Viewpoint by Somar Wijayadasa*
NEW YORK (IDN) - On March 20, 2016, President Barack Obama became the first sitting United States President to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge visited the island in 1928, marking a historic moment in the diplomatic relations between the two countries.
Referring to a fragment of one of the best known “Simple Verses” of Cuba’s national hero José Martí, “I Have A White Rose To Tend”, Obama said: “I’ve come to Havana to extend the hand of friendship to the Cuban people. I'm here to bury the last vestige of the Cold War in the Americas and to forge a new era of understanding to help improve the daily lives of the Cuban people.”
Obama came to office in 2009 promising to review the U.S. policy on Cuba but made only a few modest changes on travel restrictions and allow remittances under certain conditions – because the U.S- Congress refuses to rescind the trade embargo on Cuba.
However, Obama deserves credit for using his executive authority to establish U.S.- Cuba ties around trade, telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, agriculture and travel. But the need and the demand to make changes have been in the making for over five decades.
The U.S. embargo against Cuba, imposed in 1962, shortly after Fidel Castro's revolution, is the longest standing and cruellest economic embargo ever experienced by any country. It infringed on rights of other countries preventing trade and investment thus violating international law and trade rules. It seriously obstructed and constrained the efforts of the Cuban people to eradicate poverty, improve their living standard, and achieve economic and social development.
Also, in 1962, the Cuban missile crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear war but ended with a declaration not to invade Cuba. The sanctions were further tightened in the 1990's under the pretext of "promoting democracy, freedom and human rights in Cuba”.
The devious practice of enforcing sanctions on any country has nothing to do with protecting human rights, promoting democracy and freedom.
I have written many times that the unilateral imposition of embargoes and sanctions as an ulterior motive for "regime change" is contrary to both the letter and the spirit of the United Nations Charter and the basic norms governing contemporary international law.
The UN Charter and International Law provide for settling conflicts between states through negotiations based on mutual respect for each other's independence, sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of the other. Every year, for over 25 years, the United Nations General Assembly passed resolutions denouncing the U.S. embargo against Cuba.
Speaking before the General Assembly in 2013, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez described the embargo as an act of genocide that “provokes hardships and is a mass, flagrant and systematic violation of human rights.” Saying that "the fact that 53 years later the same policy still prevails is something extraordinary and barbaric”, he added that the blockade "has been classified as an act of genocide" under the Geneva Convention of 1948.
Rodriguez railed against the embargo, saying that “it resulted in a loss of approximately $1.6 trillion over the last fifty years”, and said that "the object of the blockade is to weaken the lives of Cubans and to cause hunger”. He added: “The U.S. has never hidden the fact that it wants regime change in Cuba."
These sustained and unambiguous denunciations by the United Nations condemning the embargo against Cuba had to be heard loud and clear but the U.S. Government routinely refused to change its policy on Cuba saying that the United States maintains it is a bilateral issue and not a concern of the United Nations.
However, the continued disregard of these UN resolutions constituted a blot on the credibility of the United Nations as well. The embargo ran against the principles of multilateralism, international law, sovereignty, and free trade that the United Nations have traditionally championed.
Despite the embargo, Cuba's achievements in free education, guaranteed healthcare for all, medicine, prevention and pensions for all seniors have been quite remarkable.
According to Cuba’s Minister of Public Health, Cuba makes 80 per cent of the drugs they use, and it is the only country that has developed a lung cancer vaccine, and has developed 33 medical kits to test for 19 different diseases.
Even more remarkable is Cuba’s medical assistance to developing countries and during emergencies. For example, Cuba sent thousands of doctors, nurses and others to Haiti after its earth quake that killed over 250,000 people, and last year Cuba sent a couple of hundred doctors to help in the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
The Cuban Government has established diplomatic relations with over 160 countries, expanded its economic, trading and investment relations with many partners in the region as well as with Russia, China and countries of the European Union, and reinforced its cultural ties educating thousands of foreign students in Cuba.
According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, in 2014 alone, over three million tourists visited Cuba which roughly translates to $2.5 billion in tourism revenue.
So, Obama’s hand of friendship and a modicum of justice comes at a time when these developments are dramatically and irrevocably changing Cuba's economic and political landscape.
Therefore, I am not surprised that Fidel Castro (in a 1500-word letter to “Brother Obama”) has denounced Obama’s conciliatory gestures, and wrote, “We don’t need the empire to give us anything . . . after a merciless blockade that has lasted almost 60 years, those who have died in mercenary attacks on ships and Cuban ports, an airliner full of passengers that detonated in mid-air, mercenary invasions, multiple acts of violence and coercion?”
He concluded that “Cubans are self-sufficient and able to produce food and material wealth we need with the effort and intelligence of our people.”
But, I am sure, Cuba can use a helping hand to further develop the country and uplift the living conditions of its masses. Cuba may not change overnight but Obama’s diplomatic engagement would no doubt facilitate economic development.
Last July, restoring diplomatic ties between Washington and Havana, U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry said that “although the two nations differ on basic issues ranging from human rights to political systems, both will be better served by engagement rather than estrangement.”
Both American and Cuban entrepreneurs feel the sweet smell of massive gains in bilateral trade.
During Obama’s visit to Cuba many trade deals were stuck: In the cards are 100 flights a day to Cuba from the U.S.; American cruise ships to dock in Cuban ports – potentially three to four million American visitors a year. The American Starwood hotels agreed to develop hotels in Cuba. The Cuban pharmaceutical companies, Rum and Cigar manufacturers are salivating to export their products to the United States.
There is a growing consensus and momentum to change U.S. policy with regard to Cuba. Obama ended his visit to Cuba saying that “Cuba’s future must be in the hands of the Cuban people.”
Therefore, instead of clamouring for regime change, United States Congress should lift the embargo and let Cuba and its people find their own path to development.
*Somar Wijayadasa, an international lawyer, was a UNESCO delegate to the UN General Assembly for ten consecutive years from 1985-1995, and was Representative of UNAIDS at the United Nations from 1995-2000. [IDN-InDepthNews – 28 March 2016]
IDN is the flagship of International Press Syndicate.
Photo: President Obama greets people in Old Havana, Cuba, March 20, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)