Obama's visit offers real hope

Morning Star | Wednesday, 30 March 2016 | Click here for original article

There are positive signs that relations between the US and Cuba will be normalised, but there is a long way to go yet, writes NATASHA HICKMAN

“IT IS time now for us to leave the past behind. It is time for us to look forward to the future together.” Barack Obama’s closing words in his televised address to the Cuban people on March 22 were conciliatory and full of hope for US-Cuba relations.

His historic two-day tour was symbolic of improved relations between the two countries and packed with symbolic moments — a US president paying tribute to the father of Cuban independence, Jose Marti, in front of a mural of Che Guevara in Revolution Square while a band played the national anthems of both countries.

The visit came just 15 months after the unexpected announcements on December 17 2014 that diplomatic relations were being re-established. That Obama followed so quickly owes much to the skill and tenacity of negotiators on both sides of the Florida Straits.

Talks have achieved much to build on for the future. Embassies have opened in Havana and Washington, the US government is allowing its citizens to travel to Cuba and direct mail and flights have been re-established.

The US Treasury has also granted licences allowing limited exports. Although these are only one-way — Cuba cannot export to the US, nor can US companies export to the Cuban state sector.

So, for example, a US construction company would not be permitted to export building materials to repair Cuban schools, hospitals or daycare centres — proof that these reforms are ideologically driven and attempt to favour individuals and build the non-state sector on the island.

However, despite their limitations and regardless of ulterior motives, Obama should be praised. There is more he could do by executive order, but ultimately the blockade can only be ended by Congress, something he again called for during his visit to Havana, which can only increase the pressure back in Washington.

Up to now the reforms have merely punched a handful of welcome holes in the structure of the blockade.

The bulk of legislation remains firmly in place and, as Raul Castro said in the joint press conference with Obama, “stands as the most important obstacle to our economic development and the well-being of the Cuban people.”

The blockade has cost the Cuban economy $833 billion over five decades and remains in place despite 24 consecutive UN votes condemning it.

The extraterritorial provisions of the 1992 Torricelli Act and 1996 Helms-Burton Act punish foreign companies and international banks for trading with the island.

Whether the US government’s intention was to scare off foreign investors, leaving the scene clear for US companies to sweep in when the blockade was over, the devastating effect on Cuba’s economy and infrastructure is the same.

Under the Obama administration alone, 49 US and foreign companies and banks have been fined $14.4bn.

The Cuba Solidarity Campaign has been hit too.

In October 2015, the Co-operative Bank closed CSC’s bank account, citing changing “risk appetite” as justification.

Further correspondence with the bank revealed that the closure was actually down to blockade sanctions and the Co-op’s fear that the US Treasury’s office of foreign assets control might fine it for continuing with CSC’s business.

While the blockade is the most serious obstacle to normalising relations, there are many more.

Ending the 114-year-old occupation of the territory at Guantanamo Bay is critical. For Cuba it is not enough for the US to close its illegal prison camp there, it must close the entire naval base and return the occupied land to Cuba.

Obama stated to the press that “Cuba’s destiny will not be decided by the United States.”

These words ring hollow when they come just weeks after USAid awarded $5 million dollars in grants for regime change programmes.

Another $30m is up for congressional approval in 2016. And how can relations be normal when US continues to broadcast propaganda TV and radio stations into the country in violation of international law?

“No-one should deny the service that thousands of Cuban doctors have delivered for the poor and suffering,” said Obama, praising Cuba’s international medical brigades which have 50,000 doctors delivering healthcare in 60 countries.

But he said nothing about stopping his government’s Cuban Medical Professional Parole Programme which attempts to undermine such humanitarian programmes and poach these very same doctors by offering fast-tracked entry and incentives if they defect to the US.

And there are still no plans to end the 50-year-old Cuban Adjustment Act, which encourages Cubans to leave for the US with the promise of guaranteed legal residency and citizenship — a privilege not extended to any other economic migrant in Latin America and the Caribbean.

So while some US politicians and commentators argued that Obama should have demanded more concessions from the Cuban government before his visit, maybe it is Cuba which should have asked for more from the US government before extending the invitation?

After all, it is not Cuba that has been blockading the US for more than 50 years, nor backed invasions and assassination attempts against the US and its leaders. And it is not Cuba that is funding regime change, poaching doctors, nor occupying US territory.

Instead, it is testimony to Cuba’s generosity and commitment to normalising relations that Obama was welcomed so warmly. Not to mention the 34 minutes he received on national television to address the Cuban population with his vision for their future — a freedom the White House is unlikely ever to reciprocate to the Cuban president.

As Jose Pertierra, a lawyer and analyst who has acted on behalf of Cuba in the US, said last week: “The intention of the United States continues to be a regime change but, just as in the past Cuba knew how to build trenches against the US, now it knows how to build solid bridges to control the new US strategy.”

Obama’s visit offers hope and optimism for improving Cuba-US relations which could benefit the citizens of both countries.

Cubans want and need this, but they are under no illusion that the five-decade struggle against economic warfare and aggression is over, nor should we be.

Friends in Britain need to remain vigilant and continue to campaign for the return of Guantanamo Bay, the right of Cuba to determine its own future without US interference, and above all for an end to the blockade once and for all.

Natasha Hickman is Cuba Solidarity Campaign campaigns and communications manager (www.cuba-solidarity.org.uk).

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