Brian Wilson: Winds of change must blow soon

The people of Cuba really need hope for the future. Picture: Reuters
The people of Cuba really need hope for the future. Picture: Reuters
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Successive US presidents failed to develop any healthy foreign policy, their neighbours now expect better, writes Brian Wilson

I have a habit of being in transit when American presidential elections are coming to a head. If all goes to plan, I will be somewhere between Havana and Glasgow when you are learning whether it is to be Obama or Romney.

Not for the first time, I will be leaving behind a country with a huge vested interest in the outcome of a race for the White House. Although hardly anyone in America votes on grounds of foreign policy, every presidential election proves to have implications for issues of war and peace, life and death, in some corners of the world.

Matters used to be even more stark, particularly within America’s own sphere of influence. I recall being in Nicaragua just before US election day in 1984 when Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale were the options. At that time, Washington was sponsoring the exceptionally brutal war waged by the Contra guerillas against the elected left-wing government of Nicaragua.

It was an Enterprise – its Washington code name – subsequently condemned by the International Court and the US still owes Nicaragua $30 billion in reparations. Support for the Contras was outlawed by Congress which led to the Oliver North scandal when the Reagan administration was found to have used the proceeds of covert arms sales to Iran – yes, Iran – in order to continue the illegal Contra funding.

Twenty-four hours after leaving Managua, I was in Los Angeles and reporting on Reagan’s victory celebrations, an unforgettably gruesome affair at which the only black faces in the room belonged to the waiters. My thoughts then were with the poor people in Nicaragua and what this result meant for them – another four years of senseless killing and American-funded terror.

Reagan is looked back on now as some kind of benign father figure. He was no such thing. Whether or not he knew much of what was going on is another question but his administration in the 1980s routinely sponsored extreme right-wing regimes and terrorist groups which cost hundreds of thousands of lives in El Salvador and Guatemala as well as Nicaragua.

There has been progress since then, I suppose. The destruction of any government which drifted too far left for Washington’s liking was known as the “backyard” strategy. It also gave us strong-arm dictators throughout most of South America until well into the 1980s. These days are gone. Most of the region has progressive governments and Washington can no longer get rid of hate figures like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.

Even in Nicaragua itself, the individual nominated as America’s bogeyman in the 1980s, Daniel Ortega, has been back in elected power since 2007 and life goes on. The idea that these countries ever challenged American interests with anything more than the threat of a good example was always ludicrous. Yet it was the theory on which American foreign policy in that region was based for decades.

Cuba remains the enigma. While successive presidents since Reagan have had to come to terms with a changed environment just about everywhere else in the backyard, they have still failed to admit that it is beyond their powers to get rid of the regime that annoys them most. And that is the one which has survived for more than half a century within sight of Florida.

Their early efforts were channelled through the then-standard techniques of invasion and assassination. When these failed, they fell back on economic persecution which persists to this day. Washington’s attempt at an economic blockade of Cuba has been judged illegal by every international forum which has taken a view on the matter. The great upholders of the World Order ignore them all.

Next week in New York, the United Nations General Assembly will go through the annual ritual of condemning the blockade as it has done for the past 20 years. On past form, only Israel will vote with Washington. Britain and other EU countries have always voted to condemn since they cannot conceivably support, at least overtly, the flagrant breaches of international law which are involved in the blockade.

The ultimate condemnation of American policy, in its own terms, is how wildly counter-productive it has been. Its major achievements have been to inflict hardship on ordinary Cuban people while giving the government an alibi for every policy failing. If the Americans had changed course even 20 years ago, after the Soviet Union collapsed and with it the Cold War rationale, a lot more would have changed in Cuba than has actually been the case.

Over the past four years, there has undoubtedly been a relaxation of the hard line on issues like the prohibition on Americans travelling to Cuba and the sending of remittances from the émigré community. At the same time, Cuba has itself made major reforms which have led to thousands of small businesses emerging and, most recently, a very radical move which lifts the foreign travel restrictions on all Cubans.

There is a great deal more poised to happen but is on hold till the outcome of the American elections are known. If Obama has won, then there will surely be real change in the nature of the relationship over the next four years. If Romney has won, with the help of Florida, then the whole process is likely to go into reverse. I can hardly wait to get off the plane.

And why was I there? Three years ago, I was asked to chair a seminar on renewable energy in Havana when it became clear that the Cubans would like to have collaboration with the UK in reducing dependence on imported oil and developing their own substantial potential for renewable generation. I have been involved ever since and hopefully this week’s visit will have a positive outcome.

I have a great affection and respect for Cuba and its achievements which, whatever the manifest deficiencies, have offered an alternative set of economic and social priorities to the world. The Cubans will make the journey towards political reform at their own pace but only when certain that it is not opening the doors to the same forces that have sought to destroy them for the past 50 years. That is why so much depends on the outcome of this American election and what Obama does next.

Meanwhile, spare a thought that Hurricane Sandy was stronger when it hit Santiago de Cuba than when it arrived in New Jersey. The damage is colossal. Once again, the Cuban people will pick themselves up, dust themselves down and overcome adversity. Just like the huddled masses of America itself, they too deserve a US election result which will give them hope rather than fear.