Cuba’s Embargo Quandary
As Inauguration Day approaches many Cubans and foreign analysts are wondering: Does the Cuban government really want Barack Obama to end the half-century US blockade of the island?
This is a question I have been asked a number of times by people visiting Cuba. I have also discussed it with many locals.
On the surface it’s easy to answer yes, that Cuba longs for the day when it can have normalized relations with its big neighbor to the North. But inside I’m always left wondering, and most of my Cuban friends and acquaintances are not so sure either.
It’s public record that the Cuban government and people tenaciously resist the devastating blockade and have fought it tooth and nail in all international forums, led by the annual battle in the United Nations.
Last year, during the October 29 vote on the blockade, 185 countries advised Washington to scrap its timeworn policy, while only Israel and Palau supported a continuation.
Cuba has made it clear that its development has been greatly stifled by the blockade provisions that include extra-territorial sanctions against US and third country companies that do business with the island. The losses are conservatively quantified by Havana at over US $90 billion — over twice the island’s GDP.
The “collective punishment” inflicted by Washington takes on both a tragic and at times ridiculous nature. It is both appalling and unfair when Cuba is denied raw materials to produce medicines or buy hospital equipment.
The absurd prevails when a businessman is punished for selling water purifiers to the city of Havana, or a retired American couple is hounded by the US Treasury Department for having toured the island on bicycles.
The long-term intent of the blockade policy has been to wage a war of attrition against the civilian population, whipping up discontent against the government.
But even many Cuban-Americans opposed to the Castro administration now agree that such a policy has clearly failed to produce the desired results. The government remains intact, despite the peoples’ suffering. Waiting for Havana to capitulate now appears a lost cause, even to many members of the US Congress.
Justification for Deficiencies
Meanwhile, while recognizing the extensive damage done by the blockade, it’s also fair to say that the Cuban government has reaped some benefits as well.
The siege mentality it has produced in the country works in favor of unity and government support, providing a proven rallying cry that can move the masses.
The blockade has also provided a blanket that covers nearly across-the-board management deficiencies, including the poor controls and low productivity in the nation’s economy, which President Raul Castro has acknowledged on several occasions.
Ask a fifth grader anywhere on the island why Cuba doesn’t have more milk, beef or cheese, school books, toys or automobiles and the answer will undoubtedly be “por el bloqueo”, because of the blockade.
Why are buildings crumbling in parts of Havana for a lack of maintenance? You guessed it: the blockade. Why are salaries so low? The blockade; or Why do a large number of young people want to emigrate? Once again, the blockade.
Good Neighbor Policy or New Anti-Cuba Strategy
Whether Obama will move to end the blockade is open to speculation. Another question is what the repercussions of such a move would be in Cuba.
The hardliner exiles in Miami, of course, continue to oppose the idea. They claim that letting up on the pressure would provide additional resources to the government and the bureaucratic elite, thus strengthening the “brutal Communist dictatorship.” This group however is rapidly waning in both numbers and influence.
Some legislators on Capital Hill sincerely want a good neighbor policy and believe that normalized relations can benefit both nations.
A much larger number of Democrats and Republicans favor letting up on the travel ban and some or all commercial sanctions but with a different agenda. Instead of a way to promote mutually beneficial exchange, they see it as a smart business move and a new strategy to rid the continent of the Cuban socialist experiment through an onslaught of US tourists, executives and capital.
Those congress people also believe that without the blockade the Cuban population will point to their government’s failings and demand it make immediate changes to improve their wellbeing.
Is Cuba prepared for the estimated 3.4 million additional visitors each year and the influences of a consumer society that would come with them? Are the island’s institutions strong enough to resist investments that may not be in the country’s overall interests, like McDonalds and Wal-Marts immediately springing up around the island? Will music and other cultural expressions from Miami, New York and L.A. take over the Cuban stages and airwaves?
These are just a few of the scenarios that have many Cubans wondering about an uncertain future. At this point I don’t think anybody has all the answers. Let’s take a look again in a few months.