Tag Archives: Barack Obama

Is the US embargo against Cuba on its last legs?

Speeding down the highway into Havana, you’re somewhat thrown into the deep end in terms of revolutionary images and slogans. I’m thinking specifically about the first one I saw on arriving in the country: a black billboard on the side of the road that shouted “EL BLOQUEO” (the “blockade”, or the US embargo) in large white letters. The final “O” was represented by a large noose, and the subtitle read, in translation: “The longest genocide in history”.

Bloqueo-el-mayor-genocidio-de-la-historia-mural-y-cartel-de-cuba

On Tuesday, the UN General Assembly voted almost unanimously to condemn the embargo. Out of 193 member states, there were 191 yes votes, with only the US and Israel opposing the resolution. In 1992, when it was first drafted, 71 countries abstained from voting. Three did so last year. The shift is a telling sign of overwhelming international opposition to the policy. But will it make a difference to the US Congress?

Full diplomatic ties have now been restored between Cuba and the United States. This summer, embassies were reopened in both countries. Trade and travel restrictions have been eased by the Obama administration. In the eyes of the world’s media, Cold War animosity is all but a thing of the past. Tourists visit the island by the busload and warn others to follow their lead “before the Americans get in!” The coverage of Pope Francis’s recent visit depicted a healthy, happy nation and a promising future for all in its inhabitants, finally released from political isolation and a crippled economy. But for the average Cuban, on a wage of under thirty dollars a month, this remains a distant hope.

The UNGA vote has apparently given us a much-needed reminder that the “blockade” is still very much in operation, held firmly in place by an unshakeable Congress. Last month, Obama said he was ‘confident our Congress will inevitably lift an embargo that should not be in place anymore’. This so-called confidence seems more of a desperate nudge, as Republicans show little inclination for change. The Cuban government has made clear that full normalisation of relations is impossible without the embargo being lifted. As foreign minister Bruno Rodríguez recently suggested, only this would ‘give some meaning’ to the recent thaw – in other words, as it stands, it doesn’t mean all that much.

Speculation that the US might abstain from, rather than opposing the resolution this year was quashed when Ronald Godard, US deputy ambassador to the UN, stated that the language of the motion had not changed sufficiently to reflect the steps taken by the two countries. The ‘expressed will’ of the Obama administration to end the embargo was recognised and the recent changes welcomed, but little else was amended. Abstaining would have intensified pressure on the Congress – hence Godard’s description of the motion as ‘unfortunate’.

Unfortunate is a term perhaps more suited to describe the $121 billion in damage done to the Cuban economy by the embargo over five decades. A report by the American Association for World Health found that food shortages led to a 33% drop in caloric intake between 1989 and 1993, and doctors in the country have access to less than 50% of drugs on the world market. In 2011, Amnesty International reported that treatments for children with bone cancer and HIV/AIDS were not readily available, having been commercialised under US patents. Food, medicine, technology and other necessities have all been in critically short supply. The consequences of the bloqueo, described by Rodríguez as ‘a flagrant, massive and systematic violation of the human rights of all Cubans’, are hard to overstate.

Neither has the embargo achieved its goals. History proves that such sanctions do little more than hurt ordinary people, and fail to touch those sheltered in the high ranks of government. The renowned dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez, ever critical of the Cuban government, underlines such a view on the Huffington Post:

‘The five decade prolongation of the “blockade” has allowed every setback we’ve suffered to be explained as stemming from it, justified by its effects. But its existence has not prevented the luxurious mansions of the nomenklatura from swimming in whiskey, their freezers packed with food while modern cars sit in the garages. To make matters worse, the economic fence has helped to fuel the idea of a place besieged, where dissent comes to be equated with an act of treason. The exterior blockade has strengthened the interior blockade.’

It gives the government a useful scapegoat, she argues; a ‘big bad wolf’ to blame everything on, from the limited Internet access to the harsh violations of the right to freedom of association. If the embargo remains in place to put pressure on Cuba to improve its human rights record and make the transition to democracy, fifty long years have proved its failure.

When we remember that the US turns a blind eye to the human rights records of trading partners Venezuela, China and Vietnam, it becomes clear that this argument doesn’t hold. Double standards turn sinister when the word ‘Guantánamo’ is whispered. Failure to close the notorious detention centre may be the biggest stain on Obama’s presidency, and it leaves any righteousness from Cuba’s northern neighbour without so much as a leg to stand on.

The bloqueo is little more than a relic from a time when Communism was the ultimate bogeyman, the enemy that legitimised any dirty tactic, no matter how high the cost. As one generation grudgingly makes room for another, public opinion shifts in both countries. Young Cubans yearn for the freedom of financial stability over anti-Yankee patriotism. And the influence of anti-Castro lobbyists on the American public is loosening its grip: a report by the Pew Research Center this July found 72% of people in favour of lifting of the embargo.

So how bright is the future? It all depends on the next president of the United States. Hillary Clinton has indicated her commitment to call on Congress to end the embargo. No Republican candidate supports such a move. But for both parties, the issue is likely to take a back seat over the election period. Change is still far off, and it’s about time the news of the world reflected this. Meanwhile, as the bloqueo enters its 55th year – the most enduring trade embargo in modern history – the people of Cuba continue struggling to make ends meet.

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Cuban Embassy opens in Washington

It has been a day of celebration for both countries as Cuba’s flag is raised above the embassy in Washington, signalling that the thaw in hostilities has turned to real and open diplomatic relations.

This was the latest stepping stone in a long effort to normalise relations. It comes after several landmark changes in the past year, beginning with Obama’s historic announcement of a ‘new chapter’ last December. In January, talks continued and restrictions on travel and trade between the two countries were significantly relaxed. On May 29, Cuba was formally removed from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism, which may sound like no more than a long overdue rubber stamp, but in fact opened the path for foreign companies and banks to trade with and invest in Cuba. In a country where the average wage is said to about $20 a month, this can only be a good thing.

There are many problems that remain unresolved, as all parties are reminding us – and rightfully so, since the trade embargo is enshrined in law and will need congressional approval to be finally lifted. The impassioned chant of ‘Cuba sí – bloqueo no’ was heard today as the flag was raised. Calling the embargo a blockade is vividly accurate. In 2011, Cuba calculated that the economic damage of the policy had reached over $1 trillion over the course of half a century.

Neither can anybody ignore the humongous elephant in the room that is Guantánamo Bay. Since the Revolution, Cuba has cashed none of the payments offered for the naval base, and maintains that the territory is illegally occupied. Again, Obama’s call to close the facility is hampered by Congress.

Nevertheless, this latest step is a victory for global diplomacy and promises further developments in the not too distant future. Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Cuba in August for a similar inauguration of the US embassy in Havana. Meanwhile, talks will continue behind the scenes, and each announcement is another hurdle cleared at last.

Cuba: a living car museum?

Every year, tourists flock to Cuba to see the thousands of ‘Yank Tanks’ still on the roads today

Walk the streets of Havana and you are bound to see dozens of the classic American cars that gloss the cover of almost every tourist guide. “Come to Cuba,” they urge, “trundle along the Malecón, sip mojitos in the back of a 1954 Chevrolet, gaze out at a tropical island frozen in space and time…” Nicknamed yank tanks or máquinas, there are thought to be 60,000 of these vehicles still in operation in Cuba; over a third of the total number of cars on the road. Little wonder that sightseers from all over the world are enchanted by this 50s ‘time-warp’… and yet the true significance of this culture is often blotted out.

A 1951 Chevy on Playa Ancón. Photograph: Dmitri Alexander

A 1951 Chevrolet on Playa Ancón. Photograph: Dmitri Alexander

In 1962, at the height of the Cold War, the US trade embargo against Cuba was formally extended to include all imports, reinforced by statute after statute over the years. This policy has made it almost impossible for Cubans to obtain replacement parts for run-down vehicles, and it is thanks to the ingenuity of mechanics that the cars have been kept going for so long. Some are held together with wire, tape, any household product available, many refitted with Soviet diesel engines; a much cheaper and more efficient option. The cars that really are done for are seldom cast into the dustbin; instead ‘parted out’, keeping others on the road while creating extra income for their owners. The resourcefulness of the system is staggering.

Traffic in Havana. Photograph: Democratic Underground 2014

Traffic in Havana. Photograph: Democratic Underground 2014

These botched-up automobiles seem to represent the twin pillars of innovation and hardship that have marked the post-revolutionary period in Cuba. The impressive make-do-and-mend culture they demonstrate is not self-consciously kitsch or exhibitionist, as is often suggested, but rather enforced by harsh economic policy and crippling international sanctions.

But change is in the air. After decades of hostility, the past year has seen a decisive thaw in relations between Cuba and the US. Last Wednesday, President Obama announced the reestablishment of full diplomatic relations, stating that secretary of state John Kerry would travel to the country later this summer to reopen the US embassy. Although the embargo remains in force, held fast – for now – by the iron fist of Congress, this new entente is an indisputably welcome milestone for both nations.

What will this mean for the battered vehicles that paint Cuba’s coastline so brightly? Some commentators have predicted a swarm of US dealers scooping them up for private collections, although many are sceptical about how much interest they will really gather abroad. In January, Cuban president Raúl Castro relaxed the country’s trade restrictions on imports, but the very high prices of foreign cars mean these are still out of reach for the vast majority. The most likely, immediate outcome is simply that it will become much easier for mechanics to get their hands on the right parts for a lot less money – and however visible the impact, this is hardly something for nostalgic tourists to bemoan.

1958 Cadillac in Mikhail Kalatozov's 1964 film Soy Cuba

1958 Cadillac in Mikhail Kalatozov’s 1964 film ‘Soy Cuba’

The cars of Cuba stand for a great deal more than brightly coloured muses to be papped by spellbound travellers. It is dangerous to romanticise any country so much to claim that entering its borders seems like stepping back into the fifties, especially considering the memory of pre-revolutionary Havana. The so-called ‘Yank Tanks’ are a far cry from the vehicles they once were, imported from the US decades ago. They do not represent a time lag, but mobility and progression. Let’s bear this mind now that Cuba and the US may be – possibly for the first time – communicating on equal terms.