February 01, 2015

Cuba: End of the US Blockade!

Yohannan Chemarapally

THE simultaneous announcements by Barack Obama and Raul Castro on December 17 that relations between the United States and Cuba would be “normalised”, has been one of the positive developments of 2014. Even within the United States, only a minority of right wing politicians have criticised the move by Obama to restore diplomatic relations after a gap of more than 50 years with an immediate neighbour. Within the Cuban-American community in the United States, the move by the American president has been widely welcomed. President Obama has indicated that he would move within a month’s time to steadily dismantle the trade embargo which Washington had imposed on the island nation for more than five decades. Critics of the president in the Republican dominated Senate and Congress have however vowed to stall the lifting of the American economic blockade on Cuba. Right wing critics of Obama are accusing the president of giving too many concessions to Cuba. Obama in his speech did not mention the word “democracy” while Raul Castro in his speech demanded a speedy end to the American embargo on Cuba.

The blockade on Cuba started in 1960 the last year of the Eisenhower administration. President Dwight Eisenhower acceded to the wishes of the US state department which had proposed a line of action “that makes the greatest inroads in denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about desperation, hunger and the overthrow of the (Castro) government”. The policy was revised in the eighties and nineties to make the sanctions more draconian. All the same the American blockade did not achieve its stated goal but it did cause a lot of suffering to the Cuban people and adversely impacted on the country’s economy. Cuba estimates that its economy has lost more than $1 trillion as a result of the blockade. 

Obama administration officials have said that the president will immediately use his executive powers to lift the sanctions on travel and business activities. President Obama in his speech said that with the United States having established diplomatic relations with other Communist countries like China and Vietnam, it made no sense to continue with the policy on Cuba, another Communist country. The decision to ease restrictions on Cuba was influenced to an extent by the forthcoming Summit of the Americas scheduled to be held in Panama in April. Panama had invited Cuba to the summit along with the US.  Many countries in the region had threatened to boycott the summit if the US insisted on the exclusion of Cuba to the summit. Now President Obama and his Cuban counterpart can sit across the table. It will be the first such meeting between the presidents of the two countries since the Cuban Revolution of 1959. Obama and Raul did briefly shake hands and greet each other during the funeral of Nelson Mandela.

It has been evident for some months that the relations between the two countries were improving. Many US senators and Congressmen were calling on the Obama administration to ease the sanctions on Cuba. The NYT, the voice of the US East Coast Establishment has been carrying on a campaign for the speedy normalisation of relations between the two countries. President Obama had won votes from the Cuban community in Florida during his first campaign for the presidency by promising to improve relations with Havana. He did in fact make some changes in Washington’s Cuba policy by allowing Cuban Americans to visit their homeland more frequently and to send increased amounts of dollar remittances to relatives on the island. But he also continued with many of the hostile policies of the past, including subversion of the Cuban political system. American government agencies like USAID were used for the purpose. Alan Gross was caught distributing money and computers to the miniscule minority of dissident activists on the island. The “Zunzuneo project” was another plan hatched by the agency aimed at subverting the socialist system through the auspices of the social media.



It was painstaking behind the scenes negotiations that finally brought about a diplomatic breakthrough. Now it turns out that even the Vatican had a role to play in the final outcome. Secret talks between American and Cuban officials were hosted by the Vatican in Rome. The talks had gone on for 18 months in utmost secrecy. The negotiations finally revolved around the fates of the three remaining Cubans who remained incarcerated in the US and the American spy, Alan Gross, serving a 12 year prison term in Cuba. When Pope Benedict before his surprise retirement had visited Cuba in 2012, he had called for the resumption of dialogue between Havana and Washington. The Pope had also made it a point of not meeting with Cuban dissidents backed by the US during his visit. Francis, before he was anointed as the Pope, had visited Cuba. The current Pope, being from Argentina, is more conversant with contemporary politics of the region. Both Obama and the Cuban President Raul Castro thanked the Pope for helping in finalising the “historic” deal.

For Cuba, the issue of the “Cuban Five” was the most important aspect of the negotiations. Two of the Cuban patriots have been released after serving lengthy prison terms. The release of the remaining three from American prisons was the number one priority for the Cuban government. Without their freedom, Cuba would never have handed over Alan Gross back to the American authorities. The only crime of the Cuban Five was to expose the activities of Cuban American terrorist groups operating from American soil. Gerardo Hernandez, Ramon Labanino, Antonio Guerrero, Fernando Gonzalez and Rene Gonzalez had infiltrated these terrorist groups that had been targeting Cuban cities and violating Cuban air space with impunity. Terrorist organisations like Alpha 66, Commandos F4 and Brothers to the Rescue operated from Florida. They were allowed a free run by American security agencies. They would routinely target Cuban Americans in Florida who called for normalisation of relations. Many have been assassinated. Among the notorious anti-Castro Cuban terrorists operating in Florida were Orlando Bosch and Luis Possada Carriles. They were the brains behind the bombing of a Cuban commercial airliner in 1976 that killed all 76 passengers on board.

The deal came in for effusive praise from leaders in Latin America and the Caribbean region, cutting across the political differences. Pro-American leaders in the region like presidents of Mexico and Colombia were among the first to express their happiness with diplomatic rapprochement that took so long to materialise. The Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos expressed hope that the deal would pave the way “to the dream of having a continent where there will be total peace”. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) which is currently engaged in peace talks with the Colombian government in Havana announced that it was declaring a unilateral and indefinite cease fire. The civil war in Colombia has been going on almost uninterrupted since the early fifties.

President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela hailed the agreement as a “historic victory for the Cuban people”. A day after President Obama announced the normalisation of relations with Cuba, he gave his approval for sanctions against Venezuela. Strained relations with Washington did not however stop Maduro from congratulating Obama for his initiative. “We have to recognise the gesture from Obama. A necessary and courageous gesture”, Maduro said. His foreign minister, Rafael Ramirez however highlighted American double standards. He pointed out the contradiction of President Obama imposing sanctions on Venezuela when he had admitted that sanctions against Cuba have failed. “They want to sanction us because we carry the banner of socialism”, he said. The Brazilian President, Dilma Roussef, a guerilla fighter against the military regime of the seventies, described the normalisation of relations between Havana and Washington as a historic one. “For us, social fighters, today is a historic day. We imagined we would never see such a moment”, she said.



The American economic blockade of Cuba was deeply unpopular all over the region. The Obama administration was alarmed by the diplomatic and economic inroads being made by China and Russia in a region that it once considered as its backyard. Many American policy makers and analysts blamed the diminishing influence on the country’s failed Cuba policy. In the last Summit of the Americas, most of the time was wasted on talking about America’s economic blockade of Cuba. China’s President, Xi Jinping and the Russian President, Vladimir Putin made extensive visits to the region in 2014. President Obama in his speech said that America’s failed policy towards Cuba had failed to “advance our interests”. He was not talking only about political interests.

In fact, many American commentators have said that it is the powerful commercial lobby in the US that has prompted Obama to speedily loosen restrictions on trade with Cuba. Though the American trade embargo has not officially ended, the White House has said that it would “authorise expanded sales and export of certain goods and services from the US to Cuba”. The Department of Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsack, has said that the easing of restrictions “expands opportunities for US farmers and ranchers to do business in Cuba”. American economists estimate that the US would be able to sell $500 million worth of agricultural products to Cuba in 2014. The US Wheat Associates (USW) said that American exports will grow from the “current level of zero to around 80-90 per cent in Cuba, as it is in other Caribbean nations”. The multinational corporation, Cargill, in a statement hailed the American president’s initiative saying that “there are clear economic and social benefits” and the potential for “a new market for US farmers, ranchers and food companies”.

But before relations between the two countries can truly normalise, Washington has to first remove Cuba from the state department’s list of states sponsoring terrorism. Cuba was unilaterally placed on the list way back in 1982. Cuba’s crucial military support for the liberation movements in Southern Africa had prompted that move. Because of sanctions and counter terrorism laws, Cuba finds it very difficult to access cheap credit from international financial institutions. American companies will also find it difficult to do business with Cuba because of the restrictions that are still in force in the US. Obama administration officials have said that Cuba will be out of the terror list within months.

The other issues that need to be settled quickly are those connected to migration, narcotics and the return of Guantanamo Bay. The Americans have to scrap the “wet foot, dry foot” policy which encourages Cubans to emigrate illegally. Cubans rescued in the sea (wet foot) are allowed to take up residence in third countries while those successful in reaching American shores (dry foot) are automatically given residency permits. This privilege is given only to illegal immigrants from Cuba. There is no dispute about the sovereignty over Guantanamo Bay. The 1903 treaty under which the US signed a lease agreement with Cuba recognises this fact. Communist Cuba however does not recognise this agreement which was signed when the island was virtually run like a colony by the Americans. Washington has also got to stop its openly subversive activities like the daily propaganda broadcasts from Radio Marti and Television Marti.

President Castro has been emphasising that the détente with Washington would not make Cuba waver from socialism. “We shouldn’t expect that in order for relations to improve with the United States, Cuba is renouncing the ideas for which we’ve fought for more than a century and for which our people have spilled so much blood and run such great risks”, Castro told Cuba’s National Assembly in the last week of December. He said that Cuba was always ready “to engage in a respectful dialogue on equal terms to address any issues without a shadow over our independence and without renouncing a single one of our principles”. Raul reminded the Cuban people that many of the odious aspects of the blockade still remain. “An important step has been taken, but the essential thing remains, the end of the economic, commercial and financial blockade against Cuba, which has grown in recent years, particularly in financial transactions”, he said. After Raul finished his speech, he invited the Cuban Five and Elian Gonzalez, to share the podium with him. Elian was rescued from the sea and was at the centre of a bitter custody battle between his father in Cuba and relatives in Florida. His return to Cuba in 2000 was another big victory for Cuban persistence and diplomacy.