The Cuban Embargo: The Last Piece of the Berlin Wall?

The recent anniversary for the fall of Berlin Wall, united with the increased tensions between Unites States and Russia have brought to attention the Cold War in both the memory of what it used to be and what it can be in the near future.  If the official Cold War ended from the wall disappearance, it is also true that not everything was confined to the past and some remnants of that era survived and maybe could be at the centre of a renewed version of that tension. If the Warsaw Pact was dismantled thus paving the way and hopes (soon disillusioned) of a more peaceful world, on the other NATO did not cease to exist continuing in its controversial role as a western military umbrella. But it is another heredity of the Cold War years that is increasingly generating attention and discomfort in the West and even in the US: the Cuban embargo.untitled

Since the collapsed of the Soviet Union, the Cuban embargo, which limits American businesses from conducting business with Cuban interests, is still in effect and is the most enduring trade embargo in modern history.

El Bloqueo: Origin and Consequences

The United States embargo against Cuba, known also as el bloqueo, is a commercial, economic, and financial embargo imposed on Cuba on 19 October 1960. Currently, the Cuban embargo is enforced mainly with six statutes: the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917, the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, the Cuba Assets Control Regulations of 1963, the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992, the Helms–Burton Act of 1996, and the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000.

All these acts introduced further restrictions to the existing embargo of which the most important are:

  • The Cuban Democracy Act, signed into law in 1992, with the stated purpose of maintaining sanctions on Cuba so long as the Cuban government refuses to move toward “democratization and greater respect for human rights”.
  • The Helms–Burton Act, passed by Congress in 1996, which further restricted US citizens from doing business in or with Cuba, and mandated restrictions on giving public or private assistance to any successor government in Havana unless and until certain claims against the Cuban government are met.

Despite the nature of the embargo, the US blocked physically the island with a naval action only during the Missile Crisis on 1962. In fact the US does not block Cuba’s trade with third-party countries which are not under their jurisdiction. Nevertheless, many points at the fact that in an unbalanced alliance where the US are clearly the major market and a strong player and influencers, foreign countries that trade with Cuba could be penalised in which has been condemned as an “extraterritorial” measure that contravenes the sovereign equality of States, and freedom of trade. Cuba on the other end can, and does, conduct international trade with many third-party countries and it has been a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) since 1995.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates that the embargo costs the U.S. economy $1.2 billion per year in lost sales and exports, while the Cuban government estimates that the embargo costs the island itself $685 million annually. The self-proclaimed non-partisan Cuba Policy Foundation estimates that the embargo costs the U.S. economy $3.6 billion per year in economic output.

The embargo has been criticized for its effects on food, clean water, medicine, and other economic needs of the Cuban population. Criticism has come from the Cuban government, citizens and groups within Cuba, international organizations and leaders including Barack Obama. Some academic critics, outside Cuba, have also linked the embargo to shortages of medical supplies which have resulted in a series to epidemics of specific diseases, including neurological disorders and blindness caused by poor nutrition. George P. Shultz, who served as Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan, calls the continued embargo “insane”. Some American business leaders openly call for an end to the embargo as, they argue, as long as the embargo continues, US business cannot benefit from market restrictions especially against those countries that actually trade with Cuba. Some religious leaders oppose the embargo for a variety of reasons, including humanitarian and economic hardships that imposes on Cubans. In 2010 seventy-four of Cuba’s dissidents signed a letter to the United States Congress in support of a bill that would lift the U.S. travel ban for Americans wishing to visit Cuba. The signers include blogger Yoani Sanchez and hunger striker Guillermo Farinas, as well as Elizardo Sanchez, head of Cuba’s most prominent human rights group and Miriam Levi, who helped found the Damas de Blanco, or Ladies in White, a group of wives and mothers of jailed dissidents.

A 2008 USA Today/Gallup Poll indicated that Americans believe that diplomatic relations “should” be re-established with Cuba, 61% in favour, 31% opposed. In 2009, U.S. Polling indicates that the American public is currently in favor of ending the embargo, 51% against 36%. In January 2012, an Angus Reid Public Opinion poll showed 57% of Americans calling for the end of the travel ban that prevents most Americans from visiting Cuba, with only 27% disagreeing.

After taking office, the current US President Barack Obama outlined a series of steps that Cuba could take to demonstrate a willingness to open its society, including releasing political prisoners, allowing United States telecommunications companies to operate on the island and ending government fees on U.S. dollars sent by relatives in the United States. President Obama stated that, without improved human rights and freedoms by Cuba, the embargo remains, U.S.–Cuba relations stay frozen and Cuba also remains one of the four countries (Iran, Sudan, and Syria) in the world designated as a State Sponsor of Terrorism by the United States Department of State. Nevertheless, President Barack Obama also introduce some changes as easing the travel ban, allowing Cuban-Americans, students and religious missionaries to travel to Cuba if they meet certain restrictions. Beyond Cuba’s human rights violations and its “state sponsored terrorism” designation, the United States claims $6 billion against the Cuban government.

 

The Last brick of the Berlin Wall or the first brick of a new one?

Born as a reprisal for Cuba’s alignment with the Soviet Union, the embargo was defined also as a sort of cordon sanitaire against communism spreading to the rest of Latin America and as a warning to other countries. All NATO members observed the embargo quite strictly during the Cold War, but since its end its existence started to create uneasiness even in the US allies.

US still support the embargo even though the USSR collapsed in 1991, the Warsaw Pact has been dismantled and thus disappearing any sort of threat to US security. The idea of claiming that Cuba in itself could pose a threat to US stability is as unrealistic as unjustified, especially when compared to more aggressive countries such North Korea or Iran. Although it is true that Cuba maintained an efficient military apparatus, that proved to be quite strong during the Cold War, it is now clearly on a position to self defence and cannot be a match to the military might of Washington. Cuba does not interfere in other Latin American countries policies nor tries to overthrow any government. Nevertheless, Cuba was included by the Bush administration into the “axis of evil” that, even among US allies, generated perplexities and questions whether this was a farce.

One of the main reasons advocated by US for keeping the embargo is Cuba’s poor performance on freedom and democracy, although other countries that do not score better than Cuba, like China, have political and trading relations with the US. For many the embargo is a bitter revenge for daring an independent action and is judged also a sort of cowardly attack on a country clearly incapable to stand the challenge. On the other hand many questions that the same reasons that led to the Cuban embargo forty years ago are not dissimilar from the recent experiences in Venezuela or in Bolivia, therefore highlighting that the rules of the Cold War do not apply anymore.

Whilst President Obama and the Democratic Party are possibly open to a discussion if there is willingness in La Havana, the republicans on the other that count on the electoral support of Cuban dissident in Florida, are more cautious or even hostile to an end of the embargo. For these irreducible lifting the embargo would be considered a sign of weakness especially under the current international scenario.

The problem is that the risks associated with the status quo are probably more dangerous than the prospect of an end of the embargo.

On foreign policy the main risks associated could be the “hijack” of the Cuban issue for a new Cold War scenario, possibly now developing. Russia may find a renewed interest in supporting again Cuba to undermine US strategy. On the other side, fuelling the tensions and leaving the embargo in place could well be the pretext to keep it in place for the irreducible in Washington.

US will also face scepticism in their mission for world’s democratic change whilst blocking Cuba and still having relations with some countries that have questionable regimes, such in Middle East, China or Iran.

The main risk is therefore associated with a real prospect of isolation and allies leaders keeping distance. Washington could find itself isolated in maintaining a blockade that no one respects, undermining also the ability to fulfil the political targets on the international scenario. The UN General Assembly has, since 1992, passed a resolution every year condemning the ongoing impact of the embargo and declaring it to be in violation of the Charter of the United Nations and international law. Israel is the only country that routinely joins the U.S. in voting against the resolution as has Palau every year from 2004 to 2008. On October 26, 2010, for the 19th time, the General Assembly condemned the embargo, 187 to 2 with 3 abstentions. Israel sided with the U.S., while Marshall Islands, Palau and Micronesia abstained.

Human rights groups including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have also been critical of the embargo.

 

Under a financial and economical prospect, the blockade could facilitate the introduction of other competitors in a market closed to US businesses, putting them in a clear disadvantage once the blockade would be lifted. The US have lost a good side of business in all these decades and if at first the soviet motif was a powerful mantra to justify a clear economic loss, today, and with an increasing number of countries now trading with Cuba, is like a “shoot to own foot”. The risks associated with this blockade are also to push Cuba towards countries like China and even Russia that can find in the Caribbean an easy way to counterbalance US policies.

Another risk is associated to the possible meltdown of the Cuban regime. We have already witnessed regimes collapsing with consequent humanitarian and security disasters. Cuba for its vicinity to US borders could pose a grave risk to security in the event of a sudden collapse of institutions without a proper transition. The embargo could facilitate that collapse whilst an end could offer the Cuban leadership the possibility to open and prepare the reforms needed.

 Conclusions

While Russia and United States fight on different terrain, only at word for the moment, that ranges from Middle East to Eastern Europe, and tensions are reaching the Pacific where the US are reshuffling their forces to counter Chinese growth, the risk of a new cold war is far from being impossible. The hope of an era of peace and coexistence has been destroyed after years of ethnic conflicts in the ex Yugoslavia, adventurous military actions to counter terrorism and the recent failed Arab spring dictated from western stereotypes that led to a decreasing security and the raising of Isis from the darkest depths of human brutality.

Of the remnants of the Cold War, the Cuban embargo still survives as a reminder of a dark era, nuclear annihilation and mistrust that today everyone is remembering but not realising that the wall is still in our minds and life, waiting to be erected and reinforced. The end of the embargo is not only the end of an unjust and historic failure but also the opportunity to destroy once and for all the last wall before another one will be built.

 

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