18 April, 2009

Cuba, Berlin, Sri Lanka

The photographs coming out of the Summit of the Americas, to which Cuba may soon return, are heart-warming in more ways than one. The absence of a shifty eyed, inarticulate representative from the United States and the presence of a new president on whom all of the member states, as well as the one absent one, has pinned very high hopes, is perhaps the most glaring of them. The three day summit, has a future-focused theme, that of ‘Securing our Citizens’ Future by Promoting Human Prosperity, Energy Security & Environmental Sustainability,’ all of which are high on the list of the Obama administration, and all of which appear to begin with a new American world view that speaks to listening over dictating, research over ideology and partnership over the flinging down of various and sundry gauntlets and revving up of missiles.

I was also heartened that books are once again on the world stage and chosen as timely gifts. Hugo Chavez is seen rising from the table to hand President Obama a copy of the Eduardo Galeano chronicle on the political interference of Europe and the West in Latin American nations, The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent. The American president joked that he had thought it was a book penned by Chavez and that he hoped to give him one of his own, but chances are all those assembled have already read the Obama books – which probably explains at least some of the goodwill cards being placed face up on the table.

President Obama’s commitment to engage with Cuba by making the first overtures of good faith, the removal of restrictions on travel and the transmission of personal funds, elicited an in-kind response from the Cuban leadership to discuss issues which have been closed to negotiation before including human rights. Here is President Obama:

“I know there is a longer journey that must be traveled in overcoming decades of mistrust, but there are critical steps we can take toward a new day,” Mr. Obama said, adding that he was “prepared to have my administration engage with the Cuban government on a wide range of issues — from human rights, free speech, and democratic reform to drugs, migration, and economic issues.”

Here is Raúl Castro, Cuba’s president:

“We are willing to discuss everything, human rights, freedom of press, political prisoners, everything, everything, everything they want to talk about, but as equals, without the smallest shadow cast on our sovereignty, and without the slightest violation of the Cuban people’s right to self-determination.”

Praise for these efforts came from Presidents Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina and President Ortega of Nicaragua. The latter going so far as to express his shame at participating in a summit that did not include Cuba, and said that “I am convinced that wall will collapse, will come down.”

Perhaps there is something in the air, for, even as these events were taking place in Trinidad & Tobago, there was progress afoot in my own home country, Sri Lanka. In an article titled ‘U.S. has a choice: Are you with Tamil Diaspora for united Sri Lanka or with Pro-LTTE voices advocating a divided nation?’ in the Asian Tribune, the writer outlines the efforts of a group of Tamil Sri Lankans from the diaspora who went on a fact-finding mission to Sri Lanka and issued the following statement along with a more comprehensive call for change:

“…One of the members of “Tamil Diaspora for Dialogue” who along with another twenty Tamil expatriates visited Sri Lanka end of March, Mrs. Rajeswari Balasubramaniam, a writer by profession and Human Rights campaigner who lives in the UK said “This is the time for us, Tamils, to rethink anew whether war and destruction is the final solution for Tamils who have lost thousands of them when one looks back after almost 20 years and we Tamils who have borne the brunt of suppression, oppression, battered and bruised over the years must forget the past and think anew. We know that it is not easy to forget the past after what we went through was hell for many years it is not easy but you have to forget the past”.

She asserted “This message is especially for all those members of the Tamil Diaspora who are especially beating the war drums from the cool comfort and safety of their homes in foreign capitals around the world. They must think anew and learn to live in a united Sri Lanka where all could enjoy equal rights”.

Asked what made them to engage in a dialogue of this nature he said “In the overseas Tamil Diaspora the campaign by the LTTE is so negative and exaggerated. The LTTE is trying desperately to convince the foreign leaders and politicians abroad. But we really wanted to come and see what is going on and to speak to the Government leaders of Sri Lanka. Therefore we took part in the dialogue with the representatives of the Government and got the real picture of what is happening with regard to the North and East crisis”.

Dr. Rajasingham Narendran, one of the other participants, spoke at length about the care being given to the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) in the welfare centers being managed by the government, including the statemetn that, contrary to the propaganda in the U.S., “…almost every one of them is happy with the IDP centers created in Vavuniya. The Government is doing its best to see that the IDPs are safe and looked after well. The people in the IDP centers are happy. There are shops, banks, medical centers, libraries and places of worship within the centers look into their needs.”

There is a lot of work to be done by the Obama administration, and beginning the task of getting accurate information, soothing ruffled feathers and facilitating respectful dialogue between neighbors in its own backyard is understandable and practical. But I hope that the impulse extends to a willingness to support similar efforts by other like-minded people with regard to countries such as Sri Lanka, particularly given that it is now front and center in Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on South Asia and at the United Nations.

I am hopeful. In Europe, the last panels of the Berlin wall are being painted. A beautiful image.

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The Books:

The Books:

On Sal Mal Lane

In the tradition of In the Time of the Butterflies and The Kite Runner, a tender, evocative novel about the years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war.

A Disobedient Girl

A Disobedient Girl is a compelling map of womanhood, its desires and loyalties, set against the backdrop of beautiful, politically turbulent, Sri Lanka.