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A Retrospective Look at the Cuban Embargo

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HAVANA - 'No To The Blockade' proclaims the giant billboard which stands defiantly outside the United States Interests Section in Cuba.

Surrounded by high fences and a sophisticated security system, the building is all that is left of once-thriving relations between the two countries.

No one expected things to turn out this way. When Fidel Castro overthrew dictator Fulgencio Batista 40 years ago the US applauded. Its support turned to anger after Castro launched a sweeping agrarian reform and nationalized US property.

Relations between the two countries soured. The CIA backed assassination attempts on Castro's life and helped immigrants stage the bungled invasion of the Bay of Pigs. The US slapped an embargo on Cuba which has lasted 38 years.

Cuba moved firmly into the Soviet camp and stayed there for a quarter century, dislodged only by the Soviet Union's own collapse in the late 1980s. When the desperate island turned to other countries for business the US tightened its long-standing embargo, hoping to do away with Castro once and for all. In 1992, under the Torricelli Act, foreign subsidiaries of US companies were forbidden from trading with Cuba, a business by then worth $700 million a year.

Still Cuba survived. In 1996, in a last-ditch effort to dethrone Castro, the US passed the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, or Helms-Burton law as it is commonly called. The law had stalled in 1995 but revived quickly when two American planes flown by Cuban exiles were shot down over Cuba.

Malecon HavanaThe Malecon, or Boardwalk, in Havana
SF Brit via Flickr CC

Helms-Burton restrains the US president from changing Cuba policy without congressional approval; bans the sale in the US of goods which contain anything Cuban; seeks international sanctions against Cuba and reaffirms US opposition to the funding of Cuba by international financial organizations such as the World Bank or IMF; details what Cuba must do before the embargo is lifted - release political prisoners, or commit to holding free elections without Fidel Castro or his brother Raul; spells out how much the US would give a 'transition' government - up to $7 billion in aid, which Cubans consider a bribe; and blacklists foreign executives doing business on property expropriated from Americans in Cuba.

US companies and citizens too can sue Cuban firms doing business on land which belonged to Americans before the revolution, but President Clinton has consistently waived this section of the law.

Opposition had been mounting for years against US policy towards Cuba but Helms-Burton was the final straw, prompting international calls for an end to the embargo.

The European Union, Canada and Mexico challenged the law, arguing the US has no business interfering in another country's trade relations. It was condemned in the United Nations and by the Vatican and in a rebellious move Japan rescheduled Cuba's commercial debt and granted it more aid instead.

Cuba's Caribbean neighbors eased closer. Cuba is now an observer to the Lome Convention, which regulates EU relations with African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries. Latin American countries without full relations are reevaluating their policies towards Cuba.

Even the US business community wants the embargo to end. Most businesses with legal claims to property in Cuba have actively opposed Helms-Burton and business groups have said publicly that the US policy does not make sense. They feel Cuba is no longer a threat to the US and estimate that once the embargo is lifted, Cuba could buy $2 billion of goods from the US in just the first year.

Havana estimates that the embargo cost Cuba $800 million in 1998 and more than $60 billion since it was first declared.

There has been widespread international support for Cuba among NGOs and individual citizens. Cuban officials say there are 1600 pro-Cuban organizations and friendship or solidarity groups in 124 countries, and more than 40,000 people from 110 countries have come to Cuba at their own expense to join international work brigades or other solidarity activities.

Embargo opponents argue that under international law, Cuba's post-revolutionary expropriations, however disagreeable, are a purely domestic matter and that ultimately, Cuba is a sovereign country and can do what it pleases - a position echoed by the Cuban government.

"North America isn't the boss here," Ricardo Alarcon, National Assembly president and key player in US-Cuba relations, told the national magazine Habanera. "Sovereignty belongs to Cubans alone. Also, what moral authority does the United States have to present itself as a model for society? The US itself is in need of many changes."

There is growing concern that the embargo is hurting the Cuban people more than their government. According to the American Association for World Health (AAWH), many medicines are no longer available because they either have a US connection or are too expensive to buy elsewhere. Hospital resources - including anesthetics, antibiotics, surgical instruments and gloves - are scarce, and the number of operations fell by 40 percent between 1990-1995.

Water treatment chemicals and spare parts for the island's water supply system are rarely available, so water quality has dropped and waterborne diseases are up.

"Paradoxically, the embargo harms some United States citizens by denying them access to the latest advances in Cuban medical research, including such products as meningitis B vaccine, cheaply produced interferon and streptokinase, and an AIDS vaccine currently undergoing clinical trials with human volunteers," said the AAWH report.

The US government insists it is a question of human rights and democracy.

"Our objective is to pressure the Cuban government to make democratic changes, not to punish the Cuban people," said Michael E. Ranneberger, the US state department's coordinator for Cuban affairs, in a speech last year to Tulane University. He said lifting the embargo unilaterally would work against a peaceful democratic transition.

Human rights groups disagree. They say the embargo actually contributes to repression.

"The US embargo is not a principled human rights policy, and has failed to improve human rights in Cuba," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch. "Worse still, the embargo has made enemies of all Washington's potential allies. It has given governments world-wide an excuse to remain silent as Mr. Castro locks up nonviolent dissidents in horrendous conditions for such crimes as 'illegal printing'."

There appears to be little support for the embargo outside the US right wing or the Cuban exile community.

"Cuba may be in financial trouble, but if anything, the embargo has turned the US into public enemy number one," said one foreign diplomat in Havana.

High-level US bipartisan groups, along with respected think tanks and prestigious national newspapers, have called on Washington to reevaluate its Cuba policy and these days there is much talk of change, the most recent being a decision to stage a major league baseball exhibition game in Cuba between the Baltimore Orioles and Cuba's national team.

Other new initiatives would make it easier for US residents to send money to Cubans, allow the sale of food and agricultural products to Cuban NGOs, and increase direct charter flights between the two countries.

The Cuban government has not been overjoyed. According to one foreign observer, "Allowing any US citizen to send money to any Cuban could be read as a US effort to strengthen dissident groups financially."

In fact, US overtures have been applauded by conservatives in the US and by right-wing Cuban exile groups, lending credence to Havana's misgivings.

The anti-embargo camp believes that these measures were designed to forestall wider changes. With a US election due in 2000, no one wants to alienate Miami's Cuban-American voters, three-quarters of whom still support the embargo.

While Washington resists change, so does Cuba, ever mistrustful of US motives. Cubans remember 1973, when the US helped overthrow Salvador Allende, Chile's democratically elected - but socialist - president. They also recall the 1983 US invasion of nearby Grenada, where Cubans and Americans fought face-to-face. The US still occupies a military base at Guantanamo on Cuba's eastern tip, and this presence is too close for comfort.

Forty years after Castro seized power, the sanctions designed to bring his revolution to its knees have instead succeeded in raising its profile. Rather than ostracism, Castro has gained grudging admiration for standing up to Goliath.

Much has changed since Cuba was the bad boy of the hemisphere, harboring hijackers, accommodating violent revolutionaries and lending its armies to Africa and Latin America. There have been recent alleged sightings of Cuban troops in south central Africa, but the Cuban government has denied this categorically.

Today, Cuba's international engagement is more of the humanitarian type, including its recent pledge to send 2000 medical staff to Central America early this year in the wake of Hurricane Mitch.

The passage of time may help relations between the two countries more quickly than Washington's political decisions. Elderly Cuban leaders who immigrated to Miami are dying, and a new wave of young Cuban-Americans may care more about business than the aging revolution of their parents

Fidel himself is now 72, and not in the best of health.

With the USSR gone, the US acknowledges Cuba's scaled-back army and obsolete arsenal are no longer military threats.

The economic tool devised by one of the largest nations to thwart one of the smallest simply hasn't worked and today, Cuba remains one of the few places on earth where the Cold War is still alive.

By catering to Cuban-American support for the embargo, the US may be guilty of political miscalculation, ignoring a wider constituency - the 48 percent of Americans at large who do not support the embargo.

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