Obama's unfinished Cuba business

Latin American leaders say restoring relations needs to be followed by lifting trade embargo imposed 55 years ago.

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    The White House's decision to renew diplomatic ties with Cuba succeeded in achieving one of its main goals, which was to bring the US closer to its estranged Latin America and the Caribbean neighbours.

    The half-century-old Cold War against the small Communist Island, described as "a thorn" that infected relations, had become an unacceptable affront to the entire region.

    But was President Barack Obama's bold move enough to remove the thorn? Clearly not.

    Here in San Jose, Costa Rica, where leaders of the 33 members of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean Nations (CELAC) are meeting, the message is more than clear.

    "We will be patting President Obama on the back for his brave decision but also calling for the United States to totally lift the US economic embargo against Cuba," Manuel Gonzalez, foreign minister of host country Costa Rica, said.

    He was referring to the Declaration of Belen, which will be signed by Heads of State and Government at the two day summit’s end.

    It might not be such a big deal if it were not for the fact that the proverbial "backyard" of the US has fallen under the spell of the country's main economic rival.

    After more than 100 years of being number one, the US has been displaced by China as South America's main trading partner, including in Brazil.

    Earlier this month CELAC foreign ministers reached a historic agreement in Beijing, with China committing $250bn in direct investment in the region.

    Such a large amount of Chinese money - and influence - in the region where the US once called all the shots, is not being applauded in Washington.

    It also helps explain why ending the conflict with Cuba in order to restore good will in the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean, is a priority.

    "It must be worrisome for a country that was accustomed to being our sole economic and financial partner, to witness the appearance of other interests in our region," Ricardo Patino, Ecuador's foreign minister, told me.

    "When you have a neighbour who is constantly ignoring your calls to treat one of your brothers properly, that undermines the relationship.

    "On the other hand, if President Obama can move closer towards the total lifting of the embargo against Cuba, the relationship with the United States on all levels will clearly benefit."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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