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Cuba Strengthens Regional Ties

HAVANA, Dec 7 2011 (IPS) - With the recently-created Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), Cuba is strengthening its regional reinsertion, while progress towards normal ties with the United States would appear to remain a distant prospect, and the return of the right-wing Popular Party to power in Spain could reopen tensions on that front.

On Wednesday, President Raúl Castro demonstrated the importance put on regional integration by travelling to Trinidad and Tobago to participate in the fourth Cuba-CARICOM (Caribbean Community) summit, a mechanism for political exchange and cooperation that was officially created on Dec. 8, 2002 during a meeting in Havana.

Cuba has diplomatic ties with CARICOM’s 14 members: Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, Montserrat, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago.

In announcing this latest trip by Castro, the second in less than a week, the official Granma newspaper described these meetings as “scenarios of reflection and decision- making at the highest level for deepening and strengthening relations of cooperation and solidarity.”

“At a time when the region is advancing toward new and higher forms of integration, CARICOM, established on the basis of relations of friendship and respect among its members, has accumulated organisational and working experience that can be used in the process of consolidating and strengthening” the brand-new CELAC bloc, the Granma article said.

For the Cuban president, CELAC’s main advantage is its independence from the United States; moreover, it reflects “the concept of a united and sovereign region, committed to a common destiny,” as he emphasised during a Dec. 2-3 presidential summit in Venezuela, where the new bloc was officially launched.

However, experts warn that if the new organisation attempts to enter into any conflicts with the United States or replace the Organisation of American States (OAS), it is doomed, because many nations in the region would be opposed to such a move, including the Chilean government of Sebastián Piñera, which holds the rotating presidency of CELAC until 2012.

In any case, Castro does not seem to be unaware of these differences. “We do not have fully homogenous views, nor do we agree on all political positions. That is part of the reality, and taking that into account, we have to work in a climate of respect and cooperation,” he said in his speech in Caracas.

CELAC includes 33 nations in Latin America and the Caribbean, home to a total population of 580 million.

Although the region has significant natural resources and has posted strong economic growth in recent years, there are serious inequalities in the distribution of wealth, with 174 million people living in poverty.

In June 2009, the OAS decided by consensus to overturn a 1962 resolution that kept Cuba out of the hemispheric organisation. But the Castro government refused to return, announcing that instead it wanted to strengthen, expand and harmonise representative integration mechanisms in the region, including all of the Caribbean islands.

The Cuban president travelled to Caracas after meeting in Havana with Michael Kinnamon, general secretary of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States, an organisation which, according to the cleric, represents some 50 million parishioners. Other sources consulted by IPS said the organisation has influence in the ruling Democratic Party.

In a press conference shortly before returning to the United States, Kinnamon said that Cuban authorities were willing to work for a normalisation of relations with Washington on the basis of mutual respect. “The hardest problem is how to reach that process,” he said, noting that no major policy changes could be expected because of the 2012 elections in the U.S.

During his Nov. 28-Dec. 2 visit to Havana, Kinnamon met with relatives of the five Cuban agents held in U.S. prisons and with Alan Gross, a U.S. citizen serving 15 years in prison in Cuba, charged with involvement in subversive plans against the island.

Both cases are obstacles to any progress toward rapprochement between the two countries, divided by five decades of political and ideological conflict. Washington is demanding Gross’s unconditional release, and Havana, which says the sentences handed down to the five Cubans are unjust, wants a presidential pardon for them.

“A humanitarian solution both for Gross’s situation and for the Five would surely open the doors to the process of a normalisation of relations. Somebody just needs to decide to take the first step,” Marcial Hernández, president of the Cuban Council of Churches, commented to IPS.

René González, who completed his sentence but is on parole in the U.S. for three years and cannot return to Cuba, along with Antonio Guerrero, Ramón Labañino, Fernando González and Gerardo Hernández asserted during their trial that their actions were aimed at preventing terrorist actions by violent Cuban exile groups in Miami.

In a joint statement, both the Cuban and U.S. religious groups promised to work for a solution to these cases and for an end to the five-decade embargo. The U.S. sanctions were opposed this year, for the 20th time, by the United Nations General Assembly. “A half century of animosity between our two countries should end,” the joint statement said.

Meanwhile, the victory of the right-wing Popular Party in Spain’s recent presidential elections is leading to predictions of changes in Havana-Madrid relations, following a period of rapprochement promoted by socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, whose outgoing administration restored dialogue and cooperation with Cuba.

Unhappy with that approach, Cuban dissidents hope Spanish prime minister-elect Mariano Rajoy will give more attention and support to internal opposition groups in Cuba, which could cause friction at the government level. Nonetheless, some experts say that both Rajoy and Castro now have other priorities, and do not forecast turbulent relations.

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