By PATRICIA GROGG
HAVANA TIMES, December 30 (IPS) – Cuba’s reintegration into Latin America means that the government of Raul Castro will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Revolution in a wholly different regional context than the one that prevailed in the 1960s, when this Caribbean island nation was marginalized by practically all of Latin America.
In this sense, 2008 has been a very productive year for Cuban diplomacy, and the string of successes are expected to continue in 2009, with several Latin American heads of state visiting Havana, including Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa and Argentine President Cristina Fernandez in January, followed by their Chilean counterpart Michelle Bachelet in February, and Mexican leader Felipe Calderon on a date to be decided.
Raul Castro’s choice of Venezuela and Brazil as the destinations of his first official trips as Cuban president, following his appointment in February 2008, is an indication that he is steering his administration down the path of Latin American and Caribbean integration, while continuing with a foreign policy focused on relations with China and Russia, the successor to the Soviet Union.
In Brazil, Cuba was officially admitted as a full member of the Rio Group — a political discussion and coordination forum involving 21 countries of the region–, which convened an extraordinary meeting during the first Latin American and Caribbean Summit on Integration and Development, held Dec. 16-17 in the northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia.
Cuba’s admission to the Rio Group and the fact that it was invited to participate in the first regional summit held without U.S. involvement, where it also secured a condemnation of Washington’s nearly five-decade trade embargo on Cuba, strengthens the Cuban government’s stance against a possible reinstatement into the Organization of American State (OAS).
For some analysts, the next step towards achieving complete regional integration would require dismantling the OAS, which excludes Cuba. “The OAS must be replaced by a Latin American organization that is free from any intervention from the Pan-American imperial power,” Ximena de la Barra, a Chilean independent consultant and researcher, commented to IPS.
On Jan. 31, 1962, the OAS’s Eight Meeting of Consultation of Ministers of Foreign Affairs, held in Punta del Este, Uruguay, passed a resolution excluding Cuba from the Inter-American system due to the island nation’s Marxist-Leninist government and its alignment with the Communist bloc.
The decision was passed with the supporting votes of 14 countries, one negative vote (Cuba), and six abstentions (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador and Mexico). Following the suspension from the Washington-based OAS, all the governments of the region, with the sole exception of Mexico, broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba.
According to former Cuban diplomat Carlos Lechuga, Washington secured the votes in favor of excluding Cuba “through pressure and extortion,” violating both the OAS and United Nations charters. “It was a victory obtained at a high cost, and it further discredited the OAS,” Lechuga says in an article analyzing the issue.
“For much of these past 50 years we’ve been cornered, but we’ve put up a strong defense,” Raul Castro said during his recent visit to Brazil, in reference to the period of international isolation that began in 1962, as the Cuban Revolution also became a reference point for any leftist movement that chose to take up arms.
Although Cuban authorities deny having played a role as “exporters of revolution” –because, they say, “revolutions are forged by the people” — they have recognized that during the 1960s and 1970s they supported and encouraged armed revolutionary movements that emerged in several countries to fight against their national “oligarchies” and the United States’ “imperial policy” in the region.
“The only place where we didn’t support revolutionary efforts was in Mexico. In all the other countries, without exception, we supported such movements,” admitted Fidel Castro in July 1998 at a Havana meeting of economists, when the now ailing leader was still president.
In his opinion, the region had the necessary objective conditions to bring about a revolutionary process, but “the subjective conditions failed.”
More recently, in his book “Peace in Colombia” the Cuban leader said that “as for supplying weapons to revolutionaries, we considered whether or not the government of the country in question had an aggressive position towards Cuba. It would depend on how far the struggle in that country had advanced.”
According to researchers, the worst moment in Cuba’s relations with other governments of the region was during the 1962-1975 period. In 1975, the OAS amended a 1964 resolution that forced its member states to suspend diplomatic, trade and consular relations with Cuba.
“The amendment of that decision created conditions that paved the way for a gradual normalization of ties with the island for the governments of the region, with the sole exception of El Salvador,” Cuban researcher and academic Luis Suarez writes in a yet unpublished article provided to IPS.
Humanitarian concerns and the successive votes against Cuba in the United Nations Commission on Human Rights — which Cuba viewed as participating in the United States’ policy of aggression — caused diplomatic tension and clashes with several Latin American countries throughout the 1990s.
The biggest row occurred with Mexico, during the presidency of Vicente Fox (2000-2006). But Fox’s successor, Felipe Calderon, ironed out the differences and diplomatic relations between the two countries are now strong, with both presidents planning official visits for 2009.
Today, Cuba maintains ties with all the countries of Latin America, with the exception of El Salvador and Costa Rica, with which it has only restored consular relations. In addition, at this year’s U.N. General Assembly, Cuba obtained the highest favorable vote in 17 years (185 countries in favor, and three against) in its call for the elimination of the U.S. embargo.
Since the 1990s, Cuba strengthened its cooperation with Latin America and the Caribbean, especially in the fields of health and education with literacy programs, specialized medical assistance, and free training for health professionals.
In 2005, the first 1,612 doctors graduated from the Latin American School of Medicine, which opened in 1999 with the enrollment of students from Central America and now has students from 27 countries. These new professionals took an oath to go back to their countries of origin and serve the medical profession with a non-commercial spirit.
Such programs are especially popular among poor sectors in Latin America, and are highly valued by some governments, who see them as a key contribution to integration and development, in particular in the lowest-income nations.
Moreover, in the 1990s Fidel Castro began to speak out against taking up arms to achieve revolutionary goals. “Not even atomic weapons could dampen the hopes of the people; but it is clear to us now that at this moment in time, under the current circumstances, armed struggle is not the most promising way,” he said in 1993.
“Take it from someone who, as you all well know, was involved in an armed struggle and backed armed revolutionary movements, and who does not regret it,” Fidel Castro said that year in Havana in the closing statement at the meeting of the Sao Paulo Forum, where Latin American leftist movements came together to coordinate actions.
Fidel Castro stepped down from power in 2006 due to poor health, at the age of 82. In February 2007 he retired from the presidency, and the single-chamber parliament elected his younger brother Raul to take over. However, he is still first secretary of the governing Communist Party.