Cold war throwback

Campaign News | Sunday, 26 October 2008

In advance of the upcoming UN vote, CSC Director, Rob Miller, writes on the impact of the continuing US blockade

THE last year has been the worst to date in terms of the ruthless application of Washington's policy of sanctions against Cuba.

In tightening the noose, it has been guilty of irrational persecution of government agencies, firms, banks and citizens in third countries.

These are the chilling conclusions of the Cuban report on the effects of the blockade submitted to the United Nations this year.

Last year, 184 countries voted against the blockade and on Tuesday it is again expected that the world will vote massively against the US position.

Cuba estimates the direct economic damage inflicted by the blockade on Cuba since its inception to be over $93 billion, a figure equating to 1.6 times Cuba's GDP.

The blockade reduces Cuba's room for manoeuvre within the international economy and complicates its integration into the world economy.

It has a direct impact by significantly increasing the costs of trading internationally, as Cuba is forced to look further for trade partners and pays a premium to circumvent the blockade, where that is possible.

Cuba's report and the numerous examples given within it make interesting reading, particularly when considering the worldwide aspects that so negatively affect other countries' ability to develop trade and relations with the island.

In 2007, Cuba was barred from acquiring growth hormone after Swedish firm Pharmacia was acquired by a US company. This hormone is used for treating short stature in children caused by hormone deficiency.

Last year, Japanese technology company Hitachi refused to supply an ultracentrifuge on the grounds that it included US components. This piece of equipment is needed for performing western blot diagnostic testing, which is used to detect HIV and Aids.

In June 2008, Whatman plc, a respected British biotech company, was acquired by the US firm GE Healthcare.

Almost immediately, it was announced that it was strictly forbidden to sell Whatman products to Cuba and all orders were cancelled.

The transport sector is also adversely affected. For example, the Anglo-Dutch company P&O Nedlloyd and the French CMA-CGM shipping lines were effectively fined $56,000 and $500,000 for having made transactions in dollars with the Havana container terminal.

Yet it is in the financial sector where the US has begun to really flex its blockade muscles, reflected in heavier economic sanctions and sterner persecution of international banking operations.

In Britain, this affected Barclays and Lloyds banks, which have both been implicated in US blockade activity.

While the banks plead innocence, it is clear that the effective pressure exerted via the US Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) is resulting in a real attack upon the ability of companies such as these to do business with Cuba and Cuban companies.

In August last year, the Financial Times reported that 40 foreign banks were being investigated by the US Treasury and Justice Departments for alleged breaches of the US regulations on Cuba.

The Times reported in June that Lloyds and Barclays would set aside hundreds of millions of pounds in preparation for penalties that were expected to be imposed by the US authorities for breaking rules against dealing with countries that it regards as "sponsors of terrorism," which includes Iran and Cuba.

The US threat is a real one. In 2004, financial services firm UBS paid a $100 million fine to the Federal Reserve after its Zurich office breached US sanctions to send dollars to countries including Cuba.

The British banks seem impervious to MPs, trade unions and campaigners when approached about their complicity in the blockade. As The Times reported, "Barclays declined to comment."

Perhaps the recent British government acquisitions of many banking operations will mean that it will finally be able to commit British banks to better follow British stated policy of constructive engagement towards Cuba.

And perhaps a new administration in the White House will respond more positively to the increasingly confident US lobby of business people and politicians who are calling for an end to the blockade.

US Senator Christopher Dodd echoes this position when he states that "Washington should change its stance on Cuba radically, lift the blockade, remove the restrictions on travel and remittances and open a dialogue on matters of mutual interest."

US hardliners criticise those who use the term "blockade" to describe the economic assault on Cuba. They prefer the term "embargo." Their reasoning is that this is purely a bilateral question for the US and Cuba.

But the fact is that the US is using its financial dominance to increasingly internationalise the economic aggression and this is now one of the most severe blockades of any country outside outright war.

The madness and contradictions of this "cold-war," anachronistic and failed blockade policy is illustrated by the following story.

On December 6 2007, US TV network CNN announced the winners of the prestigious CNN Heroes Award in the Defending the Planet category. Out of 7,000 participants in 93 countries, Cuban citizen Irania Martínez García won one of the awards.

She had mobilised members of her community in Guantánamo province to transform an urban rubbish dump into a recycling centre and nursery for trees, vegetables and other plants.

Yet, at a time when the world faces the severe threats of destruction of environments and climate change, the US blockade prevented her from attending the award ceremony or receiving the $10,000 prize money.

The Cuban report states in its conclusions that "there is no question that the blockade is today the main obstacle to the development and well-being of Cubans and constitutes a blatant, massive and systematic violation of the rights of an entire people."

With this in mind, we can only applaud when the world at the UN votes again to end the blockade on 29 October.

But it is up to all of us to go further and force our governments to enact policies that exacerbate the differences with US blockade policies, rather than echo and enhance them.

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