The UN, the US Embargo, and the 20 Year Rout; 10 Reasons to Oppose the Embargo

On Tuesday, the United Nations General Assembly will debate the “Necessity of ending the economic, commercial, and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba.”

This will be the twentieth year the General Assembly has considered a resolution condemning the U.S. embargo.  In every previous year, it has been adopted in a rout.

In 2010, a resolution that called upon the U.S. to repeal the embargo was approved by 187-2.   Only Israel voted with us.  Our nation was condemned by our adversaries and abandoned by our other allies with the exception of three Pacific island nations – Palau, Marshall Islands, and Micronesia – and they abstained.  The policy was totally repudiated.

Next week it will happen again.  But even if we suffer a defeat of similar magnitude, the vote is likely to attract scant attention.

The press has grown bored with a story it has covered nineteen times before.  Embargo defenders will dismiss the outcome because they simply scorn the UN as aligned against America.  The Obama administration – which should hang its head for enforcing the policy it inherited with such vigor – will simply move along as if nothing much has happened.  Even the General Assembly will quickly turn to other pressing items such as Cyprus, armed aggression against the Congo, and the peaceful uses of outer space.  If it’s business as usual, the Cuba story will come and go.

But before this moment passes, we think it’s appropriate to stop and remember how this policy started, what it does, and why the U.S. embargo unites the globe against us.

The U.S. embargo contains the most comprehensive set of economic sanctions that we impose on any nation in the world. From the beginning, the goal of the embargo was to make the Cuban people suffer so much more than they could bear that they would tear down a government we viewed as a Cold War security threat.

For five decades, the United States has tightened the screws as hard as it could:  imposing sharp limits on Cuba’s access to American visitors, food and medicines; banning almost all other business activity; using sanctions to stop third countries, including our closest allies, from trading with Cuba; blocking Cuba’s access to high technology goods; even siphoning off some of its most promising thinkers by incentivizing Cubans to emigrate and persuading its highly-trained doctors to defect.

None of this has caused an uprising or broke the back of the Cuban system.  Nor has it ever stopped.  A generation after the Cold War ended, the Soviet Union fell, and the U.S. intelligence community concluded that Cuba posed no threat to U.S. security, the regime of sanctions grinds on as if none of this ever happened.

How can this be?

In 2009, Amnesty International pointed out “There is no formal mechanism within the U.S. government to monitor the impact of the embargo on economic and social rights in Cuba.”

It’s actually worse than that.  In reality, there is no formal process inside the U.S. government for assessing the impact of the embargo on the United States.

We hear few voices in the U.S. Congress, the State Department, or the White House asking the tough questions: Do our sanctions backfire and take away from everyday Cubans the prospect for leading more prosperous and independent lives?  Is the embargo damaging our nation’s standing in Latin America or harming our image across the world?  Do U.S. sanctions cost American workers jobs, American businesses profits, and American citizens their liberties?

Even fewer ask, if the policy has failed to achieve its goals, or if it still causes suffering among everyday Cubans, the presumed beneficiaries, isn’t it time to change course?

We’re not optimistic that the vote next week at the U.N. will prick the consciences of U.S. policy makers or spark a serious reexamination of the embargo.  More’s the pity in our view.

But if we could ask policy makers to do one thing, we’d suggest they read the report of the Secretary-General that compiles statements from member states about the embargo and reports from U.N. agencies about how the embargo affects them.

The most arresting story we found comes from the United Nations Development Program.  In late 2010, the U.S. government blocked a $4,207,904 payment from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS for programs in Cuba.  This action threatened the purchase of life-saving antiretroviral drugs for Cubans with HIV and put other efforts at testing, prevention, and education at risk.  Six months later, after a tough negotiation, the funds were released.  But the story begs the question:  Why do we have an embargo against Cuba that blocks funds to fight AIDS?

One last point: you can read every comment by member nations and find not one sentence uttered in favor of the embargo.  Not even by the United States.  We take our government at its word that even it finds our position indefensible.


As ever, we cover the news from Cuba and developments in U.S. policy this week, and conclude with A Final Word:

We asked a retired General, Ronald Reagan’s Agriculture Secretary, an environmentalist, a physician, an actor/human rights advocate, several scholars, and one of Washington’s leading voices on foreign policy to offer their views on the embargo.   They sent us back ten smart and forceful statements that make the case for ending this policy.  We hope you read them all.

This week in Cuba news…


Laura Pollán, leader of the Ladies in White, dies at 63

Laura Pollán, founder and leader of the Ladies in White (Damas de Blanco), passed away last Friday night from cardiorespiratory failure, reports the AP. Pollán had helped start the group in 2003 after 75 dissidents including her husband were arrested in the spring of that year. The Ladies in White, made up mostly of the women and family members of imprisoned opposition figures, have since held weekly marches demanding the release of political prisoners.

Pollán is survived by her husband, Héctor Maseda Gutiérrez, and her daughter.

A special march was held in honor of Pollán on Sunday, and supporters have vowed to continue to protest political arrests and human rights abuses in her honor, reports Reuters. Condolences have come from around the world, including from the White House and the U.S. State Department. In addition, the Washington Post published this homage by blogger Yoani Sánchez.

Cuba to grant larger plots of land to private farmers

An official from Cuba’s Agriculture Ministry announced plans to expand significantly the amount of land granted to private farmers, Reuters reports. Since 2008, the government has granted plots of idle land to farmers to increase productivity. Previously, such grants were limited to 33 acres. This week, William Hernández Morales, the top agricultural official in Santiago de Cuba, announced that this limit would be increased to 165 acres for farmers that had proven their success, stating:

Those persons or lease holders that have really shown they can produce will be able to increase their land to five caballerías [a land measure used in Cuba that is equivalent to 33 acres].

Since the policy was announced, about 4 million acres have been turned over to some 143,000 farmers. However, these new farmers have complained about the small size of the plots, saying that it hampers production. Others have urged the state to redistribute land that has been overrun with brush and weeds. As one farmer stated, “I don’t know how they do it, but when the state gives the land to the people they manage to clean it up, even if with their fingernails, and put it into production.”

Government crackdown on corruption continues with new arrests and sanctions

Cuban police closed the British investment fund Coral Capital Group Ltd. and arrested Amado Fakhre, its CEO, in the latest phase of the government’s anti-corruption campaign, reports Reuters. This crackdown follows the closing of two Canadian trading companies along with the arrests of their CEOs in July and September, and the arrest of Nelson Labrada, a Vice Minister of Sugar, in late September.

Coral Capital represents interests in real estate and international brands including Yamaha Motor Corporation and Peugeot Motorcycles. The Miami Herald reports that Coral Capital has $1 billion dollars of projects in the works and has already invested $75 million in hotel ventures on the island.

Corruption scandals have hit many other areas of Cuba’s economy including telecommunications, aviation, nickel, and tobacco. This week Granma reported that “various managers and functionaries” were convicted and sentenced on charges of corruption and negligence that resulted in extensive delays of the rehabilitation of water treatment systems in Santiago de Cuba. According to the article, the construction at one pump station called La Ketty was so poorly managed that it had to be completely torn down and rebuilt. Details were not given as to which or how many officials and employees were arraigned.

Minister of Higher Education inaugurates school to train government officials

Miguel Díaz-Canel, Cuba’s Minister of Higher Education, inaugurated the Superior School of State and Government Officials (Escuela de Cuadros del Estado y del Gobierno) in a ceremony attended by First Vice President José Ramón Machado Ventura, EFE reports.

The minister referred to the creation of the school as a “strategic, necessary, urgent, and decisive activity,” reports Prensa Latina. The school will teach public administration and business management in an effort to create a reserve of “duly trained” and experienced officials.

The opening of the school follows last week’s release of a pamphlet outlining the tasks to be addressed at the Communist Party Conference in January 2012, which includes a reorganization and update of government and party leadership mechanisms.

Cuba to hold census in September 2012

The Executive Committee of the Council of Ministers announced this week through Decree 291 that Cuba’s Housing and Population Census will be administered from September 15th to the 24th of 2012, CubaDebate reports. According to EFE, the last census was held in 2002 and registered 11,177,743 inhabitants. There have been three censuses since the 1959 revolution and seventeen in Cuba’s history.


U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources holds hearing on drilling in Cuba

In the U.S. Senate, the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held a hearing addressing Cuba’s plans to drill in the Gulf of Mexico and U.S. preparedness in case of a crisis, reports Reuters. The hearing was called as the offshore drilling rig, Scarabeo 9, is en route to the island and set to arrive by the end of this year.

Senators expressed concern about whether the U.S. is ready for a potential oil emergency in the Gulf of Mexico. The U.S. embargo severely limits the extent to which the two sides can cooperate to ensure worker and drilling safety and response procedures.

Michael Bromwich, head of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, testified that Repsol has agreed to abide by U.S. regulations, The Hill reports. According to Bromwich, his agency and the Coast Guard plan to conduct a thorough inspection of Scarabeo 9 before it enters Cuban waters. He noted, however, that the inspectors would not be able to perform some tests of the blowout preventer.

Bromwich also stated that the federal government is “taking measures to ensure that the appropriate private industry parties are able to respond quickly in the event of an oil spill in Cuban waters,” the Houston Chronicle reports. Companies in the oil sector can seek specific licenses from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).

Paul Shuler, CEO of Clean Caribbean and Americas, also testified before the Committee. His company is one of only three oil spill response firms that currently hold a license to travel and send personnel to Cuba, and the only one with permission to export products to the island. Some lawmakers, energy experts and environmental advocates have pushed for the issuance of a general license that would allow companies in the field of oil spill response to share information and conduct business with Cuba in case of an emergency. Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, Chairman of the Committee, stated:

We are much better prepared now than we were before the terrible spill we had in the Gulf…The question is whether we are going to get caught in some kind of political tangle that keeps us from bringing to bear the best response capability needed.

Sarah Stephens of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, and Jake Colvin of the National Foreign Trade Council, recently outlined proposals for an effective government response to a possible crisis in this op-ed column.

Lawmakers angered by U.S. efforts to free Alan Gross and allow Cuban children to perform in the U.S.

Cuban American politicians expressed outrage this week that the Obama administration offered to negotiate with the Cuban government in exchange for the release of the imprisoned USAID subcontractor, Alan Gross, the Miami Herald reports.

The administration allegedly told Cuba it would allow the recently paroled Cuban Five prisoner, René González, to return to Cuba, discuss how Cuba could be removed from the State Sponsors of Terror list, and consider efforts at engagement, consistent with a decision by Cuba to release Mr. Gross, who is serving a fifteen-year prison term.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, accused President Obama of setting “a dangerous precedent” of negotiation with the Cuban leadership for his release, one that would “encourage other dictators to take Americans as prisoners.” In a statement last Friday, Senator Marco Rubio threatened to block the confirmation of Roberta Jacobson, Mr. Obama’s nominee for Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, unless Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gives an explanation for the administration’s policy on freeing Mr. Gross.

Separately, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen also criticized the State Department for granting a license to La Colmenita, the Cuban children’s theater group and a designated U.N. Ambassador, to tour the U.S., stating in a letter to Sec. Clinton that she is “gravely concerned that the Department of State is funding educational and cultural exchange programs with the Cuban regime that undermine U.S. foreign policy priorities and national security interests. ” Ros-Lehtinen’s accusation is based on the youth theater group’s performance of a play inspired by the story of the “Cuban Five,” five Cuban agents convicted in the U.S. and hailed as national heroes in Cuba for their attempts to infiltrate anti-Castro extremist groups in Miami.

In a press release, La Colmenita director Carlos Alberto Cremata responded:

She is treating us as if we were terrorists when the facts are quite the opposite. All we want to do is to share our stories with those Americans who want to know more about the things that are important to the Cuban people. Stopping us from doing that is, frankly, un-American.

For more information about La Colmenita’s tour, visit their website. Additionally, CubaDebate has provided coverage of the tour including photos and videos at American University and Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, D.C.

Rubio won’t allow the facts to get in the way of a good story

Senator Marco Rubio has repeatedly embellished the facts while telling the story of his family’s arrival in the U.S. from Cuba, the Washington Post and other news agencies report. Throughout his political career, Rubio has consistently said he is the son of exile parents forced off the island after Fidel Castro came to power. Even in the biography on his Senate website, it states that his parents “came to America following Fidel Castro’s takeover.”

However, documents including naturalization papers tell a different story – showing that Rubio’s parents came to the U.S. and gained permanent residency more than two and a half years before the revolution that brought Castro to power.

When questioned on his family history in an interview, Rubio defended himself by stating that his accounts have been based on family lore. His office confirmed that his parents arrived in the U.S. in 1956, but noted that they “always held out the hope and option of returning to Cuba if things improved.”   Rubio denounced criticism of the story as outrageous.

Around the Region

Record rainfall and resulting floods ravage Central America

The death toll from devastating rainfall and flooding in Central America has risen to at least 91, CNN reports. The rains have caused landslides, floods and bridge failures throughout the region, the New York Times reports. Transportation failures have led to shortages of basic goods, especially in isolated areas. AFP estimates that some 700,000 people have been displaced following what has totaled as much as 47 inches of rain in some areas.

In a nationwide address on Wednesday night, El Salvador’s President Mauricio Funes stated that “The intensity of the rainfall, the duration of the phenomenon and the extent of the affected territory presents us with a major emergency.” Honduran President Porfirio López has declared a state emergency in the south of that nation. Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega has also declared a state of emergency as officials fear that the rains could cause Lake Xolotlan to overflow, flooding the capital city of Managua.

Tim’s El Salvador Blog provides excellent updates and information on the floods.

Venezuelan Supreme Court upholds ban of Chávez opposition leader to office despite Human Rights Court ruling

Venezuela’s Supreme Court this week dismissed a ruling of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) when it voted to uphold a ban on holding office for opposition leader Leopoldo López, the AP reports. The ban on López started in 2008, but the IACHR issued a decision last month demanding that López be allowed to run for office.

In its ruling, the Venezuelan Supreme Court stated that López “can freely sign up and participate in elections,” stated Supreme Court president Luisa Estella Morales. However, Morales did not detail what would happen if López were elected, leaving the decision and its implications unclear.

Following the Court’s decision, López reiterated his intention to participate in the election, EFE reports. The Venezuelan opposition’s Coalition for Democratic Unity (MUD) appealed to the Organization of American States (OAS) through a letter to Secretary General José Miguel Insulza which asked for an intervention from the regional organization. The OAS has not yet responded to the letter.

Recommended Reading

Does including Cuba on the State Department’s list of terrorism sponsoring nations serve the United States’ national interest?, Lawrence B. Wilkerson and Arturo López-Levy, The Havana Note

“According to a New York Times story, former Governor of New Mexico Bill Richardson recently told Bruno Rodriguez, Cuba’s Foreign Minister, that by releasing Alan Gross, Cuba could begin a process of being removed from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list.  This is practically a confession that Cuba’s inclusion on the list is a sham.”

Small acts of free enterprise attest to reform looming large in Cuba, Sonia Verma, The Globe and Mail

“…small acts of free enterprise would have been inconceivable in Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Under his younger brother, Raul, however, they add up to dramatic economic reform that is quietly reconfiguring the country into something altogether different. Cuban authorities are careful to depict this restructuring as upgrading the revolution rather than forsaking it, yet underpinning it all is an overriding sense of urgency to change.”

Recommended Viewing

Unfinished Spaces, directed by Alysa Nahmias and Benjamin Murray

“Cuba’s ambitious National Art Schools project, designed by three young artists in the wake of Castro’s Revolution, is neglected, nearly forgotten, then ultimately rediscovered as a visionary architectural masterpiece.”

Screenings of this documentary are currently happening at Film Festivals in the U.S. and Europe. To watch the trailer, click here.


Ten Good Reasons to End the Embargo

We conclude this week’s report with a series of statements on why the U.S. should end the embargo of Cuba.

The embargo undermines U.S. foreign policy interests

“Failure of the U.S. to finally snuff out the last vestiges of the Cold War in the U.S.-Cuba embargo signals impotence in American strategic vision and capability.  Those who support the embargo undermine the empowerment of Cuban citizens, harming them economically and robbing them of choices that could evolve through greater engagement – exactly what we have seen in transitioning Communist countries like Vietnam and China. The world is dismayed and rejects yet again America’s nonsensical embargo, which ultimately makes the U.S. look strategically muddled and petty rather than a leader committed to improving the global order.”

Steve Clemons, Washington Editor-at-Large, The Atlantic
Senior Fellow & Founder, American Strategy Program
New America Foundation

The embargo hurts U.S. national security interests

“The U.S. embargo against Cuba is a Cold War relic that hurts America and Cuba by preventing normal trade and travel between our two countries.  From the perspective of U.S. national security, not only does the embargo prevent our cooperation with Cuba on common security issues such as crime and terrorism, it hurts U.S. standing throughout the world by highlighting our aggression against a neighboring country that poses no threat.  The United States demeans itself by this futile and hypocritical policy.  It is long past time to repeal the U.S. embargo against Cuba.”

John Adams, Brigadier General US Army (Retired)

The Cuba embargo runs counter to our experiences with China and Viet Nam

“President Nixon went to China 30 years ago and opened that Communist country up to the U.S.  It is still a Communist dictatorship but, economically, the country has become capitalistic.  We trade with them.  Do we ever!!  Full diplomatic relations.  We supported their entrance into the World Trade Organization.  Same is true with Viet Nam, and we fought a war with them.  What’s wrong with Cuba right next door to us?  It’s time to open up trade and travel with Cuba.”

John R. Block, Secretary of Agriculture under President Ronald Reagan
Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Bode Matz PC

The embargo isolates the U.S. government and cuts off contact between Cubans and Americans

“The embargo isolates and weakens U.S. policy makers and U.S. policies at a time of increasing integration between Latin America and the Caribbean and the global south. U.S. citizens are denied ready access to highly praised Cuban achievements in the arts and culture,  education, medical and technological advances, and deprived of sustained engagements with Cuban citizens and the Cuban government to share our national virtues. It is time that our policy makers support the resolve of its citizens and joins the majority of nations in non-antagonistic diplomatic protocols with Cuba by abolishing the embargo and normalizing relations with Cuba.”

James Early
Board of Trustees, Institute for Policy Studies
Director of Cultural Heritage Policy, Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage 

The embargo undermines the image of the United States throughout the world

“The U.S. trade and travel embargo against Cuba is the longest in history, and the most senseless and irredeemable.  It is the act of a bully, based on pique. It is an abysmal moral and political failure, diminishing not Cuba but the U.S. in world opinion and respect.  It has achieved the opposite of what it has sought, hurting both the Cuban people as well as U.S. interests.   The embargo is opposed by virtually the entire world as well as large domestic majorities, even Cuban exiles and dissidents; yet, the U.S. government persists with its petty punitive policy, not out of reasoned principle but for internal political posturing.  The spectacle of the world’s largest economy and sole superpower, seeking in vain for half a century to strangle a baseball-loving small developing nation that dared to defy it, is a modern David and Goliath story — and no one loves Goliath.”

Rubén G. Rumbaut
University of California, Irvine

The embargo imposes great suffering on Cubans

“The U.S. embargo continues to inflict gratuitous and pointless suffering on the Cuban people. Children dying from cancer are denied access to potentially life-saving drugs, heart patients cannot get U.S. manufactured pace-makers, and Cuba’s cutting-edge biotechnology institutes that provide important drugs at an affordable price to the rest of the world are denied the U.S. made substrates they need. After fifty years, it is time for this mindless brutality to stop and for the U.S. to abide by international standards of humane and civilized behavior.”

Peter Bourne
Chairman of the Board
Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba (MEDICC) 

The embargo hobbles our ability to protect the environment

“Oil drilling in Cuban waters creates an unprecedented urgency to rethink U.S. policy toward Cuba.  An oil spill in Cuba could be disastrous to shorelines, marine life, coastal communities and livelihoods in both countries.  The U.S. should eliminate political and legal obstacles that hinder its ability to share expertise if an emergency occurs in shared waters.  The Obama Administration has taken some positive steps to promote scientific exchange and dialogue on environmental protection with Cuba.  Environmental diplomacy—done right and carried out in good faith—can lay a foundation for real and lasting improvement in Cuba-U.S. relations. “

Daniel Whittle, Senior Attorney and Cuba Program Director
Environmental Defense Fund 

It isn’t about principle; it’s about politics

“The U.S. embargo of Cuba is an international embarrassment to a country that continues to claim leadership in the realm of human rights.  An unnecessary and sickening relic of the Cold War, the embargo has become a political football proving that elections – and electoral votes – mean more to American politicians than fairness, justice, the human needs of the Cuban people or the lives, health and education of Cuban children.  It is a monstrous example of the political cowardice that poisons this nation and should be ended immediately.”

Mike Farrell
Actor and human rights advocate

Ending the embargo would be doing the right thing…

“One of Winston Churchill’s most repeated quotes is, ‘You can always count on Americans to do the right thing- after they have tried everything else.’  It is time for President Obama and Congress to do the right thing, cast off the failed embargo of Cuba, and embrace a policy of engagement that will provide economic opportunities for U.S. farmers and businesses as well the workers they employ.  Doing the right thing will improve economic conditions in both the U.S. and Cuba and will also over time contribute to greater social stability in the Caribbean region.

Cal Dooley, President and CEO
American Chemistry Council

…and it’s long overdue

“Apart from being economically unfair and ethically unjust, it has been politically ineffective, if not counter-productive.  Lifting the U.S. embargo against Cuba is long overdue.”

Katrin Hansing
Associate Professor of Black and Hispanic Studies at Baruch College (CUNY).

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