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Cable: PM in spat with U.S. over Cuba

Americans had worries about PM Ingraham's trip to communist nation
CANDIA DAMES
NG News Editor
candia@nasguard.com

Published: Jun 08, 2011

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American diplomats expressed concerns about Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham’s apparent double-talk on the Cuba issue and wrote in an October 2008 diplomatic cable that his approaching trip to the Communist nation was “troubling”.

On October 4, 2008, Ingraham informed a U.S. Embassy official that he was considering joining a group of his peers on a CARICOM-sponsored visit to Cuba that December, according to the cable.

Ingraham reportedly said he had traveled to Cuba “a couple of decades ago” and noted that his Free National Movement party had unsuccessfully opposed the Progressive Liberal Party government when it established diplomatic relations with Havana in 2006.

The embassy official, according to the cable, told Ingraham he was certain that at best the United States government would be “deeply disappointed” if the prime minister were to travel to Cuba.

“The U.S. considered The Bahamas a close friend but such a trip would be troubling,” the official wrote.

The official noted that the Cuban regime had taken no significant steps to warrant such a visit by the prime minister.

According to the cable, Ingraham listened without comment to a message from the U.S. Embassy that the Castro government had rejected repeated U.S. offers of humanitarian hurricane assistance for the Cuban people.

The cable said Ingraham energetically stated that the “U.S. stands alone on the Cuban embargo” and told the embassy official that during a meeting at the White House, President Bill Clinton had bluntly told him that the embargo policy was based entirely on Florida electoral votes.

According to the document, the embassy official replied that the U.S. government was pursuing a principled and long-standing bi-partisan policy toward a repressive regime.

“The prime minister countered that the argument would be better if the U.S. had not adopted very different policies toward North Korea, China and other such countries,” the cable said.

“He added his view that U.S. Cuba policy would in any event look much different after the November elections in the U.S. regardless of which candidate won.”

The U.S. diplomat recorded in the cable: “Until very recently, the PM had deliberately kept his government at a distance from Cuba.”

The official noted that after months of inaction Ingraham had recently named a new ambassador to Cuba — former immigration director Vernon Burrows.

“To follow that up with a personal visit would complete the picture of [the Government of The Bahamas’] engagement with Cuba,” the cable said.

“Dissuading PM Ingraham would be difficult, particularly given the apparent CARICOM cover for the trip and given his having moved on to the next administration in his political calculations.

“Direct engagement by an appropriately senior Washington interlocutor might get the PM to reconsider, but it would be an outside chance.”

The Americans noted in a December 2008 cable that Ingraham traveled to Santiago de Cuba for the CARICOM high-level meeting on December 8 and “framed his government’s basic continuation of the previous PLP government’s Cuba policy as a matter of pragmatism, rather than conviction.”

The cable pointed out that Ingraham, in remarks to the media, distanced his government from the PLP decision to elevate the consultate-general in Havana to an embassy, yet spoke supportively of education and medical exchanges with Cuba and downplayed the failure to reverse course on any front.

“Two days before International Human Rights Day, notably, Ingraham did not make any statements of support for democracy in Cuba or say anything that could be construed as critical of the Castro regime,” the cable.

The embassy official noted that Ingraham had characterized the former government’s policies toward Cuba as unnecessary and ad hoc.

In the comment section of the cable, the embassy official remarked: “The PM’s attempt to have his cake and eat it too on Cuba was less surprising than the PLP’s justification of its ‘non-ideological’ and ‘strategic’ attitude.

“Coming soon after a similar spat over Venezuela’s Petrocaribe, which the [Government of The Bahamas] continues to oppose in the face of opposition criticism, the trading of barbs reveals a bigger difference in attitude toward the U.S., perhaps than toward either of the other two countries.”

The American diplomat observed: “Ingraham’s remarks also confirm, however, that the FNM will not make any effort to promote human rights in Cuba going foward.

“Bahamians appear convinced that the Obama administration will make significant changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba and, though some are critical of the democratic deficit in Cuba, none in power see any advantage in criticizing the Castro regime during a time of transition in Washington.”

 

CAUTIOUS ON CUBA

In the lead-up to the 2007 general election, the Americans repeatedly stated that they did not expect Ingraham to express a great interest in building relations with Cuba.

“From the United States’ perspective, an Ingraham-led government would likely abandon the PLP’s sympathetic posture toward Cuba...” an official wrote in a 2006 cable.

“Ingraham would also give us an interlocutor willing and able to make decisions and follow through on them. His 10 years as prime minister have given him a good understanding of the United States and how to work with us, and he certainly looks forward to maintaining our traditionally close relations.”

A U.S. diplomat wrote in 2007 that compared to Christie, Ingraham’s foreign policy will likely be less multilateralist and more nationalistic.

“Ingraham has been critical of the PLP’s closeness to Cuba, and he indicated to us that he would downgrade relations with Cuba if elected from an embassy to a consultate,” the diplomat wrote.

An embassy official also wrote of Foreign Affairs Minister Brent Symonette in the cables: “We can expect him to be a strong partner for the U.S., who will be more decisive and more inclined to support U.S. positions than his predecessor.

“He will almost certainly focus less on relations with Cuba and he will be less engaged in CARICOM and the Non-Aligned Movement than Fred Mitchell.”

The Americans said they expected The Bahamas’ flirtations with Cuba to “cool” under the Ingraham administration.

A read of the cables show that it was not unusual for Bahamian government officials — both PLP and FNM administrations — to discuss approaching trips with the Americans.

A 2004 cable notes that at previous meetings with embassy officials, Tommy Turnquest (at the time FNM leader) “ever cautious not to step on the toes of the giant neighbor to the north”, asked how the United States would receive the news that he has been invited to Cuba, and was considering a visit.

According to the cable, the embassy official explained to Turnquest “that it is completely up to him as a citizen of a sovereign country to exercise his right to visit Cuba, but strongly urged him to meet with the U.S. Interests Section and with the members of the democratic opposition and human rights movement (in Cuba) despite what will inevitably be Cuban government pressure not to do so.”

The embassy official, according to the cable, also offered to help Turnquest arrange meetings via the Interests Section, outside of those that would be offered by the Castro regime, including with religious figures and the Catholic Church in order to give him more exposure and a more balanced visit in Cuba.

An embassy official remarked in a separate cable: “It is difficult to imagine any concrete benefits to The Bahamas from establishing a closer relationship to Cuba.

“The small size of the Bahamian population precludes major commercial sales to/purchases from Cuba, but Bahamians currently trading do make significant profits.

The embassy official also noted that medi-tourism was growing as fiscally prudent Bahamians seek a high-quality, lower-cost alternative to Miami for medical treatment.

“Ideologically, [Foreign Affairs Minister] Fred Mitchell and others in the Bahamian Cabinet will also get psychological gratification from proving that they can conduct an independent foreign policy at odds with [their] superpower neighbor.”

In another cable, an embassy official wrote that The Bahamas’ expansion of diplomatic ties with Cuba appeared driven by a pragmatic goal of addressing chronic Cuban migration issues.

“However, as a result of embarrassing incidents involving Cuban migrants, The Bahamas’ vote for Cuba on the United Nations Human Rights Council, and the opening of the embassy in Havana, the government has come under increasing pressure from the opposition (the FNM) and the Bahamian public, making Cuban relations a likely election issue,” the cable said.

 

CHRISTIE’S CONCERNS

A September 24, 2007 cable said former Prime Minister Perry Christie hosted a working lunch for U.S. Embassy officials to exchange views on current bilateral issues and domestic Bahamian politics.

“Christie, who remains as leader of the opposition, emphasized his party’s commitment throughout their tenure in office to maintaining close relations with the U.S. and his desire that we continue to view the PLP as a trusted partner,” the cable said.

“He registered his concern that a perception had developed prior to the election that the U.S. was unhappy with [his] administration because of its decision to establish formal diplomatic ties with Cuba.

“Christie thanked the [charge d’ affaires] for this affirmation, and then launched into a defense of his opening of formal diplomatic relations with Cuba...”

The U.S. Embassy official noted he had heard the former prime minister speak before of his concern for the perceptions created by this opening. He said he believed Christie was more concerned by the relationship than the U.S. was.

“[The official] explained that the U.S. understood The Bahamas’ need to work with Cuba to resolve migration matters and look after Bahamians who travel to or study in Cuba,” the cable said.

“At the same time, we sought to encourage democratic countries, such as The Bahamas, to use their relationship with Cuba to encourage Cuban government respect for the same values and rights that people in The Bahamas demand.”

 

 

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