Latin America and the Caribbean will not be at the top of Barack Obama's priorities when he takes office on January 20. But there is little doubt that, as far as the Inter-American agenda is concerned, Cuba will be a foremost concern.
On the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution, an enormous amount of ink has been spilled on drawing a balance of its accomplishments and failures. Important as this is, the real challenge today is not so much to look back as to look ahead. The urgent task is to look for ways Cuba can return to the fold, as it were, and normalise its relations with the rest of the Western Hemisphere.
At a time when countries like China and Vietnam are courted by foreign investors and international financial institutions (IFIs), to continue to wage ideological warfare on Cuba because of what happened or did not happen there 20, 30 or 40 years ago seems an increasingly anachronistic exercise in self-indulgence.
Making a breakthrough on Cuba has always been difficult. Oftentimes the Cuban government has been its own worst enemy. It is not for nothing that ten United States presidents in a row have failed to do so. Yet, half a century after Fidel Castro and his ragtag band of guerrilleros marched into Havana and Fulgencio Batista absconded from a new year's party at the Hotel Nacional to fly off to Spain (to settle, eventually, in the Canary Islands), the stars seem to be aligning themselves for some change.
For all its faults, Cuba never ceases to surprise and confound foreign observers. For decades, the standard question was "What will happen after Fidel?", on the not unreasonable assumption that mortality would eventually catch up with El Comandante, at which point all bets would be off. The hopes were thus set on a 'Big Bang' approach to change in Cuba. The notion that Fidel would give up office, for whatever reason, and a successor appointed to replace him was never considered. But it has happened, and Raul Castro is now pre-sident of Cuba. This opens new possibilities and flexibilities on the Cuban side.
The impact of this can be gauged from the recent Latin American and Caribbean Summit held in the resort town of Costa de Sauipe, in Northeastern Brazil, on December 16 and 17 (a place so strikingly beautiful that it led Argentine president Cristina Fernandez, in her own inimitable way, to exclaim "How can anybody do any work here?").
One of the largest such summits ever held, with some 33 heads of state and government from all the hemisphere (with the notorious exception of the US), it gave a warm welcome to Raul Castro on his first foreign trip after taking office. As the host, President Lula, Latin America's most influential and popular leader, with approval ratings of 80 per cent plus (and who visited Cuba twice in 2008) was beaming.
Cuba was formally invited to join the Rio Group, one of several regional entities that have enhanced political cooperation in the Americas since 1990. In a relaxed atmosphere (ties were out, and most heads, including Raul, wore guayaberas), a letter requesting an end to the Unites States embargo on Cuba was signed by all participants.
Progress was also made on other fronts. As pro tempore chair of the Rio Group, it was Mexican president Felipe Calderon who welcomed Cuba to the group, underscoring the improvement of Cuban-Mexican ties, which had deteriorated during the presidency of Vicente Fox (2000-2006). Chilean President Michelle Bachelet no doubt talked with Raul about her forthcoming February visit to Cuba, the first by a Chilean president in 37 years. And a half-hour meeting with Organisation of Americas States head Jose Miguel Insulza should have cleared some underbrush for an eventual return of Cuba to that body, from which it was suspended in the early sixties.
Despite the many differences that exist within the Latin American and Caribbean community, there is, then, consensus on the need to put an end to the Cuban blockade and normalise the island's ties with the hemisphere. This is an issue on which the Jamaican prime minister has played a leading role, and should continue to do so.
This consensus is something that President-elect Obama ought to keep in mind as he crafts a new policy towards Cuba. He is in a privileged position to do so. Having won Florida, partly through a majority of the Hispanic vote (which broke two-to-one for him) , but not being beholden to the Cuban-American electorate there (which supported McCain by a small margin), he is well-positioned to move forward. Moreover, younger Cuban-Americans are changing and no longer cling to the hard-line anti-communism of their parents.
Obama has promised incremental changes, including lifting the limits on remittances from the US and on travel to Cuba by Cuban-Americans. Replacing the cash-upfront requirement for Cuban purchases of US agricultural goods and medicines for regular supplier's credit would be another useful step. Early action on this would be welcome. Most would agree with the proposition that the embargo will not be lifted overnight.
An impasse of half a century will not be solved in weeks or months. Rather than a 'Big Bang' approach, what is needed is a gradualist policy leading to predictable, controllable outcomes.
This means a series of sequential steps in which the very gradual changes taking place in Cuba are matched by adjustments in US policy and a return of Cuba to hemispheric institutions like the Organisation of American States and the Inter-American Development Bank. Direct talks, without preconditions, between Washington and Havana would be an important catalyst to get things moving.