A non-partisan journal of the left.

End the Embargo on Cuba

Fri 30th Oct 2009

This week the United Nations is set to vote massively against the US blockade of Cuba for the 18th time.

Is Barack Obama about to listen? Or will the US continue to ignore the overwhelming will of the world?

Last year a record 185 countries voted against the blockade with just the US, Israel and the tiny Pacific island nation of Palau voting for its continuation. Just a few months ago recent Nobel peace prize-winner Obama was busy talking about a "new beginning" with Cuba and an "equal partnership" with all the nations of the Americas.

Unfortunately there is nothing equal in the relationship with Cuba. As Cuba's report to the UN on ending the blockade states, "other than a tightening of this policy, nothing essential has changed since the new US government was inaugurated."

Obama has tinkered with the relationship, easing some travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans and tentatively exploring the resumption of postal services between the two countries which were suspended in 1963.

But the reality is that since he took office, the blockade has been rigorously maintained. Obama's government has taken no steps towards removing the legal framework enforcing the blockade.

A maze of laws and regulations are still in place, including the Cuban Adjustment Act, the Trading with the Enemy Act, the Foreign Aid Act, the Export Administration Act, the Cuban Democracy Act (known as the Torricelli Act), the Cuban Liberty and Solidarity Act (known as the Helms-Burton Act) and the Export Administration Regulations Act.

The US Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) continues to fine foreign companies that try to trade with Cuba. In August it fined the Australia and New Zealand Banking Group $6.95 million (£4.26m) for having financial dealings with Cuba between 2004 and 2006.

While the transactions did not breach Australian laws or any international sanctions, they ran counter to the US government's extraterritorial blockade laws. This illegal blockade of Cuba is perhaps the most wide-ranging and brutal in history.

Even the US government's own Accountability Office says that "the embargo on Cuba is the most comprehensive set of US sanctions on any country." Earlier this year Amnesty International issued an unprecedented 20-page report, The US Embargo Against Cuba.

This spells out how the blockade severely limits Cuba's ability to import medicine, medical equipment and technology essential for treating life-threatening diseases and maintaining public health programmes.

The Obama administration continues to designate Cuba as a "state sponsor of terrorism" and has done nothing to ease the suffering of the Miami Five. Even the New York Philharmonic Orchestra has been denied the right to travel to Cuba to perform.

After the April visit of the US Black Caucus, Congressman Emanuel Cleaver called for the removal of the nearly 50-year-old sanctions. "We've deluded ourselves into believing that if we isolated Cuba the Castro regime would collapse and the US version of democracy would be established.

"And it has turned out that we are the isolated country."

Meanwhile in Britain, Tory MP Ann Widdecombe has become the latest of 227 MPs to have signed early day motion 1171 calling for better British-Cuban relations and urging our foreign secretary to visit Havana for talks.

The motion has cross-party support. Some 16 former ministers and frontbenchers have signed, including former Tory leader Michael Howard, Frank Dobson and Gerald Kaufman. Thousands of postcards have been sent to Foreign Secretary David Miliband urging him to travel to Cuba and the issue has been raised consistently by the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, trade unions and MPs.

TUC leader Brendan Barber has lent his support, saying: "Let's get a minister going to Cuba and let's deepen our trade relations." And UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis has said: "We have got to make demands of David Miliband. He should be calling for the end of the blockade."

Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos has just completed another official visit to the island. He declared that Spain would seek major improvement in EU ties with Cuba once it takes over the presidency of the European Union in January.

While Moratinos and ministers from other EU countries engage with Cuba, the British government seems determined to ignore public opinion and continues to blame Cuba for the lack of progress.

In correspondence, the Foreign Office recognises that a high-level visit would "strengthen relations further," yet it adds that there are no "plans for ministers to visit Cuba."

The European ministers' visits show that hurdles can be overcome and bilateral meetings can be arranged if there is the will to do so. We can only assume that the British government is unwilling to move towards better engagement, hanging onto a failed policy of isolation.

Colin Burgon MP has been at the forefront of the campaign to develop better British-Cuban relations.

"The fact that over 200 MPs have signed this motion highlights that there is enormous support for the government to visit Cuba, just as the governments of Spain, Ireland and many others have done," he says.

Recently 96 dancers from the Royal Ballet flew to Havana to perform in a wonderful example of people-to-people contact. It seems ridiculous that the British government feels unable to get on the plane, preferring to lecture the Cuban people from on high. Even shadow foreign secretary William Hague had a positive visit to Cuba in March. Yet despite all the repeated requests Miliband still declines to go.

Once again we find ourselves asking a Labour government to wait no longer for change in Washington.

Come on Miliband. The time for change is now.

Rob Miller is director of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign.

This article first appeared in the Morning Star newspaper on 27th October 2009.
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