war is far from being impossible. The hope of an era of peace and coexistence has been destroyed after years of ethnic conflicts in the ex Yugoslavia, adventurous military actions to counter terrorism and the recent failed Arab spring dictated from western stereotypes that led to a decreasing security and the raising of Isis from the darkest depths of human brutality.
Of the remnants of the Cold War, the Cuban embargo still survives as a reminder of a dark era, nuclear annihilation and mistrust that today everyone is remembering but not realising that the wall is still in our minds and life, waiting to be erected and reinforced. The end of the embargo is not only the end of an unjust and historic failure but also the opportunity to destroy once and for all the last wall before another one will be built.