A new US policy for the Americas

Last week the United States Secretary of State, John Kerry, spelt out a new US policy for the Americas. In a major address in Washington, he confirmed the approach that took hold during President Obama’s first term, formally drew a line under the Cold War, and set aside, hopefully forever, the interventionist thinking that has underwritten US policy towards the hemisphere since 1823.

His remarks also gave prominence to US thinking on Cuba, making clear that the new policy also applied to relations with Havana.

Speaking at an event co-sponsored by the Inter-American Dialogue and the Organization of American States on November 18, the Secretary of State declared that the era of the Monroe Doctrine was over and that the United States will no longer seek to intervene in the affairs of other American states. The US was moving on, he said, and was making a different choice.

For those who may not know, the Monroe Doctrine emerged from US President James Monroe’s annual message to Congress in 1823 which in part warned European powers not to interfere in the affairs of the Western Hemisphere. The approach which came to mean that only the US had the right to intervene was invoked symbolically in 1962 when the world stood on the edge of nuclear Armageddon after the Soviet Union began to build missile-launching sites in Cuba.

In a wholly different response, Mr Kerry said: “The relationship that we seek and that we have worked hard to foster is not about a United States declaration about how and when it will intervene in the affairs of other American states. It’s about all of our countries viewing one another as equals, sharing responsibilities, cooperating on security issues, and adhering not to doctrine, but to the decisions that we make as partners to advance the values and the interests that we share.”

In his address, Mr Kerry spelt out in detail an alternative vision for the Americas.

Declaring that you do not need force to have fuerza (strength), Mr Kerry suggested that the alternative in future will be to promote and protect democracy, security, and peace; advance prosperity and education in order to drive the hemisphere’s economies; and that it will be necessary to promote unity in ways that address critical issues such as climate change.

In a message that has as much relevance for the Caribbean as Latin America, and citing President Kennedy’s hope for the nations of Latin America “existing side-by-side, confident, strong, and independent and free”, he spoke about the need for successful democracies depending on all citizens having a voice and of respecting those voices.

He spoke too about the need as a part of this to ensure security at home, combating organised crime, protecting women from violence, prosecuting human rights violations and upholding the rule of law.

In his address Mr Kerry also placed emphasis on ensuring that elections are free and fair; independent institutions being able to hold the powerful to account; and the enforcement of laws that guarantee freedom of the press, freedom of expression, and freedom of religion. He stressed the importance of economic interdependence, shared economic prosperity and the central role that education plays in providing this.

Unfortunately space does not allow for more detail on what was a seminal speech that went to the heart of changing US policy towards the region and which will have future importance for the Caribbean as well as Latin America.

In this context, perhaps the most interesting part of the US Secretary of State’s speech were the five paragraphs on Cuba in which he confirmed that President Obama is engaged in seeking a relationship with Cuba in a way, it appears, that will broaden functional co-operation.

In language without political pre-conditions and softer in tone than at any time since it became clear in the 1950s that Cuba’s revolution was socialist in nature, Mr Kerry said that the US looked forward to the day when Cuba would embrace a broader political reform agenda.

While noting that Cuba was the exception to the democratic norm in Latin America as far as the US was concerned, Mr Kerry emphasised President Obama’s informal but widely reported remarks at a private fund raiser in South Florida on November 8 that the search was now on for a new updated Cuba policy.

Referring to these remarks at the home of Jorge Mas Santos, the Chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation, Mr Kerry noted: “as (President Obama) said just last week, when it comes to our relationship with Cuba, we have to be creative, we have to be thoughtful, and we have to continue to update our policies.”

In what, in an historical context, marks a significant, even dramatic, change in high level US policy, the Secretary of State acknowledged that the US and Cuban governments “are finding some cooperation on common interests at this point in time”. He also made clear that the US accepted that the reforms being undertaken were genuine. “We also welcome some of the changes that are taking place in Cuba which allow more Cubans to be able to travel freely and work for themselves,” he said.

His remarks were carefully balanced and calibrated. “We look forward to the day – and we hope it will come soon – when the Cuban Government embraces a broader political reform agenda that will enable its people to freely determine their own future. The entire hemisphere – all of us – share an interest in ensuring that Cubans enjoy the rights protected by our Inter-American Democratic Charter, and we expect to stand united in this aspiration.”

Mr Kerry also noted that each year, hundreds of thousands of Americans visit Havana, and hundreds of millions of dollars in trade and remittances flow from the United States to Cuba. “We are committed to this human interchange, and in the United States we believe that our people are actually our best ambassadors. They are ambassadors of our ideals, of our values, of our beliefs.”

In next week’s column the implications for the Caribbean Basin of Washington’s changed thinking and the US Vice President’s interest in the Caribbean will be addressed.

David Jessop is the Director of the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at david.jessop@stagingcaribbean.wpengage.uk