Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1228, (8 - 14 January 2015)
Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Issue 1228, (8 - 14 January 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Cuba and the US: A new beginning?

Cuba has welcomed Barack Obama’s overtures to Cuba, but cautions the US to respect its national sovereignty and political independence, writes Faiza Rady

Al-Ahram Weekly

It is undeniable that 2014 witnessed the most astounding reversal of United States policy in half a century when, on 17 December, US President Barack Obama announced his intention to establish diplomatic relations with Cuba.

Ten years on, Obama finally made good on his 2004 position when he blasted George W Bush’s blockade of Cuba, saying: “It is time for the United States to change their policy towards Cuba. The time has come to end the embargo.”

Notwithstanding the resounding rhetoric of the then upcoming young senator of Illinois, as president he failed to deliver. “When Obama was elected as the first African American president in US history, we were hopeful that Cuban-US relations would take a new turn,” Alexander Moraga, first secretary at the Cuban Embassy in Cairo, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Instead, the Obama administration proceeded to tighten the extraterritorial nature of the blockade. Between January 2009 and September 2013, the US imposed fines in excess of $2.4 billion on 30 US and foreign companies trading with Cuba. In June 2014, the US Justice Department fined the French bank BNP Paribas the staggering sum of $9 billion to settle criminal charges for its transactions with Cuba and other countries — the highest fine for breaking US sanctions in trade history.

“After having put in place an economic, commercial and financial blockade that lasted for 55 years and strangled the Cuban economy, the United States finally conceded defeat because, as Obama readily acknowledged, the long-standing US policy had failed,” said Moraga.

“In the most significant changes in our policy in more than 50 years, we will end an out-dated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests, and instead we will begin to normalise relations between our two nations,” the US president said in a speech televised live from the White House.

“Though this policy has been rooted in the best of intentions, no other nation joins us in imposing these sanctions,” added Obama, referring to the superpower’s increasing isolation as a result of the international community’s decades-long condemnation of the blockade at the UN General Assembly.

Since 1992, when Cuba first introduced a report titled “The Necessity of Ending the Economic, Commercial and Financial Blockade Imposed on Cuba by the United States,” an overwhelming majority of the world’s nations have voted in favour of ending the blockade. On 28 October of last year, some 188 countries out of a total of 193 supported the resolution, while the US and Israel — as always — voted against.

As for Obama’s definition of the US blockade being “rooted in the best of intentions”, the international community begs to differ. Speaking at the General Assembly on behalf of the Group of 77 countries, Costa Rica’s representative to the UN Carlos Mendoza denounced the blockade for “threatening human lives and debilitating public health.”

The “best of intentions” were articulated in 1960 by then assistant secretary of state Lester Mallory in an oft-quoted, declassified US State Department report outlining the motivation of successive US governments for implementing the blockade, namely to effect “regime change” and put an end to the Cuban Revolution.

“The majority of the Cuban people support Castro,” wrote Mallory. “There is no effective opposition. The only ... means of alienating internal support is through ... hardship ... [E]very possible means should be undertaken to weaken the economic life of Cuba ... to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow the government” (1958-60, Foreign Relations of the United States, Volume VI, Cuba).

Notwithstanding the economic warfare and decades of US-sponsored terrorism —including an armed invasion, more than 600 assassination attempts against Cuban President Fidel Castro, as well as the use of internationally prohibited chemical weapons — the Cuban leadership has consistently demonstrated its readiness to engage with the US.

“We welcome the decision to begin a new chapter in relations between the two countries,” said Moraga. “As President Raúl Castro stressed on 17 December, a very important step has been taken, but the essential problem remains unresolved, which is the lifting of the blockade,” he added, explaining that it will involve a complex and arduous process requiring congressional approval.

The process is further complicated by the fact that the blockade is codified in US law. Its removal is contingent on dismantling the 1992 Torricelli Act and the 1996 Helms-Burton Act; the latter requires that imports into the US include less than 10 per cent of Cuban ingredients, while Torricelli prohibits foreign subsidiaries of US multinationals from trading with Cuba and threatens severe sanctions for non-compliance. In addition, Torricelli imposes a six-month-long ban from US ports on ships that anchor in Cuban waters.

To demonstrate his goodwill, Obama agreed to liberate the remaining three political prisoners of the renowned Cuban Five in exchange for the release of Alan Gross, a USAID subcontractor. In his address to the National People’s Power Assembly, the Cuban president paid tribute to the Cuban Five.

“The extraordinary example of firmness, sacrifice and dignity of the Cuban Five has filled with pride an entire nation that struggled tirelessly for their liberation and now welcomes them as true heroes,” said Castro. “And I reiterate our profound and sincere gratitude to all solidarity movements … that struggled for their release, and to innumerable governments … and personalities for their valuable contribution.”

The Cuban Five are Ramón Labañino, Fernando Gonzàlez, Gerardo Hernandez, Rene Gonzàles and Antonio Guerrero. They are feted as heroes because their job was to help save Cuban lives. In the early 1990s, the Cuban government sent them to Miami to gather information on planned terrorist assaults by Cuban-American rightwing groups against the island. After the 1959 Revolution, 3,478 people were killed and 2,099 injured in terrorist attacks on Cuba.

In 1997 alone, Cuban-American terrorists placed bombs in ten Havana hotels and restaurants and one of Havana’s airports. During their mission, the Cuban Five traced 64 known terrorists living in the Miami area and provided four hours of film documenting illegal paramilitary training in Florida camps. The Cuban government then approached the FBI and offered to share the information on the assumption that the agency was in business of combating terrorism. They were mistaken.

The FBI was well informed on the activities of the Cuban-American rightwing. Rather than act on the information and arrest the terrorists, the Clinton administration arrested the Cuban Five on the tenuous charge of “conspiracy to commit espionage.”

However, over and above the superpower’s tortuous legacy of warfare against the Cuban people, how does its leadership evaluate the future?

“It will only be possible to move forward on the basis of mutual respect, which involves the observance of the principles of international law and the UN Charter, among them the sovereign equality of states … and the principle of refraining from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or independence of any state,” cautioned Castro.

This is at the state level, but what about the Cuban people’s exposure to the creeping inequity of US capitalism? “To Cubans I ask, do you want this mammoth python slithering through your house?” warns Norman Pollack in Counterpunch. “Cuban multiracialism alone undercuts the US vested interest in translating race into a power relationship. I fear the shattering of the nation’s identity.”

Other observers are more upbeat. “Cuba is a truly internationalist society, and the work that I see their doctors doing all over the world from Oceania to Latin America to Africa is remarkable,” writes Andre Vltchek in On Western Terrorism. “It is very symbolic — their achievement in medicine — because this is one way they can help the world.”

In 1991, Nelson Mandela spoke in Havana about Cuba’s contribution to the liberation of Angola, Namibia and South Africa from the stranglehold of apartheid. Said Mandela: “We come here with the feeling of the great debt we have with the people of Cuba. What other country has a history of greater altruism than Cuba has shown in its relations with Africa?”

This “altruism”, based on the Cuban people’s feeling of solidarity and internationalism, is the true achievement of the Cuban Revolution, of which socialism remains the cornerstone.

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