May 17, 2015

Summit of the Americas: US Recognises New Realities

Yohannan Chemarapally

THE Summit of the Americas held in the second week of April in Panama City has been an eventful one. Besides the handshake and meeting between the American and Cuban presidents, what was on show was the unity shown by the Caribbean and Latin American countries on key issues. The trend has been continued form the last Summit held in 2012 in the Colombian port city of Cartagena. That summit was notable for the solidarity extended to Cuba. Barring the United States, all the other countries in the continent were united in their opposition to the American economic blockade on Cuba. President Barack Obama had cut a lonely figure three years ago. CUBA TAKES SEAT AT THE SUMMIT But dramatic events have unfolded since then. It was the first time that Cuba had taken a seat at the summit. Successive American administrations had prevented the participation of Cuba. The Obama administration realising its isolation in the region, had quietly started taking steps to rectify the situation. Normalising relations with Cuba anyway was one of Obama's early campaign pledges. Policy makers in Washington had long since realised that the sanctions regime against Cuba had become counter productive. During his second term in office, President Obama decided to go ahead and fulfill some of his campaign promises in the foreign policy arena. Cuba and Iran were his top priorities. At the end of last year, President Obama and the Cuban President Raul Castro had jointly made the dramatic announcement that the two countries had agreed to normalise relations. One of the factors that expedited the Obama administration's move was the timing of the Summit of the Americas. President Obama and his advisers realised that if America continued with its “Cuba policy”, it would once again stand isolated at the summit. Every year, the UN General Assembly passes a resolution condemning the American economic blockade against Cuba. The only country which consistently supports the US in the UN on the issue is its all weather ally – Israel. At Panama City, the presidents of the two countries sat down for a formal meeting since the 1959 Revolution. There have been a few handshakes between American and Cuban presidents in the last sixty years. In Panama City, Obama and Raul sat down for talks which lasted more than an hour. Obama, speaking after the meeting said that his message to the Cuban people was that the Cold War was over and that Cuba is not a threat to the United States. “We are not in the business of regime change” he emphasised. At the same time, he also said that the United States “is in the business of making sure that the Cuban people have freedom and the ability to shape their own destiny---”. Obama described his meeting with Castro as “a historic” one. The talks between the two, President Obama said, were “candid and fruitful”. In his speech at the summit, Castro thanked the American president for his “brave initiative”. He said that he had read the books written by the American president and praised his “humble” background. Raul noted that Obama was born after the US imposed its blockade on Cuba and had inherited the policy from the ten presidents who preceded him. At the same time, Castro made it a point to highlight the history of injustice that the United States has meted out to Cuba and the American continent since the end of the 19th century. “Successive interventions ousted democratic governments and in twenty countries installed terrible dictatorships, twelve of these simultaneously and mostly in South America, where hundreds of thousands were killed. President Salvador Allende left us the legacy of his undying example”, Raul said in his speech. He talked about the suffering caused by the US blockade on ordinary Cubans. “We have endured severe hardships. Actually, 77 per cent of the Cuban people were born under the harshness of the blockade, but our patriotic convictions prevailed. Aggression increased our resistance and accelerated the revolutionary process”. The diplomatic gains made by the Obama administration after effecting a change in the Cuba policy were however offset to a substantial extent by knee jerk sanctions the Obama administration had imposed on Venezuela in March this year. The Obama administration took the unprecedented step of declaring “a national emergency” due to the “extraordinary threat to the national security” posed by Venezuela. Sanctions were imposed on Venezuela even as Washington was on the verge of normalising relations with Cuba. US State Department officials told the US Congress that tougher sanctions against Venezuela were on the way. America is Venezuela's biggest trading partner. Most of the country's oil is sold in the United States market. AGAINST SANCTIONS ON VENEZUELA All the countries in the region, barring Canada, had criticised the Obama administration's decision to sanction yet another country and that too in their own hemisphere. The leading political and economic groupings in the region, including the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Community of Caribbean and Latin American Nations (CELAC) condemned the American decision to impose sanctions on a member country. The G-77+China as well as NAM also joined in the chorus of criticism at the American move and expressed their solidarity with Venezuela. There was a unified demand that President Obama rescind his decision. Even a governor belonging to the opposition in Venezuela called on the American president to reconsider his decision. In many ways, Obama's Venezuela policy, cast a long shadow at the Summit. His handshake with Raul Castro may have grabbed world headlines but American interference in the internal affairs of Venezuela became the key issue at the summit. President Obama had to concede before the Summit started that Venezuela does not pose a threat to the security of the United States. He tried to justify the language used by the White House as a mere formality so that sanctions can be legally imposed. The Ecuadorian president, Rafael Correa, described President Obama's executive order against Venezuela as “a bad joke”. He wrote that it reminded him of the “darkest hours in our America, when we received invasions and dictatorships imposed by imperialism – Will they understand that Latin America has changed”. Venezuela's president, Nicolas Maduro, went to the summit at Panama City armed with a petition containing the signatures of 13 million citizens demanding the repeal of the sanctions. The Venezuelan president also held a meeting described as “cordial” with his American counterpart. Maduro said that he told the American president that Venezuelans are not enemies of the United States. “Venezuelans are not anti-US, they are anti-imperialist”, he said in his speech at the Summit. “I respect you, but I don't trust you”, said Maduro, referring to the American president. The Bolivian president Evo Morales, who was in Caracas to show his solidarity with the Venezuelan government just before the Panama Summit told the media that President Obama has to repeal his executive order. “If President Obama doesn't arrive at the Summit of the Americas with the decree already repealed, then we presidents will make him repeal it in Panama”, he said. President Obama has not done so yet but he seems to have gauged the mood in the region. He has dispatched a senior State Department official to Venezuela to hold talks with the government as well as the opposition. In an interview with a Spanish language news agency President Obama conceded that Venezuela does not pose a threat to the United States. “We do not believe that Venezuela poses a threat to the United States, nor does the United States threaten the Venezuelan government”, claimed Obama. “Venezuela is not and could never be a threat to a superpower like the United States”, said President Raul Castro. He called on President Obama to “repeal the Executive Order”. Immediately after the Summit ended, President Obama announced yet another decision that Cuba had long demanded. The US had put Cuba on the list of States exporting terror in 1982 to justify the imposition of additional sanctions. In mid-April, the Obama administration finally announced that Cuba would no longer figure on the US State Department's list of countries that sponsor terrorism. The Cuban government had insisted on this for the normalisation process to go ahead. The Reagan administration had put the “terror tag” on Cuba for its principled support for liberation movements worldwide, particularly on the African continent. The Americans at the time were in cahoots with the apartheid regime in South Africa in the last ditch attempts to halt decolonisation. In Latin America, the Americans were supporting right wing governments and military regimes. The terror classification has prevented banks and financial institutions from doing business with Cuba. The Cuban government welcomed the decision while emphasising that the country should not have been in the list in the first place. “Cuba rejects and condemns all act of terrorism in all their forms and manifestation”, the Cuban government said in a statement. The Summit of the Americas ended once again, as it did in 2012, without agreeing on a final declaration. This was because the US and Canada vetoed the draft Declaration that was agreed upon by all the other 33 countries present. The two countries objected to several points in the final draft, including on health care as a human right, on providing technology transfers to developing countries, on putting an end to electronic espionage and the repeal of the American president's executive order against Venezuela.