Korer · Cuba: a step out of the Cold WarA lemon-gold coat, lime green gloves and green shoes: the elegant fashion of new United States First Lady Michelle Obama on the day of President Barack Obama’s inauguration is a hot topic in diplomatic circles.
It is of interest because most of the day she wore clothes designed by Cuban-born American designer Isabel Toledo, and it is interpreted as an expression of the new U.S. administration’s will to improve relations with Cuba.
The United States imposed a trade embargo on Cuba in 1962, further strengthened by the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, also known as the Helms-Burton Act, in 1996, which made it even possible for investors from a third country who invest in Cuba to be prosecuted in a U.S. court.
The extremely suppressive policy produced side effects of growing complaints from Canada, South American and European countries.
It led Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela, to conclude an anti-U.S. alliance with Fidel Castro. And a South American cooperative system called ALBA (Alternativa Bolivariana para las Americas), which includes Cuba but not the United States, was established.
When a power vacuum in the back yard of the United States was revealed, China and Russia rushed in boldly, changing their cooperative attitude toward Washington in dealing with North Korean and Iranian nuclear problems.
China did not stop at making economic advances into Cuba, but went even further to strengthen political ties with it.
Russia did not stop at making a political declaration, but even dared to carry out a joint military training with Venezuela and anchored Russian battleships at a former U.S. base in Panama and at Cuban ports.
Now analysis by leading U.S. figures have acknowledged that the policy of isolating Cuba through economic blockade has not revived democracy in the country.
The Obama administration is expected to change U.S. policy on Cuba.
Soon after taking office, there had been calls for such change; some suggested giving support to pragmatic reform policies of Fidel Castro’s designated successor, Raul Castro.
They are of the opinion that in order to silence the noise in the “U.S. back yard” Washington should disarm anti-U.S. solidarity through reconciliation with Cuba and restore influence in the Caribbean by lifting its decades-old trade embargo.
American business circles, including the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, has also expressed interest in the development of oil fields in the Cuban coastal area and has asked the government to make a big diplomatic gesture like liberalizing trips to Cuba.
South and Central American countries have also admitted Cuba into the Rio Group, a regional policy union, and are calling on the United States to lift its trade ban on Cuba.
President Obama and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed willingness before the presidential inauguration to lift the travel ban, remittance regulations and economic blockade on Cuba, and promote a meeting between leaders of the two countries.
Raul Castro has also recently proposed a meeting with Obama on neutral ground. Progress in the direction of change can be gleaned from signals before the Summit of the Americas in April.
Korea should carefully watch such moves by the United States.
The only countries that do not currently have friendly relations with Korea are Syria and Cuba.
South Korea has made some efforts to build friendly relations with Cuba in the past.
As an extension of Korea’s diplomacy to establish relations with former Communist countries after the end of the Cold War, the restriction on travel to Cuba was lifted in 1995, and businessmen and tourists have started to visit the country frequently.
In the second half of the 1990s, a high-ranking Korean government official visited Cuba, and the speaker of the National Assembly visited Cuba to meet Fidel Castro in 2001.
At one stage, it appeared as if the establishment of friendly relations was imminent.
Cuba was about to make the difficult decision of choosing practical benefits over ideology, despite complaints from North Korea.
However, it only ended up with the opening of a Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency trade center [in Havana in 2005].
It was because Korea had to consider its relations with the United States.
The establishment of friendly relations between Korea and Cuba was seen by the administration of former President George W. Bush as “the U.S. ally,” Korea, providing a diplomatic trophy to its enemy, Cuba.
However, the policy environment surrounding Cuba is changing now.
The United States is on the verge of changing its policy toward Cuba.
In addition, Korea’s exports to Cuba last year had increased more than 50 percent over that of the year before, to around $350 million.
By comparison, it is about the same amount as Korea’s trade with Peru two years ago.
President Lee Myung-bak announced the start of free trade negotiations with Peru during his tour of South American countries.
Around 1,000 Koreans who crossed the Pacific in the 19th and early 20th centuries reside in Cuba.
We need to promote pragmatic diplomacy with Cuba, not only because changes within the country are on a satisfactory level, but also because it is necessary for us to complete the “Northern diplomacy” of establishing friendly relations with former Communist countries and promoting our national interest.
It is time to prepare for the establishment of formal diplomatic relations with Cuba.
The writer is a professor of Latin American studies, GSIS, Hankook University of Foreign Studies. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Kim Won-ho
U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama wore a dress ensemble by Cuban-born designer Isabel Toledo on Barack Obama’s inauguration.AP