In concert at Havana’s Karl Marx theatre on January 7th, the Cuban singer-songwriter Carlos Varela managed to defy Castro’s censors, likening him to “A guy [who] bought himself a ’59 Chevrolet, didn’t want to buy some parts for it and now it doesn’t work”. Varela was referring to the lack of democratic adjustment made by Fidel Castro’s dictatorship, which has been in place since January 1st 1959. “Politics isn’t sugar coated”, the song goes on, to finish with an angry “f**k you and your embargo” aimed at the United States.
But why is the embargo against Cuba criticised even by young people who are critical of Castro? Because it is clear that 46 years of restrictions have not changed anything. The United States government set up the total trading embargo against Cuba on February 3rd 1962, although it had already existed in practice since 1959. Since then, the Torricelli (1992) and Helms-Burton (1996) laws have added unprecedented clauses which mean that sanctions can be imposed on foreign companies who trade with Cuba if they are subsidiaries of, or affiliated with, American companies - even if they are in the EU.
Cold War hangover
This seemingly never-ending embargo, imposed amid anti-communist hysteria during the Cold War, has not managed to drive Castro towards neo-liberalism or freedom of speech. Instead, it has put the Cuban public in a precarious situation, where health and food are used as political weapons. The impossibility of obtaining medical technology from the States (which produces 70% of all diagnostic equipment) and the restriction of the flow of food from one neighbouring country to the other is becoming more like genocide than a 21st century form of pressure.
Bush has made the embargo even more severe, partly due to the strength of ultraconservative lobby groups of exiled Cubans and the importance of their votes in Florida (governed by Jeb Bush). As a result, the embargo has now reached fever-pitch, with new measures meaning an American can be sentenced to ten years imprisonment if he buys a Cuban cigar, even if it is made in Brussels and smoked in Ouagadougou. And culture doesn’t escape the embargo either. The American guitarist Ry Cooder, made famous by the Wim Wenders documentary Buena Vista Social Club, has had to end his relationship with Cuban musicians after having to pay a fine of 100 000 dollars.
An illegal embargo
Cuba calculates losses of some 80 000 million dollars caused by the American embargo. An anachronism which violates International Law since, according to the London Naval Conference of 1909, embargos are reserved for wartime situations. The American Trading with the Enemy Act itself only allows the imposition of an embargo in times of war or in the face of a threat to national security. Is Cuba a threat? Certainly not according to the United Nations’ Assembly General, which on October 28th 2004 condemned the United States’ embargo on Cuba for the thirteenth time, by a majority of 179 votes to 4: obviously the United States voted against, as did Israel, the tax haven of the Marshall Islands and Micronesia (which has only 19 000 inhabitants).
The European Union has also asked for the embargo to be ended several times, despite the Aznar and Berlusconi’s flirtations with Bush. The new Spanish Prime Minister, Rodriguez Zapatero, is now the instigator of a stance more open to dialogue with the Cuban regime. As a reflection of this new mood, the EU decided, on January 31st last year, to call off the diplomatic sanctions that had been in force against Cuba since June 2003. The sanctions included the limitation of high-level visits, the EU’s disappearance from the island’s cultural events and the invitation of Cuban dissidents to the embassies in Havana. This corrective has been applied after the restoration of the death penalty and the imprisonment of 75 political opponents. The Cuban Foreign Minister, Felipe Perez Roque, was quick to point out the EU’s double standards, which has never imposed diplomatic sanctions on the United States for its use of the death penalty against minors and the mentally ill, nor for the imprisonments at the American Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay. Castro himself scoffed at the recent European pardon, describing the EU as “those people that Cuba does not need”.
2005: the year when the embargo ends
Despite Castro’s arrogance, outstanding international figures, such as the former US president Jimmy Carter, have come out against the embargo. Another former statesman, Felipe Gonzalez, has gone further, maintaining that “the embargo on Cuba will be lifted in 2005. I have information; this is not just an opinion”.
The prophecy might become a reality in July, when the EU revises its common position on Cuba. It will then be time to take a real stance, independent of the United States, favouring critical dialogue with Castro’s regime and with peaceful opposition movements, including moderate Cuban exile organisations such as “Cambio Cubano” (Cuban Change). It is also important that they demand legal recognition of opposition movements on the island and encourage the condemnation of the US embargo, a hindrance inherited perhaps from Thomas Jefferson, who claimed in 1807 that he had always “looked on Cuba as the most interesting addition that could have happened to our State”. Only with the EU, and by forgetting Jefferson, will the Cuban Chevrolet will be able to travel down the motorway of development.