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Saturday, June 17, 2017

In a major speech on Cuba in Miami yesterday, US President Donald Trump attempted to pull in the window of diplomatic engagement that his predecessor, Barack Obama, had pushed open three years ago.

In chastising the administration of Cuban President Raul Castro, President Trump unveiled a list of demands that he said Cuba must agree to in exchange for concessions, some of which he rolled back.

Among Trump’s demands are the release of political prisoners, stopping what the Americans say is the suppression of those opposed to the Communist regime and allowing greater freedom of expression.

While the changes in US policies towards Cuba are likely to be warmly received in Little Havana, and other enclaves of anti-Castro hostility in the US and elsewhere, Mr Trump’s policy reversal is unlikely to find much traction with many Americans.

As the US Chamber of Commerce, which is self-described as the world’s largest business organisation, pointed out in a statement following Mr Trump’s speech: “US private sector engagement can be a positive force for the kind of change we all wish to see in Cuba. Unfortunately, today’s moves actually limit the possibility for positive change on the island and risk ceding growth opportunities to other countries that, frankly, may not share America’s interest in a free and democratic Cuba that respects human rights.”

Also, last month, legislation that aims to eliminate all prohibitions on travel to Cuba was reintroduced in the US Senate. That legislation has the support of 55 of the 100 US senators.

So what will the new hostility of the the US government towards Cuba mean for T&T and Caricom?

The administration in Port-of-Spain needs to be watchful that the sabre-rattling and ‘gun talk’ by the US president does not disrupt this country’s relations with both Cuba and its close ally Venezuela, which is T&T’s closest neighbour.

That’s because while President Trump is attacking the Cuban regime of Raul Castro today, it is guaranteed that he will attack the Venezuelan government led by Nicolas Maduro tomorrow—as the American leader seems to have a proclivity for venting against Spanish-speaking countries.

While this country has had diplomatic relations with Cuba for decades—and has depended on the north Caribbean country for medical and sporting assistance in the past—one of the key focal points of the foreign policy of the current People’s National Movement administration has been the pursuit of closer relations with Venezuela.

Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley has made it clear that it is in T&T’s national economic interest to pursue an arrangement with the current Venezuelan administration that would allow global energy giant Royal Dutch Shell and state-owned National Gas Company of T&T to tap the natural gas in the Dragon field.

Given the long-term nature of the relationship between the two countries over the Dragon gas field, it is vital for T&T’s interests that it remain on friendly terms with whomever is in power in Caracas.

Dr Rowley’s call last month for the removal of the Secretary General of the Organisation of American States (OAS) Luis Almagro for his “very derogatory” attack on Venezuelan President Maduro is not an indication of any ideological shift by the avowedly non-aligned T&T government.

It is an acknowledgement of the importance of the economic relationships between the two countries, even in the face of hostility from the US, which remains T&T’s main trading partner.

T&T must insist on its right to maintain close relationships with any country it chooses, even if the politics and human rights practices of that country are not completely in line with those practised here.


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