OPINION

Cuba and the Fifth Summit of the Americas

Mukul Sharma

Many governments have called for reinstating Cuba in the Organisation of American States, reaffirming the changing regional and political scenario in the Americas.

Heads of states and governments of all countries in the Americas, except Cuba, gathered for the Fifth Summit of the Organisation of American States (OAS) in Trinidad and Tobago from April 17 to 19. They discussed some of the most serious challenges facing the region to advance a regional agenda for the promotion of human prosperity, energy security and environmental sustainability. One of the dominant issues at the Summit was Cuba, which has been excluded from the activities of the OAS for 47 years. While there is no reference to that country in the Declaration, many governments and the OAS Secretary-General called for Cuba to be reinstated. Many governments also called for the lofting of the U.S. trade and economic embargo against it. This further reaffirms the changing regional and political scenario in the Americas.

Cuba was such a burning issue that a number of governments, including Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Honduras, indicated that they were not prepared to formally sign the Declaration. Leaders agreed, instead, to adopt it by consensus and have Trinidadian Prime Minister Manning sign on behalf of all leaders. The governments which had registered objections felt that the Declaration did not deal adequately with the current global economic crisis. Simultaneously, they wanted to see strong references made to Cuba’s reintegration into the OAS and the lifting of the U.S. embargo.

Cuba was excluded from the 35-member OAS in 1962 because the communist system created by Fidel Castro, after he took power in a 1959 revolution, was judged ‘incompatible’ with the organisation’s principles. While all Latin American and Caribbean nations have slowly bridged their differences with Cuba, the U.S. government maintains a policy of isolation that has reached its limits, and is impeding Cuba’s growth and development. Now the U.S. is the only country in the Americas which does not maintain diplomatic relations with Cuba. There were several campaigns in the past demanding that the U.S. government lift the nearly five decades-long economic and trade embargo, as it is detrimental to the fulfilment of the economic and social rights of Cubans. It obstructs and constrains efforts by the Cuban government to purchase essential medicines, medical equipment and supplies, food and agricultural products and construction materials, and secure access to new technologies. The embargo also denies Cuban-Americans their right to travel freely to their country of origin. The embargo has been overwhelmingly rejected by the United Nations General Assembly for the past 17 years.

Although the U.S. administration has recently eased remittances and travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans and has allowed U.S. companies more flexibility in selling food and medicines to Cuba, these measures are limited to the end of the current fiscal year. Nevertheless, there are hopes that they will herald a comprehensive review of the U.S. foreign policy towards Cuba. This policy has also led to the denial of travel visas to two of the wives of Cubans imprisoned in the U.S. since 1998, a measure that is unnecessarily punitive and contrary to basic standards of humane treatment of prisoners.

In the wake of the surge in support for Cuba at the OAS, Mr. Castro is still unmoved in his stand towards the organisation. He has recently written that Cuba had no desire to rejoin the OAS, as called for by some of his allies, and did not even want to ‘hear the vile name of that institution.’ Mr. Castro, in his column published last Tuesday, said the OAS “has a history that collects all the trash of 60 years of betrayal of the people of Latin America.” He said the organisation had been involved in ‘aggressive actions’ that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. Mr. Castro has criticised the group for years, calling it the ‘Ministry of Colonies’ of the United States.

The Summit came at a time of economic turmoil throughout the Americas and around the world. And in the specific context of its focus — human prosperity, energy security and environmental sustainability — Cuba has also shown positive and alternative ways of development amidst extreme adversities. This was another reason for the unprecedented focus on Cuba at the Summit. The Draft Declaration noted that deep and persistent inequalities continue to exist in the Americas, especially in education, income levels, health and nutritional status, and access to basic services. It emphasised the need for the governments’ provisions to act on a wide range of issues, including working conditions, economic growth, protection of women and children from economic exploitation, food security, access to basic health services, spread of HIV/AIDS, access to education, technological gap and respect for cultural diversity. The struggle to protect women from violence and discrimination has still far to go. Racism continues to be a glaring problem in all countries in the Americas. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals are subjected to harassment, violence and other forms of discrimination in much of the Americas, and such prejudices continue to be institutionalised in law or condoned in practice by many states. Deepening poverty continues to fuel human rights violations, and national laws and institutions for the protection of rights are often either nonexistent or inadequate.

Even at the level of rhetoric on human rights, the OAS states are far behind: None of the OAS human rights treaties has been adopted by all countries and the overall level of ratification remains low. Only two regional treaties — the American Convention on Human Rights and the Convention dealing with violence against women — have been ratified by more than half of the OAS membership. The over-arching American Convention on Human Rights has not been ratified by nine of the member-states and a tenth of them have renounced its previous ratification. These same countries are among the 13 which do not recognise the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Canada and the U.S. have not ratified any of the seven key Inter-American human rights treaties and protocols, including those dealing with economic, social and cultural rights; death penalty; torture; enforced disappearances; disabilities; and the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention and Eradication of Violence against Women, the only treaty in the world that deals specifically with violence against women.

Throughout the Americas, indigenous people, Afro-descendants and subsistence farmers are particularly vulnerable to serious human rights violations associated with energy projects, including oil exploration and production, natural gas pipelines, and hydroelectric developments that dam rivers and flood traditional lands. Such projects often go forward in violation of the indigenous people’s land and resource rights and without any effort to obtain free, prior and informed consent of the people affected. National and international financial institutions have violated their obligations to ensure that their involvement in energy projects does not cause or contribute to human rights violations. Funding bodies like the Inter-American Bank and the World Bank, national export credit agencies and other financial bodies played quite a negative role in financing and supporting major controversial energy projects.

It is likely that debates on the exclusion of Cuba will further intensify in the coming days and will greatly influence the contours of regional cooperation, developmental politics and social movements in the region.

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