The US is cutting loose the shackles of the past by establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba after 53 years.  But the first blow in the Western Hemisphere against those shackles was struck by four governments of the English-Speaking Caribbean.  Today that single act should be a source of great satisfaction to leaders who put themselves, their governments and their countries at risk for a principle in which they believed.

“Trust me”

In 1972, Shridath ‘Sonny’ Ramphal, then Foreign Minister of Guyana, told the Cuban Foreign Minister, Raul Roa, “Trust me”.

The exchange took place on the eve of a meeting of Foreign Ministers of Non-Aligned countries in Guyana.  Cuba was then almost completely isolated in the world and especially in the Western Hemisphere following the US diplomatic and trade embargo of 1961.  In the Hemisphere only Canada and Mexico retained any relations with Cuba.

Ramphal’s reassurance to Roa was in response to the Cuban Foreign Minister’s statement that he had brought to the Non-aligned Foreign Ministers’ meeting “a draft Diplomatic Relations Agreement”.  Roa had done so because Guyana’s then President Forbes Burnham had intimated his interest in “discussing” diplomatic relations with Cuba.  Recording this landmark moment in his memoir, “Glimpses of a Global Life”, Ramphal recalls telling Roa that Guyana would establish diplomatic relations with Cuba “but would prefer to give the three other independent English-Speaking Caribbean countries the chance to join us in doing so”.

Within three months, Ramphal, on behalf of Burnham met, in the following order, the leaders of Jamaica, Michael Manley; Trinidad and Tobago, Eric Williams; and Barbados, Errol Barrow.  Ramphal’s appeal was “to justice, to history, to regional solidarity”.  Together the four leaders announced that they would “seek the early establishment of relations with Cuba, whether economic or political or both”.

A brave act of principle

The decision these leaders took was no easy one.  The ‘cold war’ feud between the US and the Soviet Union was raging, and the countries of the Americas – with the exception of Cuba – were subject to coercion by the economic and military power of the US.  Further, the US was still very much in the mode that the Caribbean was its backyard. Therefore, the powers in Washington were accustomed to dictating the dominant order in the Region and toppling those they disliked.  The leaders’ decision required vision and courage.  But, most of all, it required unity.

The leaders did act in unison, recognising the leverage that a joint position gave.  The result was that four small English-Speaking nations did what much larger and stronger nations were reluctant to do.   They collectively bucked the might of the US for what they thought was right.

So, on 8 December 1972, the establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba was announced by Guyana, Jamaica, Barbados, and Trinidad and Tobago simultaneously.  As Ramphal recalls in his memoir, “The effect of this sovereign collective Caribbean act of principle was immediate.  The hemispheric embargo of Cuba was not just dented; it collapsed.  Today, Cuba has formal diplomatic relations with 160 countries”. And, momentously, it will shortly add to the list, the nation that has been its longest adversary and nemesis, the United States of America.

Toward the future

The people of the Caribbean have every right to be proud of the position that their leaders took 42 years ago.  The diplomatic boycott and trade embargo was wrong-headed when it was implemented and it continues to be unreasoning now.   It should be recalled that in 1961, the US government had other options before it, but rejected them.  Among the options was to recognise the Fidel Castro-led government and to engage in the development of the country.  By discarding that option, the US opened the door to heavy-handed Soviet influence in Cuba; to the Castro-government building-up a fortress mentality in defence of itself; and, as part of the latter, a stifling of dissent and criticism which worsened over the years.

Only the most hard-headed and belligerent of the anti-Castroites in the US, or anywhere else, would disagree with President Obama that “we can do more to support the Cuban people and promote our values through engagement”. Over the last 53 years the US has expended a great deal of resources in pursuing what Obama has rightly described as “an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests”.  Those resources could have been better spent on advancing the social  and progress of Cuba, demilitarizing the government, and allowing Cuba to fulfill its potential for economic prosperity and been a greater contributor to Caribbean and hemispheric social development than it now is.

Nothing can stop the establishment of diplomatic relations now, and not even a Republican President in 2016 would contemplate such a move.  In fact, the Presidential candidates of both the Republican and the Democratic parties would be quietly delighted that Obama has taken this particular iron out of the fire.  However, Obama now has an uphill task to get Congressional approval to end fully the commercial, financial and economic blockade of Cuba that is codified in US law.

A few Cuban-Americans, who are now members of Congress, will oppose lifting the embargo.  But, businesses in the US have long been upset that they have been blocked from commercial transactions in Cuba while Canadian, Mexican and European Union companies have been investing, acquiring and profiting.  Those US businesses want a share of a big market that is only 90 miles from their shore. So businesses will be a counter-force to the anti-Castroites.

In the meantime, there are executive measures that Obama can take to ease the embargo, and clearly he intends to do so.

Of course, there will be consequences of all this for Caribbean countries that will have to sharpen their tourism and export strategies and improve their climate for US investment.  But that is a subject for another column; for now, the Caribbean’s people should reflect on how by working in unison their leaders of the time helped to correct a grievous hemispheric fault and brought a large measure of respect to their nations.

Get AMG’s news alerts →

Sir Ronald Sanders, Expert Contributor

Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda's Ambassador to the US and the OAS. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Sudies at London University and Massey College, University of Toronto. The views expressed are his own.


  1. Interesting historical fact.

  2. This is nonsense. What about the Commonwealth of Dominica who has also had relations with Cuba for decades now? no mention of that. but off course as usual you guys only ever see the larger more popular Caribbean nations (The usual players: Guyana, Jamaica, Barbados, and Trinidad and Tobago). This is the case in everything.

    1. Guyana a major player ???? what a joke. Guyana can hardly feed itself.

    2. Georgie Porgie July 28, 2015 at 6:11 pm


      If you used the magical powers of your brain and the Internet in combination, you would discover that the Common Wealth of Dominica did not establish diplomatic relations with Cuba until 1996. The purpose of this article is to show how Trinidad, Guyana, Jamaica, and Barbados paved the way in this respect.

  3. […] 1972: How Four Caribbean Countries Led the Collapse of the Cuban Embargo in the Americas […]

  4. […] groups within the United States? Considering that a majority of Cuban-American voters and US business interestswould now favor easing political and economic restrictions against Cuba, that line of argument looks […]

  5. I am all for the lifting of the embargo, it is long overdue but to say that the diplomatic and trade boycott was wrong-headed and the U.S.A had other options, one of which was to recognize the Fidel Castro led government and to engage in the development of the country was hardly an option at that time given the course Castro had taken (communism) and his accompanying actions (mass executions).
    I clearly remember seeing pictures and reports weekly in the newspapers of capitalists, corrupt people, enemies of The Revolution being lined up in cemeteries ans summarily executed by firing squads. Right thinking nations did not care to have relation with such a regime at that time. Check up in the archives and verify what I just stated.

  6. Xo & Feroz . I see that even now insularity wants to raise its ugly head. The work of these four trailblazers cannot be underestimated. They took a decision that many thought would be unheard of. But they did and Jamaica and Guyana suffered tremendously as a result. You are both probably young but we of these four countries were very proud.

    Would you say the same of Jamaica and its role in having the UN cause sanctions against apartheid South Africa? The resulf …freedom for Nelson Mandela and Free & Fair elections in that African country.

  7. […] groups within the United States? Considering that a majority of Cuban-American voters and USbusiness interestswould now favor easing political and economic restrictions against Cuba, that line of argument looks […]

  8. The position those four countries took was remarkable considering the dominance of the US and its policy in the Caribbean. After all, the Caribbean is in the US back yard according to US president Monroe, later reiteration and enforced by Ronald Reagan. if those guys had the just a little more testicular fortitude and resolve the whole Caribbean would have been united now and I don’t know where we would have been economically and technologically, but what I do know is that given the collective genius of the people of the Caribbean, we would have been stand on higher grounds.

    Nonetheless, the moves by those four leaders was a milestone and mud be given credit for such a giant step at the time.

  9. The Grenada Revolution led by Maurice Bishop (1979) had a great part in that too

Comments are closed.