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Raffique Shah


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Brother Barack, Comrade Chavez

By Raffique Shah
April 19, 2009

By the time this column appears in print the Summit will be almost over. The 34 heads of governments will have had their say, hopefully in a civil manner. Hugo Chavez has indicated he would insist on the US trade blockade of Cuba be addressed in the document. Canada, too, is not happy with it, albeit for other reasons. What I found distasteful about the media pre-Summit hype was the focus on Chavez and US President Barack Obama at the expense of other leaders.

Brazil's Lula de Silva is, for me, maybe the most important president attending the Summit. Besides the reality that his country is poised to become a global economic powerhouse in the near future, it is home to what has been described as "the lungs of Earth", the Amazon forest. No discussion on global warming can exclude Brazil, and, to a lesser extent, countries like Guyana, Venezuela and several in Central America that are also blessed with vast swaths of tropical forests.

But since the media and most people see the Summit as a Barack-Hugo showdown, I shall address some issues that have cast long shadows over these two charismatic leaders. The first is respect for the sovereignty of nations.

Traditionally, the US being the world's biggest consumer nation (note well, not the biggest producer), and the mightiest military power, has thrown its weight around for far too long. That was accepted yesterday, before the global recession that is rooted in American financial delinquency triggered a contagion that adversely affected the entire world. Today, the US is mired in debt so deep, we all feel for President Obama whose job it is to clean up the Aegean-stables mess his predecessors excreted.

To be fair to him, Obama has tackled this problem head on. Whether his trillion-dollar stimulus would work is left to be seen. But he has come down hard on the bandits who are stealing even from the bailout-pot, those who believe it's their right to live the good life at the expense of ordinary Americans and poverty-stricken people and nations around the world. His plan to use most of the money to "put America back to work" would, if properly monitored, address that country's ageing infrastructure and realign its productive priorities. His alternative energy thrust is laudable.

More important, the President has not assumed the arrogance that typified his predecessors. He speaks as an equal, even if he remains the first among equals. Chavez faced similar problems when he first came to power. There are too many people who point to poverty levels in Venezuela and cast blame on Hugo's socialist policies. But poverty in that oil-rich nation was institutionalised by the capitalist policies of his predecessors. If anything, Hugo, like Barack, has started programmes that are lifting the poor out of their misery, focussing on education, health, housing and utilities. Should he remain in power for another ten years, I think Venezuela will be a far better country than it was ten years ago.

The other contentious issue is that of the exclusion of Cuba from the Summit. Almost all the leaders attending the Summit see this as an aberration much the way they view the US economic blockade that has served only to strangle Cuba. Barack has made some pre-Summit concessions, easing the travel ban and remission of money. He needs to do two things more: lift the blockade and get the hell out of Guantanamo. The issue is not the prison: it is one of Cuba's sovereignty over its own land.

Realistically, Brother Barack cannot effect these dramatic though justifiable changes overnight. Bear in mind he won the presidential elections by a few percentage points, and worse, check on the rise of the "White Right" that is undermining his presidency every which way. These neo-cons will stop at nothing to regain ascendency in America. Do not rule out attempts on Obama's life. Comrade Chavez knows that. In fact, he has been a victim of the "right" in his country, and intervention by US agents.

He should therefore cut the Brother some slack, allow him time to prove his bona fides. To exclude Cuba from the OAS, hence the Summit, on the basis that it is not a democratic country is hypocritical. How come America is trading with, and coddling, China? Is there a "democratically elected" government there? What about Vietnam, which now has trade and travel arrangements with the USA? Or Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries where feudalism remains intact?

There are no valid reasons for excluding Cuba from the OAS or any other hemispheric organisation. This is what riles Comrade Chavez, as it does most of the leaders who attended the Summit. It is an issue that must be resolved sooner rather than later. Brother Barack would win global admiration if he were to dismantle the blockade and return Guantanamo to Cuba during his first term in the White House. Nothing less is acceptable to those who seek a just world, a world without war, a world in which all men (and women) who were born equal are allowed to enjoy that equality.

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