Cuba's embargo

Now that the U.S. and Cuba have re-started diplomatic relations, one question still remains: Should the U.S. lift its embargo on Cuba? The embargo on Cuba is actually enforced under six congressional statutes making the decision to lift the Cuban embargo beyond the purview and power of President Obama. These statutes are:

· Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917,

· Foreign Assistance Act of 1961

· Cuban Assets Control Regulations of 1963

· Cuban Democracy Act of 1992

· Helms–Burton Act of 1996

· Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000

The combination of these statutes is meant to prohibit any trading of goods and/or services with Cuba until certain conditions are met. These conditions for the most part state that sanctions cannot be lifted until Cuba goes through a process of democratization and express greater respect for human rights. In other words, the U.S. Congress would have to clarify and repeal these sanctions before the embargo can be lifted.

The current embargo dates back to 1960 a few months after Cuba instituted the agrarian reform. The legal framework that the agrarian reform created made ownership of local farms (including sugar plantations) by non-Cubans illegal after the harvest of 1960.

Although the Cuban government had initially offered to buy foreign owned plantations with 20-year bonds at 4.5 percent annual interest, considered to be a generous offer, American corporations that owned and operated these plantations complained to President Eisenhower and began a lobbying campaign to put pressure on his administration to take some action. Their main complaint being that sugar company stocks had taken a severe beating in the New York Stock Exchange and that they were poised to lose millions in profits.

All of this at the heels of a signed five-year trade agreement between Cuba and the USSR, promising the purchase of one million tons of sugar annually in exchange for Russian petroleum products.

From this point forward the relation between Cuba and the U.S. began to severely deteriorate. Under pressure from business interests in the U.S., plus his intrinsic dislike in the increase in ties between Cuba and the Soviet Union President Eisenhower decided to work with anti-Castro groups inside Cuba in hope of overthrowing Castro. In March, Eisenhower ordered the CIA to train Cuban exiles for an invasion of Cuba and approved $13 million for the project.

When in June of 1960 Soviet tankers arrived in Cuba with crude oil, the three oil refineries in Cuba, Esso, Texaco and a British refinery refused to refine the oil. At this point Castro took the extraordinary step to nationalize these refineries. In a later speech Castro said that he saw the US as having declared economic war on Cuba.

In October 1960, in answer to this action, the Eisenhower administration launched the first trade embargo against the island nation which prohibited selling all products to Cuba except food and medicine.

Eisenhower’s aggressiveness toward the Cuban rebels gave Fidel Castro a defensible excuse to get closer to the Soviet Union. Castro was already a Communist. In fact during subsequent interviews with journalist he admitted that he had became a Communist, Marxist and Leninist as early as 1948; however he was able to turn Eisenhower’s impetuousness into a diatribe against American imperialism allowing him plausible deniability regarding his closely guarded plan to turn Cuba into a Soviet satellite.

The cliché about hindsight always being 20/20 could not be truer than when referring to the way the Eisenhower administration managed this particular sequence of events and how it botched up its interactions with Fidel Castro. However if we analyze the events in the historical context of a United States of America which up till this point had had its way in Latin America and especially Cuba, Eisenhower’s actions are understandable.

A better approach would have been to respect Cuba’s sovereignty and leave the door open for other negotiations to take place. If Fidel Castro was going to join the Soviet sphere, the smart strategy would have been to let him explain it to the Cuban nation without using Uncle Sam as the big boogey man.

The following month the Cuban government passed a nationalization law expropriating all foreign holdings in Cuba. This included sugar plantations, hotels, Casinos and U.S. corporations such as Coca-Cola, U.S. banks, Woolworth, the Cuban Telephone Company owned by ITT, mining interests, and more. In other words all foreign owned businesses were taken over by the Cuban government. All U.S. lost properties combined are now estimated to be worth nearly $7 billion.

After these events took place, the U.S. embargo on Cuba has remained a permanent fixture prohibiting any U.S. entity from trading with Cuba.

In Cuba it is called “el bloqueo” or the blockade, although the correct word “embargo” is the same in both languages. In both English and Spanish the word embargo means hindrance or obstruction. An embargo is a ban on trade, which can be partially or complete with a particular country or group of countries.

The word blockade was appropriately used when the U.S. used the Navy to prohibit Russian ships from carrying nuclear missiles or missile parts to Cuba. However the word bloqueo has continued to be used in Cuba for the purpose of political propaganda. It is mainly meant for internal consumption as a way to accentuate Cuba’s revolutionary struggle against what is Fidel Castro’s favorite mantra — “Yankee Imperialism and bullying”.

Today, although the embargo continues to be enforced, there are a few things that have gotten easier since the meeting between Obama and Raul Castro. These are:

Flying to Cuba has become easier. With the resumption of diplomatic relations, more flights from more airports are now available. An agreement between the two countries has been reached restoring commercial flights for the first time in five decades. This will make travel between the two countries cheaper and more convenient than the old way of using chartered flights.

More Cuban products can be purchased. The Obama administration has authorized travelers to purchase up to $400 in Cuban goods legally, including up to $100 of cigars and alcohol.

Cuba has been dropped from the list of countries that sponsor terrorism. The U.S. originally put Cuba on this list in 1982 for supporting Colombian rebels and Basque separatists. This could be a small first step in allowing congress to lift the embargo.

Some American companies are now able to do business in Cuba. Visitors are now able to use their MasterCard’s and rent rooms using Airbnb.

Mail is now allowed. Direct mail service is now allowed between the two countries. Previously there were numerous restrictions which included scrutiny from the Treasury Department. Many had to route their mail through a third country.

In spite of all these changes, as long as the GOP stays in control of both houses, it is very unlikely the embargo is going to be lifted any time soon. Another thing to keep in mind as well is that Fidel Castro (although his opinions no longer carry the weight they once did) and the Cuban revolutionary old guard (or historicos as they are known in Cuba) could also be in opposition to the lifting of the embargo.

They as well as Fidel Castro might fear that the lifting of the embargo will expose the flaws of a centrally controlled communist economy. As Ann Louise Bardach author of Cuba Confidential and Without Fidel said in an interview with The WorldPost on December 26, 2015. “…on numerous occasions in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, the U.S. made numerous overtures to Cuba, whether it was [former Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger or [former President Jimmy] Carter, or whoever, to end it all. And at each instance it was Fidel who said, ‘I’m not ending this.’ The mythology of the embargo is how effectively it’s worked for Fidel Castro. It’s a wonderful way to deflect the institutional, foundational flaws of Cuba.”

Let’s however assume that during the 2016 election a fair number of democrats sweep into the senate and congress and together with a democratic president a substantive dialog is started regarding the embargo. What are the key points that should be discussed regarding the maintaining of the status quo, or for the lifting of the embargo? Should the U.S. lift the 54 year old embargo against Cuba?

The following are the questions that we should be answering regarding this topic:

· Has Cuba met the conditions required by the various congressional statutes to lift the embargo?

This is an important question since the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act, and the 1996 Helms-Burton specify conditions for terminating the embargo stipulating that Cuba must legalize all political activity, release all political prisoners, commit to free and fair elections, grant freedom to the press, respect and recognize human rights, and allow labor unions.

This is a very tall order, which obviously the Cuban government is nowhere near attaining. The problem with these conditions is that the U.S. does not hold other countries to the same ideals. China is the first one to come to mind. Obviously the importance of trading with the Middle Kingdom, which is highly profitable to American corporations, trumps its abysmal record on human rights, lack of elections, lack of freedom of the press, political oppression, political prisoners, lack of labor unions, and other absences of democratic values.

Of course China is not the only totalitarian country with which we do business. There are many more. Zimbabwe, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Brunei, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Russia, Saudi Arabia plus another forty-odd others.

It is obvious that these conditions as they apply to Cuba are disingenuous at best.

· Does the embargo enable the United States to apply pressure on the Cuban government to improve human rights?

There is one very succinct and brief answer to this contention. It hasn’t so far!! In 54 years the U.S. embargo on Cuba has not moved its communist government one centimeter toward democratic reforms. In fact, the argument can be made that it has done the opposite by galvanizing the Castro brothers and the other members of the communist party to reject what they consider American imperialism.

· Who would benefit more? — The Cuban government or the Cuban people?

This is a misleading question as it attempts to make an absolute and unequivocal distinction between the Cuban government and the Cuban people. It implies a zero-sum interaction between the two. The reality is that both will benefit. The government will benefit from an improved economy, societal satisfaction, ability to pay external debts, to mention a few of the benefits it can accrue. The Cuban people will benefit from more employment, higher wages, a more diverse basket of goods available to them to buy, plus many other benefits.

The losers in this equation are the Cuban-Americans who hate the Castro brothers and would like to see the destruction of the Cuban communist government. This group will feel betrayed by the U.S. government and will surely blame the Democratic Party.

· Perception of U.S. weakness or strength in the world stage.

Considering the fact that the U.N. overwhelmingly rejects the U.S. embargo on Cuba and drafted resolution 191demanding its end, should the U.S. lift the embargo, it would be seen as desiring to end its isolation in the matter, rather than being perceived as weak. The U.S. pragmatism in the matter of the embargo would be a welcomed sign with other countries.

· What about the uncertainty over who will succeed Raúl Castro? Should the United States wait until a new leader is in place?

This is largely a delaying tactic by those who oppose the lifting of the embargo. It also gives the embargo more credit than it deserves. This argument makes it sound as if the embargo is somehow the only thing keeping the oppressive regime in Cuba from misbehaving or acting in a more nefarious way internally or externally. If anything, those in line to succeed Raul Castro will be looking for ways to improve economic conditions and will most likely be interested in forging their own way. Permanence in Cuba for less charismatic figures than Fidel and Raul Castro will require the deliverance of at the very least economic prosperity.

· Should Cuba be subjected to sanctions because it is known to have repeatedly supported acts of terrorism?

Cuba was taken off the list of states that sanction terrorism. While it is true that Cuba has been responsible for exporting revolution throughout Latin America, this has not been the case for a couple of decades. The worst that Cuba can be accused of in recent years is trying to spread socialism throughout Latin America by electoral means.

In a brilliant Machiavellian move Fidel Castro convinced Hugo Chavez that the dream of a Bolivarian group of countries could be realized through the financing of socialist presidential candidates in local elections. Hugo Chavez used his money and Fidel Castro used his brains and Latin American connections. Hugo and Fidel were largely successful in seeing likely minded presidential candidates rise to power in Evo Morales of Bolivia, Rafael Correa of Ecuador, the redux of Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, Verónica Michelle Bachelet of Chile, and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil.

This hardly qualifies as terrorism or even spreading armed revolution.

In conclusion

The United States’ embargo on Cuba has been a failure. This last February 7th marked the 54th anniversary of the enactment of the embargo. Unfortunately the goal to force Cuba to adopt democratic principles has failed and it is obvious it is time to take a different approach.

The Soviet Union no longer exists and any concerns about U.S. national security due to an alignment between Cuba and the USSR are no longer valid. In fact the US Defense Intelligence Agency released a report in 1998 stating “Cuba does not pose a significant military threat to the U.S. or to other countries in the region.” Based on this assertion it is obvious that the embargo is no longer justified based on the spread of communism or any belligerency on the part of Cuba.

The embargo is a relic of Cold War Era thinking and considering that Cuba does not pose a threat to the United States or to any of its neighbors, it is time to dismantle the embargo and allow for the dawn of a new relationship with Cuba to begin.

Removing the embargo will be good for U.S. economy. It is estimated that the embargo costs the U.S. upwards of $4.8 billion in annual lost export sales and other economic outputs. A March 2010 study by Texas A & M University calculated that removing the embargo could create some 6,000 jobs in agricultural exports and travel to Cuba. In fact in a letter to congress by nine U.S. governors it was stated: “Foreign competitors such as Canada, Brazil and the European Union are increasingly taking market share from U.S. industry [in Cuba], as these countries do not face the same restrictions on financing… Ending the embargo will create jobs here at home, especially in rural America, and will create new opportunities for U.S. agriculture.”

Finally, the majority of Cuban-Americans support ending the embargo on Cuba.

According to research the percentage of Cuban-Americans wishing normalization of relationships with Cuba now stands at 51 percent, with 40 percent opposed. This marks a shift from previous years when only 44 percent of Cuban-Americans supported normalization of relations with the island nation.

A Florida International University poll in June of 2015 found that 68 percent of Cuban Americans favor normalized diplomatic relations; 69 percent want travel restrictions to Cuba lifted; and 52 percent want the embargo to end.

Unfortunately as long as the U.S. has both houses of congress controlled by republicans it is very doubtful that the embargo will be lifted. They will continue to pander to the group of Cuban Americans that still live in Miami and are considered a strong voting block for the Republican Party. Hopefully in 2017 enough democratic congressmen and senators can be elected to both houses for a meaningful discussion to begin. Should this happen, it is up to us the American voters who would like to see the embargo lifted to contact our representatives in both houses in order to urge them to do what is right and just.

Other articles written by J.C.Scull

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