Bordering on insanity: 50 years of failed policy towards Cuba

Campaign News | Sunday, 12 February 2012

On its 50th anniversary, Bob Oram looks at the history of the US blockade, a cold war relic reinvigorated by successive US administrations

When Fidel Castro went to New York for the United Nations 50th anniversary celebrations in 1995 he asked “How much longer must we wait for a world without...cruel blockades that kill men, women, children and the old like silent atomic bombs”.

The UN General Assembly had then condemned the Cuban blockade for four years running. Last years vote in October was the twentieth consecutive vote (186 countries to 2 (USA and Israel)) and 2012 is now the 50th anniversary of this vindictive US foreign policy. By punishing its people the US policy aims to bring about the overthrow of the Government of Cuba. The blockade launched after the failure of the US directed terrorist war against Cuba straight after the triumph of the revolution seeks to asphyxiate the Cuban economy, grind down its people’s right to self determination and eliminate once and for all this “bad example” for Latin America. As Bobby Kennedy it is “the top priority of the US Government -all else is secondary- no time, money or effort will be spared”.

The blockade does not allow for exports or imports between the two countries with the exception of certain foodstuffs under emergency conditions. It bars any transaction involving merchandise “of Cuban origin” or that has “been located or transported from or through (or) is made or derived in whole or in part of any article which is the growth, produce or manufacture of Cuba”. It prohibits the use of the dollar for international transactions with Cuban companies or individuals and them from holding accounts in United States dollars. US banks and international financial institutions are prohibited from providing credit. Subsidiaries of US companies or enterprises that have capital in dollars cannot trade with Cuba, and ships transporting Cuban goods face harsh restrictions on docking in US ports. Limits also exist on US citizens sending remittances back to Cuba and on travel.

The blockade has adversely affected the normal functioning of the Cuban economy and the livelihoods and daily welfare of its citizens in every way imaginable, for each of its 50 years. It has blocked imports of machinery and equipment affecting all productive processes in all sectors of economic activity.

In his book, ‘Cuba, between Reform and Revolution’, Louis A. Pérez, Jr. writes: "By the early 1960s, conditions in many industries had become critical due to the lack of replacement parts. Virtually all industrial structures were dependent on supplies and parts now denied to Cuba. Many plants were paralyzed. Havoc followed. Transportation was especially hard hit: the ministry was reporting more than seven thousand breakdowns a month. Nearly one-quarter of all buses were inoperable by the end of 1961. One-half of the 1,400 passenger rail cars were out of service in 1962. Almost three-quarters of the caterpillar tractors stood idle due to a lack of replacement parts."

The blockade has blocked investment in Cuba whilst at the same time causing huge difficulties for Cuba to access key export and overseas financial markets. Cuba has to import medicine and medical equipment from companies that have no links with the US in other countries, something that raises transaction and shipping costs enormously. This also applies to agriculture, meaning such essentials as fertilizers and seeds are expensive, making it more difficult to produce food. Cuban firms cannot import from the United States any materials or equipment necessary for the construction of hospitals, schools, houses or roads. These restrictions mean Cuba has to maintain large stocks of items, thus incurring additional costs. All of these factors have and continue to exert huge pressures on society but they have achieved little for the US.

Since JF Kennedy formalised the Presidential proclamation on the financial and economic blockade of Cuba in February 1962 successive administrations have re-affirmed and strengthened it. Only once, under Jimmy Carter was there any attempt towards rapprochement but this came to nothing. Nobel peace prize-winner Barack Obama was busy talking about a "new beginning" with Cuba and an "equal partnership" with all the nations of the Americas soon after his election. But the stark reality is that he has rigorously maintained the blockade and taken no steps towards removing the legal framework enforcing it.

A maze of laws and regulations continue in place today, including the Trading with the Enemy Act (TWEA) 1917, the Foreign Assistance Act 1961, the Export Administration Act 1979, the Cuban Democracy Act 1992 (known as the Torricelli Act), the Cuban Liberty and Solidarity Act 1996 (known as the Helms-Burton Act) and the Cuban Adjustment Act 1996.

In 1977, concerned that presidents had invoked “national emergency” powers too easily, Congress returned the terms of the Trading with the Enemy Act to a legal authority that they could only be used in wartime. Under the amended law, its use could only be extended for successive one-year periods by presidential determination.

For 34 years these powers have been routinely extended on 14 September against Cuba. The “national emergency" sanctions under the Treasury Department's Cuban Assets Control Regulations, continues today to impose full economic sanctions on Cuba and on the grounds that it is “in the national interest of the US” under the TWEA.

The US Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) continues to fine foreign companies that try to trade with Cuba. One example of many in 2011 alone was ABN Amro bank in Holland who were fined $500 million for carrying out unauthorized financial transactions in which Cuba had interests. The extraterritorial nature of the blockade regularly extends to the UK with fines being levied on banks, businesses and even small shops selling Cuban honey.

The US government's own Accountability Office boasts that "The embargo on Cuba is the most comprehensive set of US sanctions on any country, including the other countries designated by the US government to be state sponsors of terrorism”.

The fact that the Obama administration still continues to designate Cuba as a "state sponsor of terrorism" brings shame and derision on itself around the world.

Speaking at the UN before the 2011 vote Cuban Foreign minister Bruno Eduardo Rodriguez Parilla said the US “hostile and aggressive” policy had not changed over the last 50 years with Washington taking measures to strengthen its “siege” on his island nation in a “cruel and opportunistic “manner.

In a 28 page submission to the report the Cubans call the blockade an act of “genocide” as understood in the ‘Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide’ and an “act of economic warfare” under the terms of the Declaration on Naval War adopted in 1909. The embargo is an “absurd, illegal and morally unsustainable” policy that must be lifted unilaterally, without delay, declared the Minister. According to estimates by the Cuban government, confirmed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the cumulative and indirect losses to the Cuban economy over the last 50 years are more than $100 billion dollars.

Supporting Cuba at the UN in 2011 were dozens of countries, but none highlighted the cruel stupidity of the blockade better than South African representative Dr Mashabane. He condemned the seizing by the United States of over $4.2 million in January 2011 from the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which had been earmarked for funding cooperation projects with Cuba. Describing the blockade as a violation of the sovereign equality of states, non-intervention and non-interference in domestic affairs he said it was a violation of international law and showed disregard of the United Nations Charter (international outrage later pressured the US to return this money to the original project, but much of what it seized is not returned).

Amnesty International (AI) has also recently urged Barack Obama to lift his country’s blockade of Cuba.

AI presented its request in 2009 in a report entitled “The US Embargo against Cuba: Its Impact on Economic and Social Rights.”

Ahead of the annual extension of the TWEA powers Irene Khan, Amnesty International’s Secretary-General at the time, said in a statement “This is the perfect opportunity for President Obama to distance himself from the failed policies of the past and to send a strong message to the US Congress on the need to end the embargo. Declaring that the “The US embargo against Cuba is immoral and should be lifted,” she added. “It’s preventing millions of Cubans from benefiting from vital medicines and medical equipment essential for their health.”

To argue that the blockade is an anachronism in this day and age is putting it mildly. In a global world marked by cooperation on issues ranging from terrorism to financial crises, holding on to this policy relic from the cold war no longer makes any sense. It simply hasn’t worked. It is bad for US farmers and businesses that want to trade. It is pathetic to argue about ‘human rights’ when the US is more than happy do deals with countries around the world with far worse records than Cuba. As one US commentator wryly quipped “Ah but Cuba can’t lend us money”. It is bad for tourism for both countries. It is not popular with the younger generation in Florida. It is inhumane in its universality. It is illegal and has been condemned not only by the United Nations but by legal, civic and community organizations and individuals around the world. It is stupid because it is not if, but now when Cuba becomes an oil producer, having discovered reserves in the waters off its own coast. What sense for the US then to maintain a blockade when countries from around the world are already partners with Cuba and are starting to drill off the Florida coast.

As Wayne Smith (former diplomat and US head of the Special Interests Section in Havana under President Carter) recently wrote “US policy toward Cuba is irrational and inconsistent with what it does elsewhere. We have normal diplomatic and trade relations with China, and even with Vietnam, with which we fought a bitter and bloody war, but not with Cuba”. As a Latin American diplomat told him in Washington recently: “Your treatment of Cuba suggests a certain irrationality almost bordering on psychosis; it does not inspire confidence in your leadership on a broader scale.”

Albert Einstein defined insanity as - “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” US policy has been trying for the same thing for nearly two centuries and expecting the same result. The theory of the "ripe fruit" ? evoked in 1823 by John Quincy Adams ?talks of Cuba as "an object of transcendent importance to the commercial and political interests of our Union" that was to fall in the hands of the United States at all costs. After all this time it is truly insane to think it will.

The Cuban peoples right to independence, self determination and their own sovereignty is sacrosanct and the UK must do all we can politically and in the media, to demand that after 50 failed years the blockade is at last consigned to the dustbin of history.

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