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23 April 2009 Edition

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International : Central and South America

New Agenda in the Americas


IT MAY have taken almost half a century, but it seems that the penny may have finally dropped in Washington as its most powerful inhabitants awake to a reality long understood by the rest of the world.
On 17 April, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton formally conceded that US policy on Cuba had “failed”, an admission that will doubtless feature heavily in any future academic courses on ‘Geopolitics for Slow Learners’.
Note also that Secretary of State Clinton employed the curious term ‘failed’ to describe US policy over the last 50 years when there are far more correct and precise adjectives that could have been employed. ‘Criminal’, ‘illegal’ and ‘immoral’ are three that come to mind. But it’s a start.
It is worth noting that the remarks by Clinton were not made in a vacuum.
In fairness to the Obama administration, it has already delivered on a campaign pledge to reverse strict travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans visiting the island and also undid measures limiting the remittances that could be sent by families in the US.
Interestingly, it also eased restrictions on US telecom companies doing business with Cuba.
This initiative in turn took place against a backdrop of a Cuban welcome for Obama’s electoral victory and Raul Castro’s clear statement that Cuba is willing to engage in dialogue with Washington, if talks were conducted on the basis of mutual respect and without preconditions.
Thus, while the new ‘travel arrangements’ have been criticised as limited and politically timid – travel was easier 40 years ago under Jimmy Carter – it is clear they form part of a new and emerging dynamic that will, sooner rather than later, see the 47-year-old US blockade terminated and also spell an end to its five-decades-long campaign of terrorism and subversion, against Cuba.
And what makes these developments even more remarkable, quietly seismic if you will, is that they are part of a process that is neither limited to dysfunctional US-Cuba relations nor capable any longer of being driven or controlled by the US. There is a new agenda in the Americas, one which Washington no longer sets.
While President Obama remains hugely popular and is still vested with a powerful mandate for change, the United States does not enjoy the authority it once did. A superpower yes, but a diminished one.
Diminished by eight years of spoilt brat Bush, by unwinnable foreign wars and by the challenges from competing power centres in China and other so-called BRIC economies – Brazil, Russia, India.
And diminished finally  – maybe fatally – by the utter collapse of neoliberal capitalism, the model that Wall Street fraudulently sold around the world as the economic equivalent of a cure for cancer. When Lehman Brothers collapsed in September 2008 a large proportion of Washington’s international influence and authority went down with it.
Indeed, in advance of the recent G20 summit in London – convened to deal with the crisis in capitalism – it was remarkable to hear Brazilian leader Lula damn the “blue-eyed and blond-haired” self-appointed “masters of the universe” that were responsible for the collapse.
The former shoeshine boy understands clearly that the fiasco fashioned in Wall Street will impact most heavily in the barrios and favelas of the world. Even 10 years ago such an outburst from an underling would not have been tolerated.

And the former underlings were at it again in the run-up to the recent Summit of the Americas, hosted by Trinidad & Tobago from 17-19 April.
Prior to the gathering, several nations – Nicaragua, Brazil, Bolivia, Venezuela, Argentina, to name a few  – chose to take the Obama administration to task for the continued imposition of the blockade on Cuba.
(It was particularly ironic that the event took place on precisely the same three days in April as the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961). 
Indeed, such was the concerted ferocity of the attacks that Secretary of State Clinton’s remarks were undoubtedly designed to prepare the ground and soothe the arrival of President Obama at the summit.
The blockade remains the single most visible vestige of a failed US foreign policy that was born of another era. All other nations in the region have moved on from 1959. Washington is still in the slow lane.
Now Latin America’s new breed of leaders have made the removal of the blockade and the normalisation of relations based on mutual respect, a litmus test for the new administration. Hence their refusal to sign any agreed declaration or statement at the conclusion of the summit, a commitment they had made in advance.
Despite the happy photocalls, President Obama left Trinidad & Tobago in no doubt as to what he must do in order to bring about the “new beginning” he spoke about.
He also left the summit with some good background reading, courtesy of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez: The Open Veins of Latin America, by the Uruguayan author Eduardo Galleano, the classic history of life in Latin America since the arrival of the conquistadores.
The contents of this momentous work would provide much material for discussion at future Summit of the Americas gatherings.

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