That flap in Trinidad the other day, in which Cuban President Raul Castro’s participation in a meeting of CARICOM member territories and Cuba caused the conference to be shifted away from the Trinidad Hilton was reminiscent of an incident years ago when the boorish behavior of New York’s then mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, toward Fidel Castro, met with the same whimper of a response from supposedly sovereign Caribbean states. Giuliani had Fidel escorted from an event in Manhattan while the Cuban leader was in town for the opening of the UN General Assembly, declaring that Castro was not welcome in the city – an action that was frowned upon even by the U.S. State Department.
A rare opening that was, for our Caribbean micro states, typically an innocuous presence in forums like the UN, to make a loud noise as a group, in protest against the despicable treatment meted out to a fellow Caribbean power. But…nada! Nothing of the kind materialized, prompting my recall of one guy’s astute observation as he once put in perspective his own island nation’s place on the world stage: “They’re always ready to show a photograph of the prime minister speaking at the General Assembly. You never see that while he’s speaking, there’s hardly anyone there to listen.”
The Trinidad and Tobago government acted entirely like a member in good standing of the “pretenders to nationhood” club in the rhubarb that came to overshadow that conference, and in the process made the host country look even more spineless. The knock on Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar and her administration was that they dropped the ball as far as pressing the U.S. government for the special clearance needed to hold the conference at the Hilton. The hotel, Persad-Bissessar sought to explain, although fully state-owned, is under the management of the U.S-based Hilton company. The provisions of the Helms-Burton Act, she said, made necessary a process of getting a green light from the U.S. State Department for the meeting to convene at the Hilton.
There is something unconscionably hideous about the likes of Trinidad and Tobago being hamstrung by Helms-Burton, a bit of punitive legislation intended to sock it to Cuba and the Castro brothers. The act, named for the two arch conservatives who were its primary sponsors, former Senator Jesse Helms and Congressman Dan Burton of Indiana, doesn’t exactly make it as one of Washington’s more flattering foreign policy moments. When it became law in 1996, it was condemned by Britain, by the European Union, Canada, Mexico, Brazil and others. By that time, too, the idea of continuing the U.S. embargo on Cuba had gone sour for most of the international community, as regularly reflected in General Assembly votes.
That kind of background to the Helms-Burton Act should make any Caribbean nation, Trinidad and Tobago included, pretty adamant that this reactionary legislation aimed at one among their number shouldn’t be allowed to scramble plans they’ve put in place. Somehow, though, when the big arena is involved, acting wimpy becomes standard for the micro-state community. Whether the T & T government, baring its rookie persona, tripped over itself procedurally in the diplomatic give-and-take, or just wimped out in the one-on-one with the Big Uncle is ultimately a moot point. At the end of the day, there was once again a failure to appreciate that there are some things worthy of standing up for, some causes that cry out for a display of backbone.
The situation in Trinidad ought not to have been addressed in isolation from the overall U.S.A.-Cuba wrangle…which, should have given the Trinidad and Tobago government plenty of reason to not countenance a visiting Cuban leader being humiliated. Those annual votes in the General Assembly to cease America’s economic embargo on Cuba find America standing alone, except for only Israel standing with her in opposition, in each instance only this country’s veto power in the Security Council preventing the near-unanimous vote from becoming a UN mandate. The 2011 vote, in October (passed 186 to 2), specifically cited the extra-territorial reach of Helms-Burton’s provisions in inflicting added hardship on the Cuban people. It’s difficult to understand why any Caribbean government, given Cuba’s state of siege overwhelmingly denounced by the global community, would be oblivious to the need for such considerations to factor into how that Trinidad scenario played out.
When the administration of George W. Bush was hell-bent on its wild ride into Saddam’s Iraq, smaller nations, including those in the Caribbean, found themselves being tenaciously courted for inclusion in a Coalition of the Willing that Bush sought to hold up as endorsement of his misadventure (that tack being employed because so many major powers were dead set against the Bush invasion). How sad if our island states settle for being limited to such roles as pawns in the grand designs of bigger players.
On a regular basis, no question that our mini states fit perfectly with the profile framed by that “nobody there to listen” characterization. But on occasion comes the opportunity to step out of the obsequiousness that looks to be their appointed station. It’s clear that the recent diplomatic snafu in Trinidad presented such an opportunity for stiffening the resolve to make a statement meant to gain some much needed world-stage respect.