Date: Tue, 7 Apr 98 16:35:36 CDT
/** reg.carib: 204.0 **/
Havana to Dodge US Blockade Via Caricom Membership
By Dalia Acosta, IPS, 1 April 1998
HAVANA, Apr 1 (IPS) - Cuban efforts to strengthen economic and political links with its neighbours could help it become the sixteenth member of the Caribbean Community (Caricom), dodging some of the most pernicious aspects of the US blockade.
Declarations to this effect have become increasingly frequent, and this intention was made clear this week at the end of an eight- day visit from prime minister of Saint Kitts-Nevis, Denzil Douglas.
Cuban president, Fidel Castro, classed the Caribbean nations as brave pioneers for sticking to their determination to break free of the US blockade and establish relations with Cuba.
"Our country prioritises relations with the Caribbean countries especially those of the Caricom," said Castro on Monday after signing three bilateral co-operation agreements with Douglas, covering economic and scientific, sporting and migration issues.
Havana is one of the 25 members of the Association of Caribbean States, an economic bloc with a potential market of 202 million consumers and a Gross Domestic Product of 508 billion dollars.
It has also joined the Caribbean Tourism Association, something Castro has stated will make the Caribbean the best end of the century tourist destination.
Meanwhile, Douglas Tuesday assured the press his Caribbean colleagues were anxiously awaiting Cuba's formal request to enter Caricom, starting a process which would end with a decision made by a summit of heads of government.
According to the Caricom rules, the entry request is followed by a mission to the requesting country which evaluates the correspondence between the local institutions and those of the Caribbean Community.
Cuban foreign trade minister, Ricardo Cabrisas, was even more optimistic on his return from a Cariforum meeting - an entity linking the Association of African Countries, the Caribbean and Pacific (CAP) and the European Union.
The presence of the nation in the Cariforum is "the beginning of a process which could lead to the island becoming the sixteenth Caricom State, which would be of highest interest to us," said Cabrisas.
Havana's interest in Caricom became more evident this year, on the eve of the Americas Summit in Santiago this month, which should lead to negotiations for the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).
Cuba is the only country of the area excluded from the American forum - a requisite established by the United States in the Americas Summit in Miami, in line with the US policy of isolating the Castro administration.
Cuban experts see the attainment of the conditions for insertion in the region as a serious challenge for the island authorities, should Caricom enter the FTAA and should a multilateral investment agreement come into play.
Given this situation, Cuba asked for entry to the CAP last March and is only awaiting an invitation to make a formal request for entry to Caricom, having maintained a joint commission since 1992.
Entry to the CAP would allow the island to obtain favourable trade conditions with the EU, something which cannot take place at present as direct negotiations with Europe are on hold for political reasons.
Cuba is the only Latin American nation which has no co- operation agreement with the EU, and further negotiation of this is conditional on reform in the Cuban political system, including free elections.
But through the CAP, Havana could be benefited by the generous agreements the EU offered its former colonies in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific, including preferential treatment for vital exports like sugar, rum, rice and bananas.
Apart from the fixed market and price for sugar, the Castro government would be entering a scheme which excludes the United States, although the influence of this nation would still be felt to some degree.
In August 1997, the countries of the Caribbean Basin were forced to write to the White House rejecting a bill aiming to apply sanctions on Caribbean countries trading with Cuba.
The proposal included the elimination of economic aid and preferential treatment for nations participating in the Washington- backed Caribbean Basin initiative, if Cuba were offered Caricom membership.
The US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, will meet with her Caricom counterparts this month, the first in a series of planned annual exchanges forseen to follow up on a bilateral action plan agreed last year.
It is to be hoped Cuba will be present in one way or another on the meeting agenda, as Albright - one of the strongest supporters of the hard line policy on the island - has specifically mentioned this as a problem.
[c] 1998, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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