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Caribbean people have human rights too

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Last Saturday, December 10, the international community commemorated Human Rights Day, as decreed by the United Nations since 1948. As is customary on the occasion, various Human Rights bodies and sovereign states issued statements, lauding the principles underlying the day, and condemning those states considered to be in violation of the rights of their citizens. All well and good!{{more}}

Two days before this anniversary, an important Summit of leaders of Caribbean countries came to a successful conclusion in Port of Spain, the capital city of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. The CARICOM/CUBA Summit was the fourth of its kind, held to mark what is known as CARICOM/Cuba Day on December 8. The date is significant in that it marked the courageous action in 1972, of the then only independent CARICOM countries, Guyana, Barbados, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, under the leadership of Caribbean nationalists Forbes Burnham, Errol Barrow, Michael Manley and Eric Williams, to commence diplomatic relations with the Republic of Cuba.

Cuba at that time was a virtual pariah state in the western hemisphere, isolated as a result of a vicious embargo imposed on it by the government of the United States of America, with very few hemispheric nations brave enough to exercise their sovereign right to engage in any sort of relations with it. However, the bold step taken by those four states paved the way for expansion into other forms of cooperation and to the countries of the eastern Caribbean, Suriname and Belize, following suit after they too became independent countries and got over their fear complex.

The Port of Spain Summit was, however, scarred by a most unfortunate incident, very relevant to the exercise of the rights of Caribbean people to exercise their sovereignty. The Summit, attended by the Heads of State and Government of the CARICOM states and Cuban President Raul Castro, had been scheduled to take place at the Hilton Hotel. That hotel is owned by the people of Trinidad and Tobago and operates under the worldwide Hilton franchise. It was renovated in 2009 for the holding of the Summit of the Americas, from which Cuba was excluded. More than US$41 million of taxpayers’ money was used to refurbish the Hilton, so that US President Obama and his hemispheric colleagues could meet in peace and comfort.

However, right on the eve of the Summit, the operators of the Hilton franchise announced that the meeting could not be held at that venue because the Hilton, as a US-based company, is “subject to US law which restricts certain activities as a result of the US embargo (against Cuba)”. This embargo prohibits the provision of any services which “benefit the Cuban government”. So, it did not matter that the people of Trinidad and Tobago, through their Government, owned the hotel, or that Heads of Government of Caribbean nations who have excellent relations with the Government of the United States of America were meeting there, US law, no matter how unjust, must take precedence. Further, it was not just Hilton; our leaders could not meet at other American hotels such as the Hyatt or Marriot, which have the facilities to host large international gatherings. Fifteen leaders of the proud Caribbean people were being dictated to by US law, on their own soil, as to where they could meet.

I don’t know how on earth this could have been allowed to happen, but at least our leaders did not take this affront lying down. Forced to find an alternative venue, they issued a Communique on the conclusion of the Conference, which included a strong condemnation of the US action. More forcefully, a separate statement was made, specifically in reference to the incident which deserves to be quoted in part as follows:

“We, the heads of State and Government of Caricom and Cuba……are affronted by the intrusion of the United States against the sovereignty of Trinidad and Tobago. This is a unilateral and unwarranted extra-territorial application of the US Helms-Burton law which is contrary to the United Nations Charter and to international law. It also flies in the face of the overwhelming annual rejection of this policy by the UN General Assembly.

“We reject the intervention of the US authorities which prevented the hosting of the Caricom-Cuba Summit at the Hilton Hotel. This was one more demonstration of the injustice of the US embargo and its harmful impact on the daily life of the Cuban people….”

So, at least our leaders have stood as a united front on the matter. Those who preach loudest about “human rights”, have again demonstrated their hypocrisy; for if a sovereign Government cannot exercise its right to invite another into a building it owns, because of the dictates of another, more powerful government, does it not tell us that some people have more rights than others? That US domestic law is above international rights? This is blatant and naked interference, a new form of colonialism that we fought so hard to throw off our backs. It is all the more glaring coming on the eve of International Human Rights Day.

The region has been too quiet on this. The Statement of the Heads must be supported by us all. The various Opposition parties in the region need to give support, lest they give Washington the impression that if in power they would meekly accept such insults to our sovereignty as a region and people. We must never be afraid to tell our friends when they are stepping out of their bounds. Our multitude of civil society organisations need to speak out as well. We respect the people and leaders of the United States of America. Their government must respect us and our leaders as well. Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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