Politics

US embargo on Cuba, 50 years later and still no cigar

By J Brooks Spector 7 February 2012

The golden anniversary of America’s trade embargo on Cuba evokes some of the 20th century's most dangerous moments. J BROOKS SPECTOR traces the history behind the US embargo and argues that sanity should finally prevail.

This year, along with the usual denunciations, Fidel Castro marked the anniversary with the release of his new 1,000-page memoir.

At the launch, the 85-year-old told his audience, “I have nothing better to do than this. You want to be useful. This seems like it has value.” Castro urged Cubans to use the Internet more and says he stays mentally active following the news of events in Syria and the new Argentine-British Falklands dispute – although he thought the current Republican primary contests in the US were boring as evidenced by the low voter turnout.

And locally, South Africa and Cuba announced a new package of loans, grants and debt forgiveness. Some churlish South African critics wondered if these monies couldn’t be put to better use building schools or subsidising school feeding projects.

The American embargo was in retaliation for nationalisation of the property of US citizens and corporations on the island. These included factories, farms and hotels and casinos like the ones in The Godfather: Part II. The comprehensive embargo replaced the more limited version first put in place by Eisenhower in 1960, just before John Kennedy beat Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential election. Following the failed Bay of Pigs invasion by Cuban émigrés under direction of the CIA, Kennedy declared the broader embargo only eight months before the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.

Photo: John F. Kennedy made it all too clear that the embargo was necessary.

I vividly remember president John Kennedy on television in October 1962 telling the US that Russian nuclear missiles had been secretly installed in Cuba, that they could reach the eastern seaboard of the country in just 15 minutes and that they could not be allowed to stay there. It seemed clear worse was to come as American troops moved south to prepare for an invasion of Cuba and the US Navy began to enforce a quarantine (that word was selected in place of ‘blockade’ because that was too close to being an act of war under international maritime law) around the island. Everyone waited for a nuclear Armageddon.

But it didn’t quite happen that way. Instead, Cuban-American relations settled into an increasingly irritable, unhappy stalemate, like a bad marriage impossible to bring to an end frozen in Cold War-era amber.

According to the traditional American narrative, Cuba was liberated from a rapacious colonial ruler by the Spanish-American War of 1898. Cubans see things differently. They had been in a low-level guerrilla war against Spain since the 1870s and with the Spanish-American War, many Cubans assumed the US was there to help them gain independence from a collapsing Spanish empire. But the treaties after the war initially relegated Cuba to a kind of twilight independence. The US was positioned to intervene as desired and exercise strong guidance over the larger direction of Cuban government and foreign relations. The reservation of Guantanamo Bay as a US military base in perpetuity was a further irritant.

Over the years, the formal Cuban economy came to be dominated by American business interests. There was a succession of authoritarian rulers, the last being Fulgencio Batista. By the time Castro and his band of warriors came down from the mountains to seize power in 1959, Batista’s hold on the country had virtually melted away.

The Eisenhower administration, at least initially, made tentative efforts to build a relationship with the Castro regime, but things quickly came unstuck. Castro began his nationalisation, declared he had been a communist for years (despite his earlier desire to be a US major league baseball pitcher while he was a medical student) and began to forge increasingly close ties with the Soviet Union.

In October 1960, Fidel Castro and his delegation arrived in New York for the UN General Assembly meeting, carrying out a near-mythic visit that made headlines and raised eyebrows with its in-your-face insouciance. There were those crates of live chickens and rumours of Rabelaisian religious rites, chicken braais and all night parties in the luxury suites of an upscale Manhattan hotel. Castro held a not-very-secret meeting with Malcolm X in Harlem, and there were all those rowdy ‘Fair Play for Cuba’ demonstrations by American sympathisers. Meanwhile, on the other side of the equation, growing numbers of anti-Castro émigrés were fleeing the island for Florida as their properties and lifestyles came under threat. Cuba was suddenly the newest football in the middle of the Cold War.

By July 1960, in response to Cuba’s seizure of US citizen-owned properties, the US reduced the Cuban quota of brown sugar exports to the US to 700,000 tons and the Soviet Union covered the gap. The émigré Cuban-American community was beginning to develop some serious political clout, especially in Florida, turning into a firm base of support within the Republican Party and a virtual political roadblock to reconciliation with Castro.

In particular, the Cuban American Foundation and its founder and head, Jorge Mas Canosa, came to wield extensive political clout on Cuban issues in Washington politics, even though he was never a household name for most Americans. At his death a decade ago, TV journalist Betty Ann Bowser of the PBS News Hour explored the sources of Canosa’s power. She said, “In 1980, Mas Canosa founded the Cuban American Foundation, an anti-Castro organisation that a few years later celebrated its first victory when Radio and TV Marti went on the airwaves.

“With the help of US government money, Marti broadcast a strong pro-democracy, fervent, anti-Communist message to Cuba. From the first wave of immigrants when Castro took power in the 1960s to the more recent flood of Cuban Pan Am flight-boat people coming to the South Florida shores, Mas Canosa fought to isolate and overthrow Castro, hoping it would someday lead to democracy in his homeland.

“In 1992, Mas Canosa was instrumental in getting the Bush administration to tighten America’s economic embargo against Cuba. And four years later, he successfully lobbied for the Helms-Burton Act, which allowed Cuban Americans for the first time to sue foreign companies that did business with Cuba.”

On 8 February 1962, Kennedy widened the scope of trade restrictions (although JFK apparently asked his own press secretary to stockpile a thousand Cuban cigars for presidential use, just prior to the embargo). Then, after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy added travel restrictions on 8 February 1963. Five months later, the government set out the Cuban Assets Control Regulations under the Trading with the Enemy Act, in retaliation for the Cubans’ hosting of those Soviet nuclear weapons.

The embargo was only codified into federal law in 1992 under the Cuban Democracy Act, with the express purpose of maintaining restrictions as long as the Cuban government continued to refuse to move toward “democratisation and greater respect for human rights”. In 1996, Congress passed the even more restrictive Helms-Burton Act after Cuba shot down two unarmed ‘Brothers to the Rescue’ chartered planes. Helms-Burton limited the ways American citizens could carry out business in or with Cuba.

In 1999, Clinton expanded the trade embargo even further, ending the practice of foreign subsidiaries of US companies trading with Cuba, but, crucially, authorised the sale of humanitarian products to Cuba. These purchases have grown even though all sales must be in cash. By 2007, the US had become the largest supplier of food products to Cuba and its fifth largest trading partner – despite the regulations and limitations on this trade.

Photo: People crowd a private licensed market in Havana. The U.S. trade embargo against Cuba has gotten tougher under U.S. President Barack Obama, not more lenient as many had expected when he took office. The sign reads ‘Area for private licenced sellers’. REUTERS/Desmond Boylan.

Since coming into office, the Obama administration has made some changes to the restrictions on US travel to Cuba, allowing Cuban-Americans to travel more freely to Cuba and allowing students and religious missionaries to travel with certain restrictions as well. Nonetheless, as of the end of 2011, US-Cuba relations were minimal and Cuba is still one of only four countries officially designated by the US as a state sponsor of terrorism.

A half-century later, with the Cold War long gone, the Soviet Union history, Cuba’s current leadership cadre on the cusp of a major generational change and the relentless assimilation of Cuban-Americans into the mainstream of American society and politics, it is reasonable to ask if the embargo really serves much purpose anymore.

Former senator Gary Hart recently said, “Future students of American history will be scratching their heads about this case for decades to come. Our embargo and refusal to normalise diplomatic relations has nothing to do with communism. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have had diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War, with China since Nixon and with Vietnam despite our bitter war there. No, Cuba was pure politics.”

And foreign policy writer Moises Naim argued, “The embargo is the perfect example used by anti-Americans everywhere to expose the hypocrisy of a superpower that punishes a small island while cosying up to dictators elsewhere.”

Given these arguments, what’s the case for rolling back these restrictions? Here are 10 points to consider:

1. It would be good economics. Opening up Cuba to American investment would be a boon to the tourism industry in both countries and ending the embargo would be an enormous boon to US agriculture.

2. It’s good politics. More trade can help strengthen a politically aware middle-class that, in turn, presses for political reform. Easing travel restrictions further would support linkages between NGOs from both countries.

3. Sanctions against Cuba are a double standard, given US ties with China and Vietnam. Perhaps Stephen Colbert is right when he jokes that Cuba is “a totalitarian, repressive, communist state that – unlike China – can’t lend us money.”

4. And it’s just so out of date. In an international climate usually marked by cooperation on everything from terrorism to global financial crises, clinging to this last vestige of the Cold War doesn’t make much sense anymore.

5. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over with the expectation that the results will be different. Regardless of points 1-4, the embargo hasn’t worked anyway. Cuba’s still there, it’s still authoritarian.

6. And, hey, they’re probably counter-productive to boot. Isolation gives Cuba’s gerontocracy a convenient political scapegoat for its ongoing economic problems.

7. On the humanitarian angle there are all those inequalities when tourists who can travel there arrive with medical and other supplies for family and friends. Everyone else is locked out of that chummy relationship.

8. And there is some serious oil there too. Enough said.

9. Moreover, the embargo is unpopular, even in the US. Although the rise of Senator Marco Rubio might make that a debatable point. Nevertheless, according to some surveys, 67% of Americans now favour lifting travel bans, and 72% believe expanding travel to Cuba would have a positive impact on the lives of Cubans.

10. Finally, the civil liberties argument that the embargo is a restriction on Americans’ own freedom of movement. It doesn’t make sense that it’s easier for Americans to go to North Korea (at least in terms of American paperwork) than it is to travel 150km south of Key West.

But don’t expect any motion to relax the US trade embargo against Cuba until after the 2012 presidential election. Florida, with its large population of Cuban-Americans, is one of the battleground states between the two parties and nobody is going to rock that boat just yet. DM

Watch Salinger’s JFK-Cuban Cigar Stories here:



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Photo: A young Fidel Castro (R) and Che Guevara share a revolutionary chuckle (possible at the foresight that the US would be left looking silly 50 years later).

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