Of Demons and Hurricanes: Cuba’s Embargo Must Be Lifted Immediately
The two hurricanes which have ripped through Cuba over the past week have received less than a passing blink from international news organisations. This is in stark contrast to the hours of press coverage devoted to the evacuation of New Orleans last week. The American-Cuban relationship has never been balanced.
Last week, Hurricane Gustav ripped through the western half of the Cuban island, at Category 4 force, whilst yesterday Havana narrowly escaped a direct hit by the eye of Hurricane Ike raging initially at the same level, though it was later reduced to a Category One. Despite that considerable mercy, the whole island has been ravaged nevertheless by Ike from Guantanamo in the extreme east to Pinar del Rio in the far west.
Cuba is well prepared for hurricanes and the government routinely calls for mass evacuations when hurricanes descend. The current death toll lies at four in Cuba, but the actual and potential destruction belies those figures. Last week’s Gustav tore out at least 120,000 houses in Cuba’s western provinces, leaving crops and food supplies – already in short supply in a country where rationing still exists – heavily depleted. That was last week, before Ike had screamed her way across Cuba’s countryside and cities.
No one yet knows the full price Cubans will pay for these hurricanes. Fidel Castro has likened their impact to a nuclear attack. Few images of this country which has been at war with the weather for over one week have reached us. Communications with friends in Havana and the coast have been severely limited by the cutting of power supplies, the evacuations to mass shelters and, perhaps more than any other factor, the fear of what was, and is, to come. The Army has been out in force with building materials and food , but the scale of the destruction is vast and nobody yet knows quite how it will be tackled. Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela, Russia, even East Timor have offered assistance. Bush remains ominously quiet.
Barack Obama has called for an immediate ninety day suspension to the trade embargo. El bloqueo, as it is known in Cuba, was imposed on 7th February 1962 by JF Kennedy’s government following the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in which Cuba played its role in the escalation of the Cold War between Russia and the US. Cuba’s immediate presence within howling distance of American waters caused such alarm to the US government that it felt compelled to introduce financial, travel and trading restrictions on its island neighbour.
How the trade embargo came to be
In 1992, the United States government passed the Torricelli Act, also known as the Cuban Democracy Act, since its stated purpose was to bring democracy to the Cuban people. In fact, it forbade American companies from trading with Cuba, prevented foreign ships which used American ports from travelling to Cuban ports for 180 days, interned ships returning from Cuba and on a human level, banned Cuban families who lived in the USA from sending much-needed cash back to their families in Cuba. The hope was that Cuba would suffer an acute economic collapse. In 1996, the Helms-Burton legislation was passed, and Clinton later tightened it further. Amongst the many strangleholds it contains, it places wide-ranging restrictions on United States citizens trading or doing any form of business with Cuba. This law, which the UN General Assembly has condemned roundly for many years, applies both to US firms as well as to overseas firms owned or controlled by “U.S. persons”. In 2006, Bush’s government created a task force designed to enforce and pursue violators of the embargo even more aggressively, with potential penalties resulting in ten year jail terms as well as huge fines.
The UN view
A 2007 report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food highlights the devastating impact which the embargo has had on Cuba’s food production and importation. The Report states, by way of example, “..over 80 per cent of dairy imports to Cuba consist of milk powder for use in the social programme, imported from New Zealand and the European Union. Rice is shipped from China and Viet Nam, taking 45 days to reach Cuba. By way of comparison, it would cost one-third of the price to ship from the United States and would only take two days. Increased transaction costs also affect the import of food. US products must be paid for in advance in cash or through letters of credit drawn on third country banks. The [Cuban] Government estimates that incremental (transaction) costs for food and agricultural imports incurred in 2006 due to the embargo amounted to US$ 62.8 million.”
A tool of warfare
An embargo “to bring democracy” is a tool of warfare, and needs to be recognised as such. Cuba, however, is dealing with enough of her own demons at present. Whirling winds have wreaked a war-like devastation on a land which has stayed determined to seek its own course through history. It is high time the embargo is lifted, not just for ninety days, but for good. According to the Cuban government, the embargo has cost the Cuban economy over US$ 89 billion since its introduction and resulted in US$ 258 million of losses in the food sector during May 2006 to April 2007.
Lift the Embargo immediately
The United States has offered ‘assessment’ by one of its specialists to determine what level of humanitarian relief Cuba will require in the wake of the hurricanes. The Cuban government has refused this “offer”, asking that the embargo be lifted so that it can buy the materials it needs to help itself. It is time the Americans stop holding hostages. Democracy can’t be bartered in a capital market, nor imposed in a court of war. If democracy is a tool intended to inspire and help people to determine their own fate, the Cubans need to be allowed both to build and to determine their own. If common sense and fairness cannot prevail upon the US government to change its mind, these hurricanes certainly should.
September 10th 2008