Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Desperate to Save His Legacy, Obama Chooses Cuba

The announcement came as a welcome surprise to millions around the world who have long awaited a major change in US policy towards Cuba. In simultaneous broadcasts, presidents Raul Castro and Barack Obama bridged the painful, unjustified and well-outdated gap that has tormented both nations for over half a century. In a matter of sentences, relief came to the many Cubans, at home and abroad, Latin Americans region-wide, and people across the US and world who cheered at the declared thaw in US-Cuba relations. After more than 50 years, the heads of state of both countries spoke on the telephone and agreed to reestablish diplomatic ties. The US would open its Embassy in Havana, and Cuba would do the same in Washington. It was a major breakthrough, to say the least.

It was Castro who was quick to remind his fellow citizens that, while applauding the decision of the first standing US president to actually improve ties with Cuba, the vicious blockade imposed against his nation by Washington still remains. Obama was also cautious to mention that though there were concrete actions he could take towards normalizing relations with Cuba, it was the US Congress that had the authority to end the blockade, and not him. He did urge Congress to take those steps, while lashing out a few patronizing admonitions at Castro regarding democracy and human rights.

Without a doubt, one of the most important victories of the deal was the release of the three remaining Cuban citizens, Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino and Antonio Guerrero, unjustly held in US prisons for 16 years on charges of espionage and other crimes. Even the United Nations Commission on Human Rights had condemned their trial as arbitrary and unfair, their due process and fundamental rights severely violated. These men were finally able to return home to a hero’s welcome, after an agreement was brokered between the two governments that also saw the return of a USAID subcontractor convicted on charges of subversion in Cuba, Alan Gross, and a Cuban citizen and former intelligence officer, Rolando Sarraff Trujillo, jailed for working as a double agent for the US Central Intelligence Agency.

There is no question that this event marks a profound change in US-Cuba relations and US relations with Latin America. And it is a major victory for the Cuban Revolution, Fidel and Raul Castro and the Cuban people. Over the past fifteen years, Washington has lost its influence in Latin America and the region has shifted significantly towards the left with socialist presidents in a majority of countries and new regional organizations that exclude the United States and Canada. With the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), the Bolivarian Alliance of the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), Latin America has become more integrated, sovereign, independent and powerful than ever before. The region has forged relations with China, Russia, Iran and other sovereign states with strong markets and technological know-how. Development has excelled and with few exceptions, Latin American economies are on the rise. All this has been achieved without the United States.

In response, Washington amped up its interference in the region, supporting coups and attempted coups against democratically-elected presidents in Venezuela, Haiti, Bolivia, Honduras, Ecuador and Paraguay, increasing its military presence in the hemisphere and intensifying subversive efforts to undermine Latin American governments through multimillion-dollar funding of opposition movements. Those actions isolated Washington even more in the region and were rejected unanimously by all Latin American governments, even those on the right. A growing sentiment of “Patria Grande” (The Great Homeland) has taken root in the region and only appears to get stronger every year.

When Obama was elected president and first attended a Summit of the Americas regional gathering in Trinidad in 2009, he promised a new relationship with Latin America, based on regaining US influence in the region. He either ignored or ignorantly misunderstood the changes that had taken place throughout Latin America and had the gall to stand before 33 heads of state and high-level representatives of regional governments and tell them to “forget the past” and move forward together with the United States towards new relations. His arrogant rhetoric reminded the people of Latin America the importance of consolidating and advancing their sovereignty and integration on their own terms. At that summit, a majority of nations, with the exception of the US and Canada, condemned the fact that Cuba continued to be excluded from the Organization of American States solely because of Washington’s influence. In 2012, at the next Summit of the Americas, President Rafael Correa of Ecuador refused to attend in a sign of solidarity with Cuba. “Ecuador won’t be a part of these summits until Cuba is included”, he made clear.

A few months ago, well before Obama and Castro announced efforts to normalize relations, the government of Panama had made public that Cuba would be invited to the 2015 Summit of the Americas, which it will host. Cuba has indicated it would attend. This decision was clearly a sign that Washington’s influence no longer reigned in Latin America - even the regional organization created by Washington to dominate and control the region was now rendered irrelevant.

Nevertheless, Obama’s move on Cuba was not without immediate consequence. While there is no question that the decision to reestablish diplomatic relations, along with the release of the remaining three of the five unjustly detained Cubans, is an enormous, historical victory for the Cuban Revolution, and a tribute to the resistance, dignity and solidarity of the Cuban people, Obama’s motives are not pure.
The day after a well-crafted presidential speech on how US policy has failed in Cuba, which acknowledged the blockade and economic embargo of Cuba had been a fiasco, Obama signed bills imposing sanctions on both Venezuela and Russia. There is little doubt that the sanctions bill against Venezuela, an absurd law titled the Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act of 2014, was signed by Obama to appease the small, but influential group of rabidly anti-Castro, anti-Chavez and anti-Maduro politicians and constituents in Miami who were steaming with rage from the shift on Cuba.

The Venezuelan sanctions bill is rather ludicrous. It purports to punish officials in Venezuela who allegedly violated the human rights of anti-government protestors in demonstrations that took place in February 2014. Considering that the majority of those protests were extremely violent and protestors directly caused the deaths of over 40 individuals, most of whom were government supporters, bystanders and state security forces, imposing sanctions on state officials who exercised their duty to protect civilians is illogical. Even more ironic is the passage of this bill while hundreds of protestors against police brutality and racism are being detained and having their rights violated in the United States, at the hands of US authorities. Not to mention that the same Senate that promoted this bill just released an in depth report on torture and grave human rights violations committed by CIA and US military officers.

The sanctions bill against Venezuela goes beyond freezing the assets of a few Venezuelan government officials and revoking their visas. It reaffirms the US government commitment to supporting - financially and politically - the anti-government movement in Venezuela which acts beyond a democratic framework, and it authorizes the preparation of a full-on propaganda war against the Venezuelan government. All of this is reminiscent of the very same failed policy on Cuba that Obama just renounced. So why impose the same on Venezuela?

Appeasing the community in Miami is a major reason. But Obama also needs the change in Cuba policy to save his withering legacy. As the first black president in the United States, Obama expected his legacy to be the end of racial tensions and institutionalized racism in the country. However, the opposite has occurred during his administration. Racial tensions are at an all-time high. Mass protests have erupted nationwide against police brutality in black communities and the injustice blacks face in the US legal system. Racial crimes have increased and people are angry. The “change” Obama promised hasn’t come and he won’t be forgiven for his failure to deliver.

Obama’s healthcare reform has made a mediocre impact and still faces serious threats from a Republican Congress, which has returned to power in full force, winning majorities in both houses thanks to a disgruntled democratic base. While making some executive decisions on immigration, Obama has failed to pass sweeping immigration reform and probably never will after losing democrat seats in the legislature. Though he did withdraw US troops from Iraq as promised, another terrorist group took over significant parts of that country, rendering US operations and billion-dollar investment in bringing democracy to Iraq practically useless. As for Afghanistan, Obama increased US military presence and brought the total war budget well over one billion dollars, making it the longest US military conflict and one of the most costly. He’s brought more war to Pakistan, Yemen and Africa, and destroyed Libya, while later funding and arming warlords and terrorists in Syria to demolish that country too. And to top it all off, Obama has rekindled the Cold War with Russia.

Overall, Obama’s legacy leaves nothing to be desired. He’s failed at home and brought havoc abroad, and Cuba is his savior. Now Obama will be remembered in history as the president who ended the most dysfunctional, damaging and pointless US foreign policy ever. He’ll be recalled for bridging ties not just with Cuba, but with all of Latin America, which would be very noble and legacy-worthy if it were true.

Cuba hasn’t been a real threat to the United States - if it ever was - for a very long time. But Venezuela, because of its vast oil reserves, is. The US needs to control Venezuela’s 300 billion barrels of oil in order to guarantee its long-term survival, and without a subservient government in power, that’s not possible. US policy on Venezuela has been the same since Hugo Chavez was first elected in 1998 and refused to bow to US interests: destroy the Bolivarian Revolution and remove him from power. The same policy is in effect against the government of Nicolas Maduro.

By attempting to isolate both Venezuela and Russia with sanctions and cripple their economies, Washington believes it will succeed in stifling Russia’s expanding relations with Latin America and neutralize Venezuela’s regional influence. The plan is to step in and fill the void with US financial and political clout. And Washington thinks that by reaching out to Cuba, the rest of Latin America will be seduced enough to welcome back US domination.

Cuba may be Obama’s lifejacket, but the ship has sailed. Latin American nations have overwhelmingly condemned US sanctions on Venezuela and called for them to be rolled back. Obama may think he can sacrifice Venezuela in order to save his legacy by engaging with Cuba and closing ranks in the hemisphere, but he’s wrong. The same solidarity that Latin American nations expressed to Cuba for over 50 years is also present for Venezuela. La Patria Grande won’t be fooled by US double standards anymore. Latin America has long expressed its desire for a mature, respectful relationship with Washington. Will the US ever be capable of the same?