Barack Obama is right to bring Cuba out of the cold

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 April, 2015, 12:30am
UPDATED : Friday, 17 April, 2015, 12:30am

The US embargo against Cuba not only predates the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, but post-dates the end of the cold war by a quarter of a century. It was triggered by the communist overthrow of an American-backed dictator and ultimately sustained by sensitivity among US lawmakers to the ballot-box power of a small but vocal Cuban minority in Florida that played on old cold-war sentiment.

An aberration of a foreign policy that normalised relations with China decades ago is finally being unwound, as it should have been long ago, not just because it is so irrational and counter-productive, but also to serve America's geopolitical interests in the new world economic order.

This is nonetheless welcome for that. The handshake between President Barack Obama and President Raul Castro at the Seventh Summit of the Americas (north, central and south) - the first to be attended by Cuba - was indeed historic.

It seals a bilateral accord to improve the relationship and Obama's decision to restore diplomatic ties - the first step towards more trade and cultural links. The island has already been removed from the American list of terrorist states and limits on travel and banking are being eased. But the door will not be opened wide for tourism, nor can the trade embargo be lifted, without congressional approval.

The US has little to show for sanctions aimed at forcing democratic and humanitarian change, though Castro, after replacing his elder brother Fidel in 2008, has been introducing economic reforms. The thaw between Washington and Havana is a reminder that communism is no longer the No 1 enemy for the West, and that the cold-war mentality has been displaced by the perceived threats of terrorism and militant extremism.

As a result, the US is paying more attention to security and development in its own backyard. Leaving aside domestic politics such as the Latino vote ahead of next year's presidential election, this reflects growing concern about the need for a more proactive approach to America's trade and investment interests amid a challenging global economic landscape. Between pre-occupation with turmoil and nuclear proliferation in the Middle East and the so-called pivot to Asia, the US has not given South America the attention it deserves. If the new Cuban policy signals a change, that is to be welcomed. The security, stability and economic progress of the Americas is fundamental to constructive American global engagement.