By MINDELL SMALL | Guardian Staff Reporter
The United States government is to respond to an announcement made by Foreign Affairs Minister Fred Mitchell that The Bahamas would be setting up a consulate office in Cuba as part of an initiative to further strengthen ties with the communist country.
The Guardian contacted the U.S. Embassy both on Monday and Tuesday to speak to U.S. Charge d’Affaires Robert Witajewski to determine if a closer Bahamas/Cuba relationship would in any way affect the Bahamas/U.S. relationship.
However, Mr Witajewski was said to be in meetings on both days. Nonetheless he had contacted Washington for an official response to the question. “But he has not heard from Washington yet. He would be getting back to you on the matter as soon as he hears from Washington,” said an embassy spokesperson Tuesday.
The U.S. and Cuba are often described as regional political enemies since Cuba’s president, 77-year-old Fidel Castro, who has ruled that country for 45 years, was blamed for repeatedly snubbing the U.S. and for working closely with his communist ally, the then Soviet Union to spy on the U.S. during the Cold War, a period of conflict characterised by mutual distrust, suspicion, and misunderstandings between the United States and the Soviet Union, and their allies.
When Castro ousted the U.S.-backed puppet regime of dictator Fulgencio Batista, the U.S., seeing their business interests on that island endangered, in 1960 imposed an economic embargo against Cuba hoping that the move would dismantle the “evil” communist regime.
Only recently, U.S. president George W. Bush announced new measures designed to “further weaken” communism in Cuba, including the strengthening of the 44-year-old trade embargo, the tightening of U.S. travel restrictions to that island, the cracking down on illegal cash transfers, and a more robust political propaganda campaign against the Castro government.
The Bahamas government, in addition to making plans to establish a consulate office in Cuba, would be seeking agricultural expertise from Cuba to assist in the promotion of agricultural programmes here. The Bahamas would also be seeking assistance from the Castro government to fight HIV/AIDS. Cuba has offered to train 50 medical people per year in the Caribbean to treat HIV/AIDS. Cuban officials also released statistics that 20,000 Bahamians visit their country each year and that The Bahamas is their largest trading partner in the Caribbean with $22.7 million exchanged between the two countries annually.
Many local politicians have argued over the years that Bahamas/Cuba relations have nothing to do with U.S./Cuba relations and that the two should not be compared. They maintain that, though heavily dependent on the U.S. for goods, services and tourism, The Bahamas is a sovereign nation with an inherent right to decide, in its national interest, which countries it wishes to conduct business with.
However, on the other side of the coin, some politicians maintain that, because The Bahamas is not “an island” but rather totally reliant on the world, mainly the U.S., it would be unwise for it to willfully engage in any activity that could potentially upset its neighbours, cutting the hand that feeds it.
The Bahamas for the most part has been able to maintain the delicate balance of keeping a working relationship with Cuba without offending the United States.
Meantime Washington was kept informed of the meeting between the Caribbean foreign ministers and the Cuban government. It is also aware of the Caribbean’s new thrust to strengthen existing ties with the Castro government. During the Havana meeting, the Associated Press said Cuba’s foreign minister Felipe Perez Roque thanked Caribbean nations for “their consistency” in opposing U.S. trade sanctions against Cuba and for fighting against the diplomatic isolation of the island, promoted by Washington.
U.S. criticism of democratic countries conducting trade with Cuba has not been limited to small island states. In 2001, the U.S. criticised Canada, one of its allies and G-8 partners, charging that a Canadian businessman had violated the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.
The man, James Sabzali, was reportedly fined $10,000 for smuggling several thousand U.S. dollars worth of materials to the island. Canadians, critical of the U.S. embargo against Cuba, called the charge against Sabzali an outrage. The Canadian government also weighed in on the matter and sent two diplomatic letters to Washington reportedly expressing that opinion.