US President Barack Obama was to meet his counterparts in Latin America and the Caribbean yesterday, offering practical cooperation over the ideological differences that have strained US ties with the region.
But the Summit of the Americas he will attend with 33 other leaders in Trinidad and Tobago looks set to be dominated by debate over Washington’s enduring ideological conflict with Cuba, the only one-party communist state in the hemisphere.
Cuba, excluded from these hemispheric summits that started in 1994, is not part of the agenda, which talks of confronting the global downturn and energy and security challenges.
But with one voice, the region’s governments are calling on the US president to honor his pledge for change by dropping the 47-year-old US trade embargo against Cuba, which has ended up isolating Washington more than its original target.
This seems further than Obama is willing to go at the moment after he relaxed some specific aspects of the embargo on Monday, opening a crack in a US policy dating back to the Cold War, when Cuba was a player in the US-Soviet standoff.
Obama and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton yesterday made it clear that while his administration is ready to talk to Havana about a rapprochement, it expects the Cuban side to reciprocate by freeing political prisoners and improving human rights for its citizens.
OPEN TO ENGAGEMENT
“I don’t expect things to change overnight ... We are not trying to be heavy-handed, we want to be open to engagement, but we’re going to do so in a systematic way that keeps focus on the hardships and struggles that many Cubans are suffering,” the US president told reporters during a visit to Mexico.
But he hinted earlier he was willing to leave behind entrenched ideological positions of the past to seek practical solutions to the serious problems facing the Americas, in particular the global economic downturn that has hit the US as hard as it is squeezing the rest of the region.
“Years of progress in combating poverty and inequality hangs in the balance. The United States is working to advance prosperity in the hemisphere by jump-starting our own recovery,” Obama wrote in an op-ed article.
“To confront our economic crisis, we don’t need a debate about whether to have a rigid, state-run economy or unbridled and unregulated capitalism — we need pragmatic and responsible action that advances our common prosperity,” he added.
Obama’s conciliatory message of offered cooperation may not be enough to appease more virulent critics of US policy, such as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has condemned Cuba’s exclusion from regional groups and says he will not endorse the draft declaration from the Port of Spain summit.
BAY OF PIGS
The Summit of the Americas falls on the anniversary of one of the worst US foreign policy fiascoes in recent history, the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba on April 17 to April 19, 1961.
CIA-supported Cuban exiles were routed in a battle that consolidated communist rule 140km from US soil.