The elephant not in the room: Castro and the Summit of the Americas

| April 16, 2009
The elephant not in the room: Castro and the Summit of the Americas

Cuba, and in particular its former President, Fidel Castro, is already a player at the fifth Summit of the Americas which takes place Friday and Saturday, April 17 and 18, in Port of Spain, Trinidad. That much is evident from information coming out of Havana, Moscow, Santiago de Chile and La Paz in recent days.

On Friday April 3, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega met with Fidel Castro and handed him a copy of the proposed Declaration of Port of Spain, which will be sent for adoption by the leaders of the 34 countries attending the Summit, including Canada.

What about the blockade?

Fidel expressed strong views about the draft Declaration, noting the absence of any mention of Cuba’s exclusion from the meeting or of the United States’ long-standing blockade of his country, routinely condemned by the overwhelming majority of member countries of the international community.

He also appeared to be predicting that there would be several reservations to the draft expressed by heads of state who find some of the ideas ‘unacceptable.’ Fidel went on to publish his account of the meeting and his views on the Declaration in his regular column – the convalescing 82-year-old has still been writing prolifically, especially since formally relinquishing power over a year ago – which is widely available on the Internet.

The significance of all this seems to have escaped the mainstream media. For a head of state due to attend a summit to disclose the contents of the Declaration to be adopted to a non-attending state; and to someone who is -- technically at any rate -- a private citizen of that state in effect soliciting his views on the Declaration; for this disclosure to be itself disclosed and the critical views of the private citizen on the Declaration given widespread media exposure; all this seems to me to be virtually unheard of in the practice of international relations.

Except that the summit in question is supposed to be ‘of the Americas;’ that the non-attending state is Cuba, which has full diplomatic relations with almost all of the attendees; and that the ‘private citizen’ is Fidel Castro.

Respect for Cuba’s legacy of defiance, solidarity

Fidel, of course, commands enormous respect amongst most hemispheric leaders for having defied the hostility of Washington for close to fifty years, for the impressive social accomplishments of the Cuban Revolution and for Cuba’s numerous acts of solidarity in the hemisphere and internationally.

As President, he gave strong support to Nicaragua’s Ortega in the 1980s when the Sandinista government was struggling to defend itself in the ‘dirty war’ being waged by the Contras backed by the Reagan administration, a war which cost thousands of Nicaraguan lives.

It seems to me unthinkable that Ortega, having shown the Declaration to Castro and receiving his response, will not follow this up by raising the subject of Cuba at the Summit; even if he had not planned to do so before. And it is likely that he would have the support of the other Latin American and Caribbean leaders; all of whom are on record as supporting the lifting of the blockade. It is even possible that some of the leaders had prior knowledge of his intention to discuss the proposed Declaration with Fidel.

Chile, Russia: Old Cuban allies raise the heat on U.S. 

The day following the Ortega-Castro meeting in Havana, President Michelle Bachelet of Chile met with President Medvedev of Russia in Moscow.

The two Presidents found space, in their joint Communiqué dealing with such weighty matters as energy and military cooperation, to call for an end to the U.S. embargo on Cuba and for its integration into the "regional multilateral structures" -- an oblique reference to the OAS, from which Cuba has been excluded since 1962.

Michelle Bachelet, let it be remembered, is regarded as part of the ‘moderate’ left in Latin America. She suffered some political embarrassment at home when, after a meeting with Fidel earlier this year, her host wrote a column that appeared to endorse Bolivia’s claim to a land passage to the Pacific Ocean through what is now Chilean territory, seized in a war with Bolivia over a century ago.

The incident caused a political row in Santiago that led to the resignation of Bachelet’s foreign minister. Nonetheless, her government has signalled, on the very eve of the upcoming Summit, that its principled position on Cuba remains intact.

The same goes for President Medvedev, whose warming of relations with Washington under Obama is equally matched by a warming of relations with Havana, which he visited earlier this year, expressing the desire to rebuild many of the close ties that existed between the two countries in the heyday of the Soviet Union.

On the same day as the Bachelet-Medvedev meeting, President Evo Morales of Bolivia, speaking at a press conference in La Paz, was appealing to Barack Obama, “to lift the economic, commercial and financial blockade imposed on Cuba since February 1962.”

This call was already adopted at the first Summit of Latin and Caribbean leaders in Bahia, last December; as well as at the Cuba-Caricom summit in Santiago de Cuba held earlier the same month.

Obama must cope with ‘change’ in realities of hemisphere

The calls have now reached a crescendo. Cuba has become the unseen guest at the Summit in Port of Spain, and Fidel Castro the spectre haunting its deliberations, the elephant not in the room.

Hopefully, someone in the White House will have the good sense to ‘wise up’ Barack Obama about the new realities in the hemisphere; and he will have the grace to recognise -- indeed embrace -- them.

Otherwise, who will be isolated: Cuba? Or the United States?


Norman Girvan is Professorial Research Fellow at the UWI Graduate Institute of International Relations at the University of the West Indies in St. Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago.



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