The strategic location of The Bahamas archipelago, sharing maritime borders with the US and Cuba, has posed a particular test for Bahamian foreign policy since independence.
We are geographically bracketed between the two countries. We are also of necessity keen observers of decades of an acrimonious history between our immediate southern and northern neighbours.
As a much smaller country we are sometimes caught in the whirlwind that is the US-Cuban relationship. Still, though we are a small country, we have not been devoid of certain diplomatic tools.
Successive Bahamian governments have maintained a diplomatic posture enabling us to brace and defend ourselves when category-five-like hurricane winds blow back and forth between our immediate neighbours, threatening our good relations with both.
To buffet ourselves while maintaining our balance within our immediate neighbourhood we have adhered to two ballasts that have proved foundational and stabilizing, namely Bahamian national interests and international law.
Necessity has proven to be the mother of invention and neighbourliness in our relations with Cuba and the US. We are good neighbours to both even as we insist on the inviolability of Bahamian sovereignty as do our American and Cuban friends of their sovereignty.
Our Bahamian national interests, which are often of mutual interest to our neighbours, include bilateral issues ranging from commercial ties to matters pertaining to the law of the sea.
The latest test of our long-established policy foundations, diplomacy and good neighbour policy was a well-circulated video purporting to show the abuse of Cuban inmates at the Detention Centre.
Without benefit of an official investigation most Bahamians who saw the video dismissed it as a hoax. Yet it was used as a pretext to launch a well-publicized attack on The Bahamas.
Given the specious nature of the video, many Bahamians were shocked and angered by the vicious attack on their country by a group of Cuban exiles in Miami calling themselves the Democracy Movement, an ironic name given their seeming contempt for our Bahamian democracy.
As a hypocritical aside: Think of the number of Cuban Americans supportive of the US economic embargo of Cuba who have used the good graces of The Bahamas to travel to Cuba or to send money and messages to loved ones there.
The Florida-based mob accusing the Bahamas of the abuse and torture of inmates at the Detention Centre in Nassau, and of cover-up, made it clear that they intended to inflict maximum damage on our tourism industry by calling on Americans not to visit the Bahamas.
There were shrill demonstrations in Florida lambasting The Bahamas, with all manner of nasty and hysterical signs including, reportedly, signage attacking Prime Minister Perry Christie.
When warranted, Bahamians, including this columnist, have not been reserved in criticizing the Prime Minister. But those who have sought to inflict harm on our country, and who have attacked our Prime Minister, need not be confused.
On this issue, the overwhelming majority of Bahamians stand behind our country, and just to emphasize, and in lieu of language unacceptable in a family newspaper: Don’t screw with our Prime Minister!
While the Opposition is rightly justified in criticizing various elements of the Government’s foreign policy, there should be no disagreement on the basic policy in question.
If there was a credible allegation of abuse, those demonstrating in Miami would be justified in calling for an investigation, not launching a damaging attack on a small, friendly nation.
But even with the most serious doubts being cast on the video allegations, many continued with their program of intimidation and attempt of blackmail against the Bahamas.
What arrogance and hubris by those who seek to inflict damage on our economy, while eagerly chasing the approximately one billion dollars Bahamians spend annually in Florida.
They are a vocal minority who should be isolated as surely merchants in South Florida, and local and state officials in Florida must be as alarmed and disgusted by these suggestions as are Bahamians.
Indeed, Cubans in South Florida particularly and Florida generally should not be lumped into a single cohort. Cuban Americans are an increasingly diverse group, and an evolving demographic. Today, younger Cubans are tending towards greater liberalization of US foreign policy towards Cuba.
Yet there remain prominent Cuban American politicians at the municipal, state and federal levels in the US who make common cause with those opposed to the fuller liberalization US policy towards Cuba.
Many of these same politicians have often sought to run roughshod over Bahamian sovereignty, seeking to have US immigration policy adopted in The Bahamas for Cubans – certainly not for Haitians – as if we are a mere appendage of the US.
Still, despite their outlandish rhetoric, various Cuban American politicians know full well that the Bahamas is a democracy and that it has never been the policy of any government of whatever political stripe to practice or condone abuse and torture of detainees.
They know that in The Bahamas we are committed to the rule of law. They also know that despite the best efforts of any government in the world, including their own, abuses are likely to occur in institutions of incarceration, as they do regularly in the US.
They know too that The Bahamas has maintained the most cordial relations with the US and has, indeed, cooperated with the US in many ways for their mutual benefit including joint efforts against drug interdiction and illegal immigration.
The Bahamas must not allow a group of rabble rousers pressing their interest to upend our good relations with the American government, and the American people, including the good citizens of Florida.
Meanwhile, despite the efforts of various prominent Cuban American politicians, the American Government moderated its open door policy to Cuba in an effort to stem the unregulated influx of immigrants from that country with the so-called “dry-foot wet-foot” policy.
Now, it seems there is an effort on the part of various South Florida Cuban interest groups and their political leaders to force the Bahamas to become a conduit for immigrants seeking entry to the US.
For our part, all illegal immigrants and all persons claiming political asylum of whatever nationality or racial or ethnic origin must be treated the same under Bahamian law.
As it continues to handle this test of the consistency of Bahamian foreign policy the Christie administration should keep the domestic public informed while briefing our Caribbean sister states and others of the issues in play.
The Government is rightly insistent that its talks are with the Government of the United States of America, not a group of private citizens in Florida. We should talk also with friends in the US Congress, including those from Florida.
If the Government is to be faulted in this matter, it has to do with the matter of tone, and of its appointment fiasco of an ambassador to the US.
At times Foreign Affairs Minister Fred Mitchell, who is understandably under a great deal of pressure, has struck the wrong tone. He should not allow himself to be seen to be rattled, and needs to be more tempered in some of his remarks. There are things best said by surrogates rather than a foreign minister.
As a small country, one of our strongest diplomatic tools is the quality of our diplomats. Capable diplomats are able to express energetically and articulately the country’s views on a given matter. With one or two exceptions the diplomats appointed by the Christie administration are notably poor choices.
Had there not been a screw-up in the appointment of an ambassador to the US, there would have been someone in the chair to help shoulder the issue at hand.
Further, having Dr. Elliston Rahming remain as Ambassador to the OAS, while serving at the UN is a mistake which the Government should quickly rescind.
This dual appointment will leave Dr. Rahming bouncing back and forth between New York City and Washington D.C, with all manner of scheduling conflicts and unnecessary expense.
Our Ambassador to the US, Dr. Eugene Newry should be made Ambassador to the OAS, which is resident in Washington D.C., allowing for better policy coordination especially with our Caricom partners.
In its WikiLeaks series this journal noted comments reportedly made by Prime Minister Christie in his previous term that made it appear that he had basically ceded foreign policy to his Foreign Minister.
No prime minister should ever make such a statement to foreign diplomats as such an admission may be an invitation to mischief and manipulation by those diplomats.
But more importantly, a nation’s leader is potentially one of the most valuable assets in a country’s foreign policy. Before and now we are paying a price for Christie’s incuriosity and clear lack of understanding of the intricacies of foreign policy and diplomacy.
There are more diplomatic tests to come. There always are. To up our game we need the strongest possible team, including able personnel at Foreign Affairs, good diplomats in the field – and a prime minister more serious about and engaged in matters of foreign policy.