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Obama’s visit will benefit all

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Not even the tragedy of the criminal terrorist attacks in Brussels this week can take away from the significance of the courageous visit of US President Barack Obama to Cuba, which concluded on Tuesday. It is fitting that it is a black man, the first of his colour to occupy the inappropriately named White House, who has taken this bold step in bringing civility and normalcy to the more than half a century of hostility in relations between both countries.{{more}}

We in the Caribbean can at least take pride that we have been much in advance of our northern neighbour in terms of relations with Cuba. Forty-four years before the USA, under Obama’s leadership, decided to re-establish relations with Cuba, four Caribbean countries, Jamaica, Barbados, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago took the historic step and agreed to do so. The Caribbean political leadership of those countries, Michael Manley, Errol Barrow, Forbes Burnham and Eric Williams were of a very different ilk to many of their counterparts today.

It must be noted that the seventies were in the midst of the global cold war, with Cuba kicked out of the Organization of American States (OAS), and save for Canada, virtually isolated in this hemisphere. That alone underlines the significance of the decision by those CARICOM leaders in asserting independence in foreign policy. Though the smaller eastern Caribbean nations did not get political independence until almost a decade later, they were reluctant to even approach Cuba with the proverbial “10-foot pole”, preferring not to incur the supposed wrath of their powerful neighbour to the north.

The ordinary people of the Caribbean, at least many of them, were not so cowed. Caribbean intellectuals led the way in support for the Cuban Revolution. Early in the sixties, for instance, the forerunners of the famed ‘Bridge Boys’ mas band portrayed ‘Fidelistas’ for Vincy mas, and one of them, the late Dennis ‘Prick’ London, found ways to distribute the Cuban newspaper GRANMA, banned here until the 21st century, to young Vincentians eager for news about Cuba.

Forty years ago, before our country even became independent, this solidarity with the people of Cuba and their Revolution was manifested in the formation by a group of us, spearheaded by another with the surname London, the late Caspar London, of the SVG/Cuba Friendship Society. Those were still the ‘dark days’ where travelling to Cuba was concerned. Even some of my progressive colleagues were reluctant to do so, for fear of being ‘blacklisted,’ facing possible harassment in the region and denial of US visas. With no such qualms, I took the plunge in 1978 and have never regretted it, nor, I am sure, will President Obama.

We have come a long way since then, and in this regard, much credit must go to former Prime Minister Sir James Mitchell. He it was who put an end to the nonsensical refusal by the former Labour government to accept Cuban scholarships for our students. He it was who had the courage to open diplomatic relations with Cuba and visited that country nearly three decades ago. Whatever one may say about other aspects of his foreign policy, praise is due to Sir James for this commendable initiative. A pity that much of this legacy seems to have been forgotten.

All these actions have helped to make it easier for the nature of US/Cuba relations to undergo fundamental change. President Obama has time and again expressed the view that the embargo against Cuba, and US persistence at isolation was not working, had failed in fact. Rather than isolating Cuba in the western hemisphere, the outdated policy was having the opposite effect, of placing the US out of sync with its neighbours.

Much water has flowed under the bridge since the 1960 embargo and failed invasion of Cuba one year later. Cuba has suffered a lot from the embargo, to a tune of some US$1.1 trillion, according to international estimates. Cubans have suffered in other ways as well, not having the same sort of individual freedoms as afforded to the rest of us in societies not faced with the same threats. Americans, too, have been denied the right to visit Cuba, to enjoy its fabled culture, environment and hospitality, while investors and business people have been prevented by law, from engaging in commercial links with Cuba.

That era is now coming to an end. It does not mean that real differences do not remain, but as President Obama has said, these are to be resolved peacefully, by engagement and people to people contact, not by legal restrictions and hostilities. Humanity and both the American and Cuban peoples will be all the better because of it.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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