EDINBURG, January 13 - The “American Mediterranean” is a metaphorical theme to be explored in a forthcoming conference of seminal importance in Cuba this spring.
Attending will be academicians across the spectrum of Political Science, Economics, History, and other disciplines.
Participants will come from across the spectrum of nations of the U.S. and the rest of the Americas. The creative, provocative term refers to the Caribbean Sea, including the Gulf of Mexico, and the ring of nations encircling those great bodies of water.
The analogy is not to the atavistic claim that the Caribbean is “America’s Lake.” It was so perceived by some political leaders in the past. But it is no longer acceptable to see El Caribe, Central America or Caribbean nations as the “backyard” of the U.S., its nations, our pliant playthings.
The allusion refers to the Caribbean serving, as does the Mediterranean Sea, as a natural ecological fulcrum. It links our country with others around its shores. The flora, the fauna, (the oil) in its depths belong to mankind. It is a watery womb, nourishing us, providing transportation, inter-connections, resources, and challenges for all it touches.
Our part of the Mediterranean, nearest us in Texas, starts with Mexico. New, significant changes (new government, improving economy) are happening there. Your own eyes, enlightened by observations of scholars, can then sweep down, along the coast, moving counter-clockwise. One encounters small, democratic Belize, then larger, more problematic Guatemala.
There, the U.S., in the 1950s, removed a democratic government to install a military dictatorship. We move on to poor Nicaragua (invaded illegally by President Reagan in 1980s). We pass another, now even more dangerous Central American country, Honduras. We gratefully journey on to stable Costa Rica, with its wonderful rain forests (and no Army). The visual, virtual tour proceeds to booming Panama (“stolen fair and square,” long ago, from Colombia, according to President Teddy Roosevelt).
The sweep of the sea moves you past Colombia, previously haunted by the infamous, society-wide “Violencia” of the 1950s and, more recently, by its drug cartel violence. Our path takes us to stunningly lovely Venezuela, its wealth and potential not yet fairly shared. In fact, that’s what Hugo Chavez has been trying to achieve; that explains his loyal fans and fanatical, upper class opposition.
In the middle of this “Sea of the Americas” float Cuba, Haiti, and other Island Republics. All affect us in some way. Cast your bread upon the waters; it comes back to you. This virtual trip winds up on the north shore. There, the United States poses as one of the key players on the stage, an éminence grise on this intriguing map.
This overview could help guide us as we start a new year, with the inauguration of a strongly re-elected U.S. President, with a new, slightly more progressive Congress, with the restrained hope that comes with those facts. Other salient facts about our sister Republics in the American Mediterranean are not as well known.
What my students don’t know about this part of the Americas (and what I hope to teach them, beginning this Monday) would fill several books. The general public is even less informed. I recall my kindly but perplexed Uncle Leon, as I was preparing to go to Brazil to live in the favelas and collect data for my Ph.D. dissertation. He wished me well, but wondered: “Por-ta-geez, whacha wanna study Portageez for? Don’t they all speak Spanish down there?”
No, “they” don’t. They are similar in many ways (their needs, their aspirations, their religions, often even their constitutions, borrowed from the U.S.). But they are often very different. The American Mediterranean alone hosts peoples speaking English, as well as Spanish, French, Dutch, and multiple instances of patois and Native tongues.
It is good, as I tell my students, to “know a little about a lot” (be a generalist) and to “know a lot about a little” (to specialize). So, let us focus. Of special importance to the U.S.—due to proximity and conflictive history—are the cases of Cuba and Venezuela. I will share some observations from a recent column in this newspaper. First, concerning Cuba:
“Over 50 years with no normal relations. Over fifty years of boycott and embargo. Over 50 years of families separated. Ya Basta!” (Rio Grande Guardian, November 11, 2012).
I still feel that way and strongly advise our President to move immediately to restore normal diplomatic relations. Over a half a century without official communication between our two “Mediterranean-related” countries! Really? This is logical? This is helpful to peace among peoples? This is helpful to globalization of the economy? Helpful to anything? Hardly! What rational observer could make such a distorted case?
On the contrary, the current impasse is dysfunctional. In order to start to move forward “. . . let us make things right in this hemisphere [starting with the American Mediterranean]. Then we will be better able to improve relations in the Middle East and elsewhere. It is a win-win proposition” (Rio Grande Guardian, November 11, 2012).
To the extent this happens in the near future, let us not think: “Oh, great, now Cuba will become more like us.” In fact, Cuba and a few other countries--in Latin American and elsewhere--still stalwartly stand opposed to the more rapacious, carnivorous-capitalist parts of “globalization.” They do not reject the whole of capitalism itself. Most systems, Cuba included, are now mixed economic systems.
Many in the U.S. who had hoped for change in traditional, bellicose, Nixon-Reagan-Bush era policies were encouraged by President Obama’s initial progressive stance toward Cuba. “This hope seems to have faded as Washington’s policies again hardened towards Havana” (George Lambie, The Cuban Revolution in the 21st Century).
If and when it comes, reduction of the embargo makes sense; it will probably happen one day. However, even Cuba wants to take it slowly. Rapid, drastic change could lead to a diminishing of socialist objectives within Cuba. Much of that philosophy and innovative policies for the masses are quite popular there.
With some exceptions, those policies have been very successful, especially in the areas of health, housing, and education. Cuba leads much of the world—developed as well as developing—in health and literacy indicators. Changes and improvement of internal and external policies still are being worked out for both nations. The idea, for us, is to let them work out in an atmosphere of respect for sovereignty, not one of hostility, or pressure for profit.
With Venezuela, the need is the same. The U.S. has not been friendly with their administration. (President Bush backed a coup against the democratically-elected government). Those attitudes have naturally been reciprocated --the “mirror image” problem in international relations. However, at least our current administration did not meddle in the recent Venezuelan dilemma. It was not a “constitutional crisis” as Fox and other right wing media in the U.S. announced. Their reporting distorted Venezuelan law.
The debate concerned the inauguration of recently re-elected President Hugo Chavez. The ceremony was allowed by their courts to proceed. In fact, followers of the philosophy of Chávez among the crowds, like Spartacus, raised their hands, repeating the oath after Vice President, Nicolás Maduro, Chávez’s designated successor. They symbolically took the oath for him (Christopher Toothaker, Associated Press, 1/11/13).
Previously, hoping to forestall the swearing-in, right wing groups had protested. The Catholic Church pontificated, joining other right wing groups in Venezuela in implacable but unsuccessful opposition. They demanded ceremonies be cancelled, citing Chávez’s absence, due to his ill health. They tried to ignore the democratic will of the majority of the people who had re-elected Chávez. It did not happen. They were out-maneuvered.
For the U.S., such matters—concerning Cuba, Venezuela, or any other country--must be understood in their context, not subjected to dogmatic ultimatums or interventionist policies. For now, no action is better than ideologically driven policies, unnecessarily stirring the waters of the American Mediterranean—the Caribbean.
What is more desirable is a set of political leaders committed to universalist attitudes, dedicated to seeing the inter-connection of this dynamic part of the Americas. What will result should be more positive policies, arrived at through respectful diplomacy, based on the philosophy of Don Benito Juárez, esteemed former President of Mexico.
“El respeto al derecho ajeno, es la paz.” Respect for the rights of others is Peace.
Dr. Gary Mounce is political science professor at the University of Texas-Pan American. His columns appear regularly in the Rio Grande Guardian.