Sunday,23 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1318, (3 - 9 November 2016)
Sunday,23 September, 2018
Issue 1318, (3 - 9 November 2016)

Ahram Weekly

US blockade against Cuba prevails, 56 years on

In spite of the Obama administration’s rhetoric to the contrary, Cuba’s superpower neighbour is still choking the Cuban economy and Cuban people, writes Faiza Rady

Al-Ahram Weekly

“Although US President Barack Obama took the historic initiative to establish diplomatic relations with Cuba and dismissed his country’s long-standing blockade as an ‘outdated approach’ and a ‘failed policy’, adding that no other nation joined the US in imposing sanctions on the island, the blockade still stands,” said Cuban Ambassador to Cairo Otto Vaillant in his address to a recent press conference.

“In March of 2016, when Obama visited Havana, he repeated his commitment to end what he euphemistically called the ‘embargo’ — which is a misnomer, as we have reiterated many times over. We Cubans refer to it as a ‘blockade’, because it extends to other countries; it is multilateral in its outreach, whereas an embargo is bilateral. Still, misnomers aside, what made us hopeful then was that Obama called on the US Congress to dismantle the blockade that, to use his words, only ‘harms the Cuban people instead of helping them’. Even so, regardless of the fact that Obama has changed some of its terms, the blockade — the longest enduring blockade in history — continues to harm the Cuban people. Between March 2015 and March 2016, the cost of US sanctions totalled the exorbitant sum of $4,680,300,000,” Vaillant explained.

At the annual United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) session on 26 October, the Cuban government presented its yearly resolution on the “Necessity of Ending the Economic, Commercial and Financial Blockade Imposed by the United States against Cuba”. For the first time since Cuba introduced its resolution to the UNGA 24 years ago, the US abstained from voting against it. Tailing the US vote as always, Israel similarly abstained — also for the first time since 1992.

As for the international vote in favour of ending the blockade, it was indeed historic: of the 193 nations represented in the General Assembly, 191 voted against the blockade, with two abstentions, as noted.

Commenting on the US abstention, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla said it was a “positive sign” that, he hoped, would be “reflected in reality”. “It has taken 24 years for the solitary vote of the US in the General Assembly to be rectified; it has taken 24 years of isolation and failure, and 58 years of resistance by the Cuban people,” Parrilla told the assembled UN delegates.

Samantha Power, the US representative to the UN, nearly echoed the Cuban foreign minister’s words, saying that the vote on Cuba’s resolution was a perfect example of the failure of the US policy intent to isolate Cuba, which has backfired and left the US isolated instead.

If this is the case, what then prevents the US administration from lifting the blockade? Though only Congress holds the power to end to it, the US president has sufficient executive leeway to at least ease some of its terms. Since the US has established diplomatic relations with Cuba, Obama has done so, but on a limited scale. He has consistently failed to use his full executive prerogatives to minimise the blockade’s harmful effects on the Cuban people.

While Obama has partially lifted the travel ban to Cuba to exclude 12 select categories of people, the ban on regular US tourists traveling to the island remains in effect. This is contingent on the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Act of 2000 prohibiting US tourism to Cuba, which can only be scrapped by Congress.

On the brighter side of things, the semblance of a ray of hope lurks on the horizon, at least for North American smokers of cigars and aficionados of Cuban rum. Earlier this month, the US government announced that the select category of US citizens allowed to visit Cuba will be permitted to buy cigars and rum bottles to their hearts’ content and take them back home, for the ban of such products entering the US has been lifted. The news went viral, making headlines around the world. Nonetheless, the ban on the import of Cuban rum and cigars remains in place.

Media sensationalism aside, as already noted the blockade continues to negatively affect most of the island’s industries. US exports and investments in Cuba are limited to goods and services in telecommunications, in addition to construction materials and equipment, on the express condition that their use be restricted to the private sector. This, though Obama is empowered to expand US exports to other vital sectors of the Cuban economy, like mining, tourism, biotechnology and energy production industries, reports the Cuban daily Granma.

Or, take the case of the import of Cuban public sector goods to the US, which is banned with the notable exception of biopharmaceuticals (those were authorised earlier this month following long-standing pressures and much muscle flexing from big pharma). “The US corporations are fully aware of the profits they can reap from importing potentially life-saving Cuban pharmaceuticals that cannot currently be produced in the US,” Alexander Morago, first secretary of the Cuban Embassy, told Al-Ahram Weekly. “For example, the Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology has developed Heberprot-P, a new medication for the therapy of severe ulcers of the diabetic foot that has benefited over 230,000 patients worldwide. In the case of the US, the 2014 National Diabetes Statistics Report estimates that 9.3 per cent of the population is diabetic; totalling some 29.2 million people, of whom 204,296 develop diabetic foot complications which result in over 70,000 yearly amputations. Such human suffering could be prevented by marketing Heberprot-P,” Morago explained.

But let us turn to terms of the blockade the US president cannot alter because they involve sanctions enshrined in laws that only Congress can dismantle, such as the 1992 Torricelli Act and the 1996 Helms-Burton Bill. The latter requires that imports into the US include less than 10 per cent of Cuban ingredients, while the former imposes a six-month ban from US ports on ships that anchor in Cuban waters and prohibits US subsidiaries in third countries from trading with Cuba. Because international banks and companies dealing with both Cuban and US banks have been consistently slapped with harsh sanctions, Cuba’s international financial transactions are seriously impeded. To quote a few examples among many: on 20 October 2015, the French bank Credit Agricole was made to pay the astronomical fine of $1,116, 893, 585 for violating US sanctions against Cuba and other countries. On a less dramatic note, at the end of November 2015 the US company PayPal blocked the account of the German company Proticket, used by customers in Dortmund to buy tickets for the musical comedy Soy Cubano and a concert by Cuban singer Addis Mercedes.

In the end, what motivates the superpower to persist in its relentless assault on Cuba’s economy and its people? “Cuba especially has suffered from US terrorist attacks and economic strangulation as punishment for its independence and its successful defiance of US policies,” says prominent writer Noam Chomsky.

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