Obama Appears Ready to End Embargo on Cuba
By Richard Walker
Barack Hussein Obama may take a major step toward rapprochement with Cuba, setting in motion a diplomatic policy that will effectively end 47 years of that nation’s isolation.
It would have the backing of younger Cuban-Americans, most European Union leaders and the whole of Latin America. It would also be applauded by the American oil and gas industry, which has been quietly arguing for years that Cuba represents a major energy resource and a cheap gas supplier for Florida.
Recently, Raul Castro, who has taken over the reins of power in Cuba from his brother, Fidel, made his first trip abroad to attend a meeting of a 33-nation Latin American and Caribbean summit held in Brazil’s second largest city, Rio de Janeiro, which was also once its capital.
During the summit, the Rio Group, an organization established in 1968 to promote Latin American integration, made Cuba its 23rd member. In response, every nation at the summit roundly condemned America’s ongoing 1962 embargo against Cuba. They argued that the embargo had been an abject failure and, in the present political climate, there was greater need for diplomacy and serious political dialogue.
Making Cuba part of the Rio Group was a signal to the incoming Obama administration and a loud denunciation of the Bush Cuban policy. Many experts in the United States believe there is plenty of evidence to show that during his two terms in office George Bush failed to keep an eye on his own backyard.
Aside from the Cuban issue, he took his eye off the ball when it came to most of Latin America and was preoccupied with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a consequence, China stealthily moved into Latin America and began spending large sums of money to establish close political and diplomatic links with major players like Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela.
The Chinese government also invested in industries in Brazil and in five years has constructed an important economic base, as they have been doing in Africa.
Lately, with the cooling of relations between Moscow and Washington, Russia has also drawn closer to Latin America, especially to Venezuela and Cuba. Lately, Russian warships even visited ports in Cuba and Venezuela. During the Rio summit, the Bush White House sent a message to Cuba that the embargo would not be lifted, demonstrating how out of touch the Bush White House has been with respect to Latin American affairs.
Brazil, whose land mass occupies almost half of Latin America, has tried consistently to persuade the Bush administration to change policy toward Cuba, arguing that the embargo is perceived as a crude relic of a past that can have little positive outcomes in the future.
Leading Latin American newspapers covering the Rio summit reported that U.S. policies toward Latin America had failed and it was time for change. Some editorials warned that Latin America would not wait indefinitely for Washington to see the light and would forge new alliances. For some, that was an obvious reference to China and Russia.
Castro chose his language carefully when speaking at the summit, avoiding the familiar anti-U.S. rhetoric of his brother, Fidel. In response to questions from journalists about Barack Obama, he denied that Brazil’s president, Lula Da Silva, had offered to act as a mediator between himself and Obama in 2009. Most Latin American leaders have welcomed the prospect of an Obama presidency and none more so than Brazil’s’ leader, who is on record saying that Obama would be truly presidential if he took the courageous step of lifting the embargo on Cuba.
Lula Da Silva tends to see himself as the voice of Latin America and many believe he has the charisma and political skills to lessen the influence of figures like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. He knows that in Raul Castro, who has said he would happily meet Obama, he has a more conservative figure than Fidel, and therefore an opportunity to shape a new political era between Washington and its closest neighbors. Such an era could end the growing anger of some Latin American leaders like Ivo Morales of Bolivia, who has demanded that his neighbors expel U.S. ambassadors until the embargo against Cuba is lifted.
Lula Da Silva rejected such talk at the summit and Raul Castro did not respond to it.
Obama has voiced willingness to change U.S. policy toward Cuba and if the Brazilian president can convince Raul Castro to release unconditionally his country’s political prisoners, that might open the door to Obama acting decisively to end the embargo. Of course that could not happen immediately, but a President Obama could begin by lifting travel restrictions between the U.S. and Cuba.
In 2009, the new U.S. administration will be aware of several important facts about Cuba. One is that China is quickly overtaking Venezuela as Cuba’s premier business partner. China’s need for energy is its major reason for forgoing closer ties with Havana, and Beijing will be happy if the U.S. continues to refuse to do business with Cuba. In the meantime, China has also invested billions of dollars in one of Brazil’s largest petroleum companies and its eyes are on Cuba’s large, untapped oil and gas fields in the Gulf of Mexico.
For some observers, the U.S. embargo is a case of Washington is backfiring because it does not make economic sense to continue to isolate Cuba when all signs are that the Fidel Castro era is coming to an end. Brazil is trying to signal to the Obama foreign policy team that if the U.S. waits too long to forge a new partnership with Cuba, it will lose out to China and Russia, as well as to Latin American energy competitors.
Cuba is 90 miles off the Florida coast, sitting atop what a U.S. geological survey confirms is 4.6 billion barrels of crude oil and 9.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas—the same, if not more energy than exists in Alaska’s National Wildlife Reserve. Before long, China may be tapping into those energy reserves in Florida’s backyard unless the Obama administration seeks a new relationship with Cuba’s Raul Castro.
Richard Walker is the pen name of a former news producer.
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(Issue # 1, January 5 & 12, 2009)