By Sir Ronald Sanders
(The writer is Ambassador of Antigua and Barbuda to the United States and the Organisation of American States. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and at Massey College in the University of Toronto. The views expressed are entirely his own)
Caribbean countries are, once again, being placed in a difficult position as they try to navigate a course between the United States (U.S.) and Cuba – two countries of great importance to them and for each of which they have great respect.
In 1972, the four then independent member states of what is now the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) – Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago -broke a U.S. embargo to establish diplomatic and economic relations with Cuba, charting the course for a foreign policy based on independence, courage and concerted action. Since then, every government of a CARICOM country, that achieved independence, has kept to that policy, with only one brief exception.
Recently efforts have been made, without success, to persuade CARICOM countries to turn away from Cuba.
The attitude of the government of the U.S. to Cuba departed from the détente in force when President Donald Trump came into office in January 2017. Renewed efforts to isolate Cuba followed.
On May 12, the U.S. government approach to Cuba hardened still further when it certified to the U.S. Congress that Cuba did not cooperate fully with U.S. counter terrorism efforts in 2019.
An unnamed senior official in the U.S. administration reportedly told Reuters News Agency on May 14 that consideration is being given to returning Cuba to a U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.
The governments of the Caribbean regard the region as “a zone of peace” and they were openly relieved when the former government of the U.S., under President Barack Obama, softened a 50-year hard line policy on Cuba, including a trade embargo. In December 2014, Obama declared, “We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests, and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries”. The new deal, he said, will “begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas” and move beyond a “rigid policy that is rooted in events that took place before most of us were born.”
The Caribbean, and the world, including U.S. states and companies, long locked-out of the Cuban market because of U.S. government policies, looked forward to “the new deal” between the two neighbouring states whose relations impinge on the entire Hemisphere.
In 2015 and 2016, three historic events occurred, under Obama, that evinced further belief that the hemisphere and the world had become a safer place. First, the U.S. and Cuba reopened diplomatic Embassies in each other’s capitals, re-establishing official lines of communication and dialogue that were terminated in 1960 when the corrupt regime of military dictator, Fulgencio Batista, was overthrown. Second, the U.S. State Department removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism – a designation that was first imposed in 1982. And third, Obama became the first sitting U.S. president in nearly ninety years to visit Cuba, meeting its then president, Raul Castro, and opening the way for U.S. airlines and Cruise ships to ply their trade in Cuba.
However, many of these measures of cooperation have been reversed. In 2017, President Trump reinstated restrictions on Americans traveling to Cuba and U.S. business dealings. Then in 2018, former U.S. National Security Advisor, John Bolton, labelled Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela the “Troika of Tyranny”. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. government announced a raft of sanctions against Cuba including banning cruises and curtailing direct flights.
Now comes the May 12 certification that Cuba did not cooperate fully with U.S. counter terrorism efforts in 2019. Even more troubling to hemispheric peaceful cooperation is the assertion by a senior U.S. official that there is a “convincing case” to put Cuba back on the U.S. blacklist.
For its part, the Cuban government has rejected the U.S. certification, saying it “disregards that there is concrete evidence, some of them very recent, of bilateral collaboration between the two governments in the fight against terrorism, and joint law enforcement efforts”. The Cuban statement also claims that “as part of this collaboration, recent actions of particular interest to the U.S. government have been carried out, recognized by its own law enforcement agencies”.
Political observers in the U.S. have attributed two reasons to the U.S government’s renewed tough stance toward Cuba.
The first is the forthcoming U.S. Presidential elections in which the State of Florida is crucial to who is elected. Florida is the home of Cuban, Venezuelan and other dissidents whose support is important to the election outcome. Pandering to their desire for regime change in their birth countries compels the attention of any Presidential candidate.
The second reason is satisfying the government of Colombia which has been urging the U.S. government to add Cuba to the list of countries “not fully co-operating with counter-terrorism efforts”. The Colombian government wants to use that designation as justification for abandoning protocols to an arrangement with the Cuban government which facilitated peace talks between the Colombian government and the dissident group, Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN). Those talks broke down in January 2019. Since then, the Colombian government has been demanding the extradition of the ELN members who were left in Cuba. Consistent with international law, Cuba has declined to extradite them.
Venezuela is also tied-up in all this. Colombia’s President, Iván Duque, and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro are at daggers drawn and the U.S. administration disapprove of the close Cuba-Venezuela links.
In February this year, CARICOM heads of government collectively reiterated their concern over “the enhanced sanctions announced by the US Government” and they denounced as “unjustifiable” the application of laws and measures of an extra-territorial nature that are contrary to international law.
They did not choose Cuba over the U.S. They chose international law, hemispheric cooperation, and peace – principles to which the region’s people are devoted.