A changed landscape as Cuba marks revolution


ANALYSIS:Changes within Cuba and in relations with the US and Latin America are gathering pace, writes JOHN MORAN

THE RAPID pace of political change in Cuba will be evident to Micheál Martin as he makes the first official visit of an Irish Minister to the country this week. Fifty years after the revolution there has been a shift in the sands of international relations between Cuba, the United States and Latin America.

In Havana, there has been a significant difference in approach to economic and social policy since President Raul Castro took over last year from his ailing brother Fidel.

The political drift to the left in Latin America has also had a major impact on Cuba in bringing it out of the cold and into the fold.

Cuba-watchers are on red alert for any further signals of a shift in policy from Barack Obama, whose presidency could at last bring about a normalisation of relations between the US and Cuba.

During the election, Obama made a significant opening gambit towards improving Cuba-US relations. Miami-Dade County (greater Miami) has the highest concentration of Cuban exiles in the US. Up until quite recently it was a monolithic bastion of anti-Castro sentiment.

From the Eight Street restaurants that form the epicentre of Miami’s Little Havana and spreading deep into south Florida, Cubans had traditionally voted Republican.

However, Obama saw an opportunity to change the mould and became the first candidate to acknowledge a shift in sentiment. Cubans there had been changing their minds, especially those born in the US. The old attitudes towards Cuba had failed to deliver anything but the heartache of separated families.

So in contrast to the traditional hard-line campaign speech, Obama was confident enough to commit to talking to the Cuban leadership, to ending former president Bush’s limit on the remittances which Cuban-Americans can send to relatives on the island, and to ending Bush’s restriction of one visit every three years to close relatives.

The pace of change of Obama’s Cuban policy will, no doubt, continue to be influenced to some extent by Little Havana, but he will also be mindful of his big support among voters in the Latino community across the US.

In Havana, it is an intriguing coincidence that the current Cuban leader, President Raul Castro, is, like Obama, far less ideologically driven than his predecessor, is more pragmatic in his world view, and has signalled an openness to change.

Since Castro’s official appointment as president early last year, he has introduced a series of social and economic measures including a large dose of private enterprise in the sluggish agriculture sector to increase food production. In the largest land distribution since the revolution, he recently approved more than 45,000 land grants to private individuals and co-operatives.

Castro has said he is prepared to match the US “gesture for gesture” and to meet Obama “without preconditions” to improve relations.

Obama will also be keen to curb the growing influence of China and the Russian Federation in Cuba and elsewhere in Latin America. These days in Cuba, the Chinese influence is everywhere to be seen, from the new public transport fleet to fridges and cookers. Chinese oil companies are working alongside Cuba’s state-run oil company Cubapetroleo (Cupet) to the east of Havana.

Russia is coming back into the fold after nearly 20 years of absence from Cuba following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Ironically, given the US oil and gas industry’s endorsement of George W Bush, this sector has become another supporter for easing the blockade. It wants to compete with Russia, China, Spain, Brazil and others for contracts in the Cuban oil and gas fields of the Gulf of Mexico where enormous oil deposits, estimated at between five and 20 million barrels, have been discovered.

In South America a new political reality has emerged. The continental drift to the left now includes serious moves towards closer political and economic co-operation in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Not only has US influence on the continent weakened during the Bush years, Latin American countries have become more independent-minded and focused on mutual economic and social interests in organisations such as the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (Alba), and the Rio Group.

This shift in support was particularly evident at the Rio Group summit in Bahia, Brazil, in December. For the first time, Cuba was present as a member. Also for the first time, this significant meeting of 23 Latin American and Caribbean heads of state did not have a US presence.

Another indication of this new hemispheric disposition has been seen with the succession of South American and Central American leaders arriving in Havana with trade delegations. The most recent of these were the presidents of Chile and Argentina, countries which formerly held a visceral hostility towards Cuba.

Clearly, Cuba is no longer on its own and, if anything, it is the US that has become more isolated.

However, by engaging with Raul Castro’s new administration, the US could begin to restore its moral leadership in the region. If the blockade were gone, it could no longer be blamed for all Cuba’s ills.

So what of Ireland’s interest in all of this? Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin arrived in Havana yesterday for a three-day visit. Among the matters on his mind were issues relating to the EU, human rights and developing trade between Ireland and Cuba.

Ireland might consider sending representatives to this year’s Havana International Trade Fair in November. This is where Cuba makes its annual food purchases.

As for Cuba, it could do with improved relations with the EU. It could also do with some of Ireland’s agriculture expertise and produce. Among other things, Cuba can offer its renowned expertise in bio-technology.

Cubans see Ireland in a very positive light, that of sharing a similarly turbulent history in the shadow of a powerful neighbour.

Ireland has another advantage in that we have prominent blood ties to the island – and not just Ernesto “Che” Guevara (Lynch).

One of the founders of the Cuban communist party, Julio Antonio Mella, who is greatly revered in Cuba, had an Irish mother, Cecilia McPartland.

And researchers have claimed that Eamon de Valera’s father emigrated from Cuba to the US in the 19th century.

As Cuba dances at the crossroads of history, the ghost of “Dev” might allow himself a comely smile.

John Moran is an Irish Timesjournalist