The Embargo at 50: Is anyone really celebrating?

If you “celebrated” the fiftieth birthday of the embargo against Cuba this week, we hope you had some of those special candles that magicians use that cannot be blown out and re-light automatically.

Even though it has never achieved its goal of strangling Cuba economically and replacing its government with one that pleases Washington, the embargo is likely to be with us a good while longer.

The U.S. trade embargo on Cuba was signed by President John F. Kennedy on February 3rd, 1962 and it entered into effect four days later. To this day, U.S. sanctions against Cuba – which encompass a mind-boggling number of laws, regulations, and restrictions – are the most restrictive our government imposes against any nation on Earth.

The embargo restricts the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens to visit the island.

With narrow exceptions, it places commerce with Cuba completely off-limits, stunting U.S. profits, jobs, and the relationships that develop between partners who trade.

It places us at odds with our allies in the region and globally, and we’re subjected to ridicule and censure annually when the U.N. General Assembly denounces the policy with resolutions supported by friends and foes alike.

As we discussed in detail in our book about engagement, the policy hurts U.S. security, limits our ability to cooperate with Cuba on matters that concern us both like migration and illegal drugs, prevents Americans citizens from accessing significant Cuban medical advances, and severely limits our ability to protect the environment (kind of a big deal with Cuba drilling for oil offshore in the Gulf of Mexico).

The American people surveyed this year overwhelmingly want diplomatic relations with Cuba and a majority would support lifting the trade embargo.

Why wouldn’t they?  Practical people, seeing something that has failed utterly for fifty years, hurting the intended beneficiaries, would obviously want to try something new.

But none of this matters to the defenders of the status quo who believe that the “benefits” of the embargo will someday materialize…as the rest of us wait for Godot.

Just this week, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was joined by Representatives Mario Díaz-Balart, Albio Sires and David Rivera in releasing statements saying the embargo “demonstrates U.S. solidarity with Cuban people” and that more sanctions must be imposed now.

This, of course, will come as no shock to the Cuban people, who don’t have warm feelings of solidarity, but ones of sadness and frustration that the policy remains in place at all.

Oscar Espinosa Chepe, a well-known government critic and economist by profession, argues that the policy has only served “to give the Cuban government an alibi to declare Cuba a fortress under siege, to justify repression and to (pass) the blame for the economic disaster in Cuba.”

A video of BBC street interviews shows a range of reactions to the embargo: one man laments the higher prices that Cuba must pay for imports; a woman claims that the embargo prevents the critically ill from obtaining necessary medicines. But perhaps most telling about the legacy of this 50-year old policy is the response of a middle-aged man interviewed on the street holding a small child:

In a way, it has affected us. But at the same time, it hasn’t. What can I say – in the end life goes on, everyone carries on with their jobs, with their lives, like nothing has ever happened.

In many ways, the U.S. has simply embargoed itself, dealt us out of the Cuba equation, politically and economically, and there’s no end to the policy in sight.

As Lou Perez wrote so eloquently:

The embargo has achieved a life of its own.  Its very longevity serves as the logic for its continuance, evidence of the utter incapacity of U.S. political leaders to move beyond the failures of their own making…That the embargo has not yet accomplished what it set out to do, in exquisite Kafkaesque reasoning, simply means that more time is required.

In other words, better hang on to those candles.


Most Americans agree with ending trade embargo, lifting travel ban, and re-establishing diplomatic relations according to new poll

A new poll conducted by Angus Reid Public Opinion shows that Americans largely favor opening travel and trade to Cuba as well as re-establishing economic ties. The report, available in its entirety here, finds that:

  • 62% of respondents agree with re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba, while 23% disagree. Those who agree with re-instituting bilateral ties include 64% of Democrats and 56% of Republicans.
  • 57% of respondents feel it is time to lift the travel ban to the island.
  • More than half of Americans, 51%, would lift the trade embargo, while 29% disagree.
  • Only 35% of respondents agree with the idea of supporting non-governmental groups on the island “in order to foster protests against the current regime.”

U.S. citizens continue to travel to Cuba with people-to-people trips

Travel to Cuba under people-to-people licenses, made possible by President Obama through a January 2011 presidential directive, has increased as more licenses are granted by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).  Under the rules, U.S. citizens may travel to Cuba legally with trips that require a full schedule of “meaningful interaction” with Cuban citizens. Nick Miroff for NPR provides an overview of trips that are currently taking place, and quotes William Colon, a recent traveler who stated:

I don’t know if you can call this tourism in the regular way that people come and go to the beach…Here, this is a learning experience; we are learning all about the Cuban people, and our eyes are wide open. I’ve been waiting for the last 10 years to do this trip, and finally we are able to do it.

This week, the Dayton Chamber of Commerce announced a trip while Tufts University announced a new summer program in Havana (requirements for university study were also relaxed under last year’s directive). Andrea Sachs for the Washington Post writes about her experiences as a U.S. citizen traveling to Cuba for the first time on a people-to-people trip.

Another rules change has enabled seventeen new airports to gain approval for direct flights to the island. A complete list of airports approved for direct flights to Cuba is available from the Department of Homeland Security Customs and Border Protection website here.

In the beginning of February, the first charter flight to Cuba from Houston’s Bush Intercontinental Airport took off, local radio station KUHF reports. The airport expects that individuals in the business, educational, medical and agricultural sectors will form the bulk of travelers, according to Genaro Pena, the air services development director for the Houston Airport System.  The flight from Houston contained eighty Americans with people-to-people visas.

Senator Feinstein urges U.S. and Cuba to increase drug cooperation

The Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control held a hearing on U.S.-Caribbean security cooperation on February 1st with the purpose of “exploring ways to deepen counternarcotics cooperation with our neighbors in the Caribbean,” according to a Caucus press release. While the hearing did not focus on Cuba, Caucus Co-chair Senator Dianne Feinstein (CA) stated in her opening remarks:

I would be remiss not to mention Cuba. Just 90 miles from Florida, Cuba has the potential to be a major transshipment point for illicit drugs. Unfortunately, without formal diplomatic ties between the United States and Cuba, our ability to cooperate on counternarcotics efforts is extremely limited.  The limited cooperation we do have between our Coast Guard and Cuban authorities has been very useful, and I hope we can find ways to increase our counternarcotics collaboration with Cuba.

Following the hearing, the website Insight Crime noted that though the amount of drugs passing through Cuba to the U.S. “pales in comparison to the country’s Caribbean neighbors,” there does seem to be evidence of an increase in drug flow to the island. The article also notes existing diplomatic collaboration between the two governments – citing a previous article describing the role of a U.S. Coast Guard official assigned to the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, and leaked diplomatic cables that detail collaboration on drug flights from Jamaica.

Lawyers for Cuban Five to file appeals

A lawyer for the Cuban Five—Cuban counter-intelligence agents sentenced in 1998 to lengthy jail terms for spying in the United States—said this Wednesday that he will file a last-ditch appeal in their cases, the AP reports. Attorney Thomas Goldstein said he would file the appeal next week before U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard, who can either rule on the matter, ask to hear arguments or order a full evidentiary hearing. According to Goldstein, he plans to argue that one of his clients received bad counsel, and that the jury was biased because the U.S. government paid many of the journalists who covered the trial. He will also argue that the trial in Miami was politically charged due to the large presence of the Cuban exile community in the city.

The Cuban Five are regarded as heroes in Cuba for protecting their country by uncovering the activities of militant anti-Castro groups in Florida. Al Jazeera provides a video summarizing the cases, and the arguments for and against sending the agents home.

Texas agricultural exports to Cuba continue to increase

U.S. corn exports to Cuba jumped 200% in the first three quarters of 2011, as Cuba is using more corn products for uses such as poultry feeding, reports AgriLife Today.  Dr. Parr Rosson, director of the Center for North American Studies at Texas A&M University in College Station, states that:

We’ve been to see some higher quality beef cuts enter the Cuban market as well…Pears, apples, raisins and dry (pinto) beans were exported in 2011, along with corn chips and potato chips… These are products that we are seeing more interest in due to the growing tourism market in Cuba.

Cuba reported that a record 2.7 million tourists visited the island in 2011, a number that experts predict will continue to grow, Reuters reports. Under the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000, American businesses may export food, agricultural and forestry products, and medicines to Cuba.


Fidel Castro launches memoirs in event publicized by Cuban television

Fidel Castro announced the publication of his memoirs last week, in an event that was aired on Cuban television, CNN reports.   The former president revealed that the two volumes, whose existence was unknown prior to the book’s presentation in Havana, would comprise one thousand pages and cover his earliest childhood memories to December of 1958—right before the triumph of the Cuban Revolution on January 1, 1959.

Castro spent six hours presenting the memoir, titled Guerrilla of Time, commenting, “I have to take advantage now, because memory fades,” state newspaper Granma reported. The books, which are formatted as a series of questions and answers, were written based largely on interviews with Cuban writer and journalist Katiuska Blanco, who also wrote the only authorized biography of the Castro family.

At the event, Cuba’s former president spoke at length about his life after leaving office, his reflections on current events, and the state of Cuban politics. He stressed the importance of how national interests must be framed within international interests, highlighting the struggle for the interests of humanity.

Photos of the book release are available from CubaDebate.

International Book Fair commences in Havana

Cuba’s 21st annual international book fair opened today, Friday, in Havana, AFP reports. In addition to touting Fidel Castro’s newly-released memoir, the focus of this year’s fair is the culture of the “Greater Caribbean,” a region whose definition ranges from the southeastern U.S. to the northern state of Bahia in Brazil. The fair also honors reggae legend Bob Marley with a tribute concert including several Cuban and other Caribbean musicians. The fair opened with an homage to Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, Prensa Latina reports.


Controversy over Cuba’s possible participation in the Summit of the Americas

Statements made at the recent summit of the Bolivarian Alliance of the People of Latin America (ALBA) held in Caracas have stirred controversy over the proposed participation of Cuba in the Summit of the Americas, scheduled for Cartagena, Colombia in April, the Cuba Standard reports. At the ALBA summit, Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa proposed that the ALBA countries should boycott the upcoming event if Cuba is not invited to join, prompting Venezuela’s President Chávez to affirm “If Cuba goes, we go. If it doesn’t go, we won’t go.” In response, President Raúl Castro stated: “We have never asked for such a measure, but this won’t stop us from supporting it, because we consider it very just.”

The Summit of the Americas is hosted by the Organization of American States (OAS), and the 34 heads of state of the member countries are expected to attend, including President Barack Obama. Cuba, whose Marxist-Leninist government was  deemed “incompatible” with the Inter-American system, had been banned from the OAS in 1962. The ban on Cuba was lifted at the last Summit in 2009, however, José Miguel Insulza, Secretary General of the OAS, stated on Tuesday that Cuba has not requested to begin the process of dialogue necessary to integrate itself into the organization, EFE reports.

In light of the controversy, Colombia’s Foreign Minister traveled to Havana and met with President Castro, stating before her trip that she intended to act as a mediator during the visit, Havana Times reports. No public announcement has been made regarding the outcome of their conversation.

The U.S. has rejected any possibility of Cuba’s inclusion in the Summit. Dow Jones reports that an emailed statement from the U.S. Embassy in Bogota states:

The countries of the Americas, by consensus at the 2001 Quebec Summit, made clear the Summit process is open only to democratic countries. The U.S. supports that shared commitment and looks forward to the day when a democratic Cuba takes its rightful seat at a Summit of the Americas. Sadly, that day has not yet come.

Cuban joint venture to collaborate with Venezuelan state company to build resort near Caracas

The Havana-based Socivireca C.A. will collaborate with Venetur, a Venezuelan state company, to build a resort near Caracas in coastal Venezuela, the Cuba Standard reports. The $5.3 million agreement includes the renovation of two abandoned hotels to merge them into an 855-room resort. Construction is scheduled to begin on February 13th, and the project is expected to be completed for summer 2013.

Around the Region

Former Salvadoran military officer indicted on U.S. immigration charges

Former Salvadoran military officer Inocente Orlando Montano was indicted in a Massachusetts court on Wednesday on immigration charges, Reuters reports. Montano is charged with lying on federal applications when he entered the United States, as well as with failing to indicate his military status when applying for Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, which allows foreigners to remain in the U.S. if they cannot return home because of war or other extraordinary reasons.

Montano was indicted through an INTERPOL red alert from the Spanish government late last year, due to his alleged links to the November 1989 murder of six Jesuit priests along with their housekeeper and her daughter at the University of Central America (UCA) during El Salvador’s civil war. The United Nations Commission on the Truth for El Salvador found substantial evidence that Montano coordinated with other Salvadoran military officers to order the killings, according to Reuters.

If convicted on all five immigration-related counts, Montano would face up to forty years in prison, a fine of up to $1.25 million, and deportation to his native El Salvador after serving his prison term.

Venezuela and Colombia reinstate full relations

Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez and Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos affirmed the reinstatement of relations between the two countries. A statement  by Venezuela’s Foreign Ministry indicated:

The presidents congratulated one other for successfully reinstating relations in all areas, highlighting bilateral trade in particular, which grew to reach $2 billion by the close of 2010. They also reaffirmed their will to continue moving forward with cooperation on other issues such as economic development and investments and infrastructure, including the oil pipeline to the Pacific Ocean and the navigation of the Orinoco and Meta Rivers.

Venezuela had severed ties with Colombia in 2010 when Alvaro Uribe was still the president of Colombia. President Juan Manuel Santos’ first year in office has seen a shift away from the fraught Colombian-Venezuelan relations that were characteristic under former President Uribe.

As Peace Corps volunteers leave Honduras, US diplomat arrives to advise on fighting crime

Peace Corps volunteers have returned home after the Peace Corps announced that it would temporarily suspend activities in Honduras in light of growing safety concerns. An article in the University of Arizona Daily Wildcat describes volunteers’ responses to the Peace Corps withdrawal. Heide Bruckner, who served in Honduras from July 2009 to August 2011, stated:

I think it’s sad that Peace Corps in Honduras was temporarily shut down, but I understand the reason. At the same time, I never felt unsafe and I think most volunteers don’t have extreme safety and security incidents.

Meanwhile, the AP reported that the United States government sent former Nicaraguan Ambassador Oliver P. Garza to Tegucigalpa to assist in Honduras’ fight against crime. He will advise President Porfirio Lobo in the development of strategies to strengthen national security, respect human rights, and combat drug cartels, as well as in securing more international aid.

The body of experts also praised initiatives undertaken by the Salvadoran Government in the past few years, indicating that the strengthening of positive efforts will prevent abuses of freedom in the future. Finally, the Working Group expressed its approval of the Salvadoran Supreme Court’s finding that past Mano Dura (tough-on-crime) policies were unconstitutional.

Recommended Reading

Cuba looks to kids to recover faded boxing glory, Anne-Marie Garcia, the Associated Press

After failing to obtain a gold medal for the first time in 40 years at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, Cuba is implementing major reforms in its boxing programs, including beginning training earlier, which instructors believe will give athletes an advantage.

Cuba on the road to clean energy development, Patricia Grogg, IPS

“More than a decade ago, solar electricity changed the lives of several mountain communities in Cuba. Now this and other renewable power sources are emerging as the best options available to develop sustainable energy across the island.”

Recommended Viewing

Dr. Lee Hunt on Cuba’s Offshore Drilling, Platts Energy Week

International Association of Drilling Contractors President Lee Hunt talks about IADC’s involvement in opening dialogue between Cuba and the U.S., now that oil drilling has begun off Cuba’s shores.

Instability in Honduras, Al Jazeera

Commentators at Al Jazeera’s “The Stream” discuss the increasing instability in Honduras, specifically citing the role of the 2009 coup and drug trafficking in Central America.

Recommended Musical Listening/Viewing

The Creole Choir Of Cuba: Tiny Desk Concert, NPR (Audio and Video)

“With a musical history that dates back to the late 18th century, the group has revitalized a long-lost culture through music performed largely a cappella and entirely in Haitian Creole. Watch The Creole Choir of Cuba mash up Cuban and Haitian cultures in this spirited set at the NPR Music offices.”

Special: Carlos Varela, Havana Cultura (Video and interactive website)

This video provides extensive interviews with Cuban singer-songwriter Carlos Varela, as well as photos and videos of Varela performing with his band. For video footage of Varela performing at CDA’s 5th Anniversary Celebration last June, click here.

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