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Raffique Shah


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Blunder after Blunder

By Raffique Shah
Dec 11, 2011

Five weeks ago, in my column titled “Diplomatic Blunders”, I wrote, “...The US has the right to decide what countries it has relations with, so excluding Cuba as a trade or investment partner is not the issue. What is criminal is for the US to use its might to deny other countries, as well as all corporations, their right to have relations with Cuba...”

I was referring to America’s unjust trade embargo against Cuba, but also to the People’s Partnership Government’s seemingly confused foreign policy positions. Trinidad and Tobago had abstained at a UNESCO general meeting at which Palestine was granted full membership, with an overwhelming majority of nations voting in favour of the motion.

Ambassador Rodney Charles, a PR spin doctor, responded, gleefully pointing out that he had not attended the UNESCO meeting in Paris, hence he could not be the person who abstained. Rodney failed to address the substantive question: Why did T&T abstain? I shall add only that the response-letter purportedly came from some academic whose language and style mimicked Rodney to the “PR”!

But back to my prescient quote above, in which I accused Washington of wielding the big stick against sovereign states that have relations and conduct business with Cuba. How was I to know that the US would rub its “bumsee” in our face a few weeks later? Or, put a different way, that we would voluntarily, not to add meekly, bow to a policy position that was not even invoked, and in the process embarrass ourselves?

What are the facts—at least, as far as we know them? The dates and venue for the fourth Cuba-Caricom Summit were agreed upon three years ago. So an alert Foreign Affairs Ministry would have done all the preparatory work to host the meeting in Port of Spain. Minister Suruj Rambachan might not have had adequate forewarning of President Raul Castro’s attendance, although, because it evolved into a state visit, suggests otherwise.

A head of state does not just “ups” and visit another country; there is protocol to be observed in such matters. Whatever the facts are surrounding Castro’s visit, what is not in dispute is that our government decided that the Summit venue (and accommodation for delegations) would be the Trinidad-owned, taxpayers-funded Hilton hotel.

On the eve of the meeting, the hotel’s manager, Ali Khan, read a Hilton Worldwide statement to Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar: you, Madam PM, will not be allowed to use my hotel for your conference, nor will we accommodate Castro and his Cuban entourage!

To compound the insult, the PM, rather than quietly telling Khan that he could hop on the next flight to Karachi, bows to the man’s effrontery. She shifts the conference to NAPA. She mumbles something about “not wanting to meddle in affairs pertaining to the sovereignty of the USA”, or words to that effect.


Madam PM, in case you did not notice, it is our sovereignty that’s at stake here. That hotel is our property. Hilton International may have a management contract to operate it, that’s all—and I bet we pay them a hefty fee for their services. But they ought never to dictate to us, to our government, what functions we can hold there, or what guests the hotel would accommodate.

You, Madam PM, should have told them to “shove it”! You would have had all of your citizens behind you had you adopted such a stance. Instead, you buckled. And you know what is worse? It seems that Khan’s letter in which he sought “permission” may not have even reached the relevant US authorities. Maybe he had no directive from the US. He simply waved the embargo document, and that was enough to justify embarrassing all nationals of this country.

This is nonsense. I am offended. No! I am outraged. And this has little to do with Castro or Cuba. I feel sure Raul would have taken the jab in stride, and would have settled in at Kapok quite nicely. Also, NAPA seems to be a great venue for such conferences, certainly better than the Hilton.

But it’s the insult, the “bottom in we face” that I cannot take. As I wrote in my column referred to above, the USA is entitled to choose its friends and to make enemies. For example, communist China is one of its biggest trading partners. Last year, the US exported $91 billion in goods to China, and imported $364 billion—a $273 billion deficit. China holds US$2.85 trillion (and counting) in foreign exchange reserves.

Washington dare not tell Beijing anything about its system of government, about alleged human rights violation...nothing! You don’t mess with “Chin”. Recently, China vetoed a UN Security Council vote on intervention in Syria. Analysts project that China will replace the USA as the world’s largest economy within a decade. And it is moving apace with sophisticated, not to add deadly, armaments.

Don’t mess with “Chin”!

The USA also has been strengthening ties with Vietnam, a country that humiliated the US armed forces between 1968 and 1975. Vietnam is also a communist country.

So why continue punishing Cuba? Not even Washington knows the answer to this seemingly stupid question. Cuba poses no threat to the USA, except for its stellar achievements in the fields of health, education and technology—in spite of the blockade.

I wish I could end this column with, “Don’t mess with Kamla!” I can’t. So disappointing.

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