The Wrong Path on Cuba

Fernando Ravsberg*

Cubans on the Malecon in Havana. Photo: Raquel Perez.

HAVANA TIMES, Feb 9 — This week marks the 50th year since President John F. Kennedy authorized the economic embargo against Cuba.

From London I was asked to interview ordinary Cubans for them to tell us how this has impacted on their daily lives.

The task was more difficult than I imagined, no Cuban would tell me about the matter in first person.

They responded with general data about the harm done to foreign trade, the economy, education, culture and public health care.

Then I remembered Dr. Maria Gisela Lantero, the director of the Cuban program to fight HIV/AIDS.

She had told me that last year the United States confiscated the money sent to support the United Nation’s Global Fund to Fight AIDS.

Nonetheless, the Cuban government covered the deficit, and patients were not even aware that the program had been jeopardized; therefore neither would a single carrier of the virus have been able to respond to how the embargo affected them personally.

People have learned to cope

Somehow the nation has gotten used to living under that blockade – after half a century, there’s not much of an alternative.

The Cuban government found mechanisms to circumvent the financial and economic persecution to which Washington has subjected the island.

Photo: Raquel Perez

People have also learned how to cope with the resulting shortages (a visible example is the continued existence of those American cars from the 1940’s and ‘50s circulating through the streets of Cuba thanks to spare parts manufactured or adapted in backyard workshops).

However, beyond the efforts of Cubans to survive the embargo and those of the government to alleviate the impact on the population, the fact is that a high cost is being paid.

This was what I was told by Johana Tablada, the deputy Director of the North American Division of the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

As a specialist on the matter, she explained: “The essence of the blockade is that it has prevented Cuba from developing to its full capacity. It keeps us from having relations with the United States and also prevents us from interacting with the rest of the world under normal conditions.”

When I commented to her that an American diplomat told me that the embargo was the excuse used by the Cuban government to conceal its own mistakes, she laughed and replied that the best way to find out the truth would be to lift the blockade and “let life tell the rest.”

She gave examples of how the US had put real pressure on foreign firms by pointing to how visas were denied to executives of the Canadian company Sherritt for their having invested in Cuban nickel and how the Spanish hotel company Sol Melia was forced to choose between its business in Florida and its investments in Cuba.

She also noted that the island cannot conduct normal trade with other countries because: “Any item with more than 10 percent Cuban content cannot enter onto US soil. So, if a Japanese company wants to use our nickel, afterwards it couldn’t export the product into the United States.”

The embargo and oil

The same restriction operates in reverse, such that the oil rig being operated by the Repsol Corporation had to be built in such a way to avoid violating that same 10-percent-US-content rule maintained by Washington.

I then took advantage of the chance to ask her whether the Cuban government would allow US companies to extract oil in Cuban waters.

Johana didn’t have to think for a second; she responded categorically that their exclusion depends only on the restrictions imposed on the island by Washington, because “Cuba doesn’t engage in any discrimination against US companies.”

The appearance of oil in Cuban waters could make a big difference. If the political pressure by farmers was able to open a window to sell food to Cuba, the more powerful oil lobby could bring down many more restrictions.

Photo: Raquel Perez

In this sense, Johana explained: “Dealing with the non-relations with the US is complex. A balance must be struck between the need to defend ourselves and our social aims while working for an improvement in bilateral relations.”

But things get sticky when Washington requires economic and political changes on the island as a precondition for lifting the embargo while the Cuban government refuses to accept White House’s perceived entitlement to interfere in the internal affairs of the country.

Thus the economic embargo becomes a political issue of the first order. No other theme arouses such a unanimous rejection among the Cuban public, therefore the blockade creates feelings that are the exact opposite of what were intended.

What’s more, this leaves dissidents in a difficult position. They cannot criticize their main political and financial benefactor, while at the same time many of them realize that the masses of their fellow citizens don’t support the embargo.

When I asked people on the street how they’re affected personally, one 50-year-old woman told me that the blockade prevented her from being politically free. “The constant harassment by the US stops me every time I want to openly criticize my government,” she explained.

Half a century later it seems clear that when the US chose to “deprive Cuba of money and supplies to help reduce (Cuba’s) financial resources and lower real wages, cause hunger, desperation and the overthrow of the government,”1 it took the wrong path.
[1] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1958 to 1960, Volume VI, Cuba, United States Government Printing Office, Washington 1991, p.885

*An authorized translation by Havana Times (from the Spanish original) published by BBC Mundo.