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Published On: Sun, Dec 21st, 2014

Obama gave us five, at last

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Barack ObamaMonday Column by Emmanuel Yawe | 08024565402

Reason and solidarity have prevailed. We were released from a total isolation in the “hole”, where we were kept for four weeks. We were deprived of incoming mail, newspapers, our legal papers, radios and consular visits were not authorized. Needless to say, there was no access to telephones. After 15 days of these conditions I was permitted a visit with my lawyer under the strictest security. We talked through a glass on telephones. So, our preparation for the appeal has been deeply affected. You might know or you can imagine the many other cruel conditions of sensory deprivation.Yet we knew that through those days, Cubans and thousands of friends around the world in solidarity were demanding a stop to these arbitrary measures because there are men in struggle against injustice everyday ,who unite their voices calling for peace and justice…

Those were the words of Antonio Guerrero R. in a letter to me dated 12 April, 2003. Antonio was one of the five Cuban patriots who in their fightagainst international terrorism got arrested, tried and given harsh prison terms by authorities in the US. They became an ingrained part of the fabled Cuban resilience against injustice and were known internationally as the Cuban Five.

The other four were Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino, Fernando González and René González. Following the Cuban revolution of 1959, anti-Cuban terrorists stationed in Southern Florida embarked on attacks, arson, sabotage, murder, and the use of biological weapons against Cuba. The repeated refusals by the United Nations and the US government to take actions to prevent such attacks made a group of unarmed volunteers from Cuba to move to the United States to monitor the activities of the mercenary groups.

In September, 1998 five of these men were arrested and their ordeal began.The US government which says it is leading the war against terrorism arrested and imprisoned men who were fighting side by side with her.It is, however, a typical reflection of the contradictions that have trailed American/ Cuban relations since Fidel Castro seized power on New Year eve in 1958. Two years after that historic event, America elected into office John F. Kennedy, a youthful 43-year old, as President. Castro and Kennedy’s rise to power was evidence that a new generation of leaders had come to town in both countries. Both leaders sought sweeping reforms in Latin America even as they disagreed on the details.

The emergence of a Communist government 90 miles off the American coast sent cold shivers to Washington. Castro did not help matters by expropriating American owned property and embarking on frequent and vigorous denunciation of the US. What caught the attention of many Latin Americans was his seeming ability to defy the US and get away with it. He stimulated revolutionary fervor throughout the continent.

Kennedy responded with what he called “the Alliance of Progress”. Early in his Presidency, he invited the Latin American Diplomatic corps to the White House and unveiled the program.  It was his answer to the economic and social injustices that have produced the stark contrasts with roots that nurture revolutions in Latin America.  At that meeting, he made the immortal pronouncement: “Those who make peaceful change impossible will make violent change inevitable.”

But there was another key element which Kennedy, for obvious reasons, did not allude to in his address to the Latin American diplomatic corps – a plot to overthrow and assassinate Fidel Castro. That plot failed. The Bay of Pigs invasion was, in fact, the most disastrous military humiliation of the US in modern times.

Things got worse with the Cuban missile crisis. The US imposed chocking economic sanctions on the tiny and already impoverished island, covering trade and diplomatic embargo, travel and financial restrictions all enforced by a military blockade against Cuba. In desperation, Cuba turned to the Soviet Union in the days of the cold war. It was the generous subsidies from the Soviet Block that helped to sustain the Cuban revolution until the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and the USSR. Cuba was left to fend herself – alone.

Against all odds, Cuba between 1959 and today is a story too good to be true. From the depths of national illiteracy, Cubano’s as they proudly call themselves have lifted themselves up to almost 100% literacy level today. Education is free and compulsory from primary to secondary level. It is free but not compulsory at the university level. Cuba has the highest literacy level in the world today according to UNESCO. Health care is free for all Cubanos. According to the World Health Organisation, Cuba has the best health delivery system in the world. Cuba is the only country in the world that has brought HIV/AIDS to its knees within its borders. Housing for all citizens is available and certainly affordable.

Barack Obama’s victory at the polls in 2008 raised the hopes of many who believed that given his disadvantaged background, he wouldresolve one of the last vestiges of the cold war conflict – the Cuban problem. As President, Obama encouraged these hopes in the beginning when he lifted all restrictions on Cuban American visits soon after taking office. His new policy boosted contact between the two countries and as many as 400,000 Americans visited Cuba in 2011. The policy would have certainly ensured a better understanding of Cuba by Americans.

Unfortunately, Obama soon changed gear. He stepped up financial sanctions against Cuba under the anti-terrorism laws and in his re-election year issued additional tough travel guidelines.These new guidelines brought huge negative effects on the progress made after his initial policy thrust.

An opportunity for this breakthrough was offered to Obama early in the life of his administration in 2009 by Latin American nations. Voting at a meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS) in Honduras, they overwhelmingly rejected the nearly 50-year-old US policy towards Cuba by revoking the 1962 suspension of Cuba from the multinational group.The vote was largely a diplomatic test for Obama by the Latin American countries who were charmed by his electoral campaign that had “change” as its mantra. It was a test Obama failed, rather woefully.

But halfway into his second term today, Obama has now made a second first in the history of the Presidency of the United States.   Last week, he released three of the five prisoners – two had earlier served out their sentences and were released. In the Cuban capital, Havana, crowds took to the streets to celebrate the release of the three and the prospects of a lifting the trade embargo.

President Obama has not only given Cubanos and the rest of the world five; he promises even more. In his words, “In the coming months, we will re-establish an embassy in Havana and carry out high-level exchanges and visits between our two governments as part of the normalisation process.”Before these landmark decisions, we were almost getting tired of hearing that he was the first black President of the US. Obama has now resolved a problem that all other American presidents before him allowed to fester even before his birth.

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