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Stephen Vasciannie: Obama creates history in Havana

Published:Tuesday | March 22, 2016 | 3:00 AM
Stephen Vasciannie
AP Cuban President Raul Castro lifts up the arm of US President Barack Obama at the conclusion of their joint news conference at the Palace of the Revolution in Havana on Monday.
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President Obama's trip to Cuba is, of course, of historic proportions. It has been suggested - correctly - that this is one of the most important trips of his presidency.

Much of its importance turns on symbolism. Obama, the first African-American president, has scored another major first in breaking the tension that has existed between the USA and Cuba since Fidel Castro seized power in 1959.

Obama's Cuban initiatives and his visit will serve to remind some persons that the American embargo against Cuba has failed, and will provide food for thought about the ebb and flow of Cold War history. But my sense is that Obama comes to Cuban affairs with a forward-looking perspective. Within that perspective, the basic question is: What can America do to promote better relations with one of its closest neighbours and enhance the lives of the Cuban people?

One part of Obama's answer to that will turn on the question of human rights. If Obama is to justify the rapprochement with Cuba, he will need to show that the relaxation in relations could lead to greater liberalism on the part of Raul Castro's regime, and on the part of the coming leaders of Cuba. In that regard, Cuba will be encouraged - no doubt in closed-door meetings - to release their political prisoners, to allow greater freedom of thought, conscience, religion, movement and expression.

As part of the human-rights agenda, I would also expect private exchanges on promoting liberal democracy, including the emergence of alternative political movements and a strengthening of civil society.

From the perspective of the government of Cuba, the visit could further enhance contact between both countries and lead to further opening up of economic opportunities. Already, direct mail service between both countries has been restored, diplomatic relations moved forward, and some aspects of the embargo whittled away.

The Cubans will also be pleased that the philosophical foundations of the embargo have been profoundly undermined, but they will also be aware that the complete abandonment of the embargo awaits congressional approval, which, alas, is not assured.

 

IMPLICATIONS FOR JAMAICA

And what of Jamaica? When the embargo is lifted, and with direct flights to Havana and other Cuban cities, some tourists may possibly be diverted from Jamaica to Cuba. I would expect, however, that this will not seriously weaken Jamaica's tourism prospects.

Most North American tourists are English speakers, and many value Jamaica's culture and music. Jamaica already operates in a competitive environment for tourists to the Caribbean and Central America, so the addition of Cuba should not have a major long-term negative impact as long as we continue to make our tourism product attractive.

As to access to the USA for Jamaican goods, I do not think that the removal of the embargo will have a significant impact. Although some analysts suggest otherwise, Jamaica does not have a problem of access to the US market; the Caribbean Basin Initiative (stemming, we recall, from President Reagan's time) ensures that Jamaica and other Caribbean countries have preferential, non-reciprocal access to the US market.

Our challenge has always been how to produce goods at a price, with quantity and quality, that will be attractive to the USA. If we do that, then whether or not Cuba is a competitor, we will have access. If we fail to produce, we will fail. again, this will happen whether or not Cuba is present.

Finally, to return to Obama, we should not miss the fact that the improvement of relations between the USA and Cuba was an important campaign promise from the time of Obama's first bid for the US presidency.

'Promise made, promise kept' is a horse that all good political leaders must wish to ride. And, in that regard, watch out for further efforts with respect to Guantanamo Bay.

- Stephen Vasciannie, a former Jamaican ambassador to the USA and the OAS, is professor of international law, UWI, Mona. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.