Obama signals a thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations

By ARNOLD A. AUGUSTE

U.S. President, Barack Obama, has sent the strongest signals so far that relations between the U.S. and Cuba are about to change.

Following up on his announcement last week that he was lifting restrictions on U.S. citizens visiting and sending money to Cuba, he told a gathering of leaders at the 34-member Summit of the Americas conference meeting in Trinidad and Tobago this weekend that U.S. policy towards Cuba has failed and that he was ready to “move U.S. – Cuba relations in a new direction”.

The United States seeks a new beginning with Cuba,” he said.

“Every one of our nations has a right to follow its own path,” he told the assembly. “But we all have a responsibility to see that the people of the Americas have the ability to pursue their own dreams in democratic societies.”

This was an obvious reference to Cuba’s communist society.

“I am prepared to have my administration engage with the Cuban government on a wide range of issues – from human rights, free speech and democratic reform to drugs, migration and economic issues,” he said.

“I didn’t come here to debate the past. I came here to deal with the future. As neighbours, we have a responsibility to each other and to our citizens. And, by working together, we can take important steps forward to advance prosperity, security and liberty.”

This is a significant shift in U.S. policy towards the Caribbean country which has struggled under a U.S. trade embargo for 47 years.

The Cuban government seems encouraged by Obama’s “new direction”. President Raul Castro has been quoted as saying that he is prepared to discuss “everything, everything, everything” with the United States.

In a meeting earlier in the week with Latin American leaders in Venezuela, Castro said that Cuba was prepared to discuss “human rights, freedom of the press, political prisoners…”

And, speaking of Venezuela, the relationship between that country and the U.S. also seems to have taken a turn for the better, thanks to Obama.

Prior to the opening ceremony of the Summit, the U.S. President approached President Hugo Chávez to greet him. Both leaders shook hands in what a release from the Venezuela government described as a historic greeting, after several years of tension during the George W. Bush administration when relations between the two countries deteriorated significantly. Chávez once called Bush “the devil”.

According to the Venezuelan press office, Chavez expressed a desire for a change in U.S.-Venezuela relations. Chavez has said that all he wants from America was respect.

“I want to be your friend,” Chavez told Obama as he shook the U.S. President’s hand and presented him with a copy of a book on Latin America by Uruguayan writer, Eduardo Galeano, “Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent”.

Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, who is attending the Summit, has also commented on the U.S.-Cuba relationship, saying that the “historic American approach to Cuba has not worked” adding, however, that the issue was a bilateral one between the U.S. and Cuba.

Harper announced that Canada would invest in a program (the Emerging Leaders in the Americas Program – ELAP) to award up to 1,600 scholarships for Latin American and Caribbean students to pursue studies in this country. Scholarship recipients will study in fields that “advance the economic, social and political needs of the hemisphere”.

The first of the scholarships, which will cost the Canadian government some $18 million over four years, will be available for the fall of 2009.

“Investing in these scholarships will help create a new generation of leaders in the Americas with an extensive appreciation of Canada, including our values and our technologies and know how,” Harper said. “It will also help enrich institutional partnerships between Canada and other countries in the Americas.”

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