Ending the embargo

There are signs that the steps taken by the Barack Obama administration to relax some restrictions on contact with Cuba and the initiation of quiet, diplomatic dialogue with the government of President Raúl Castro may hold hope for a better bilateral relationship between the United States of America and Cuba.

This cautious engagement has however not prevented the Cuban government from expressing its indignation at President Obama’s symbolic extension of the Trading with the Enemy Act for another year and at the fact that the US trade embargo, first imposed in 1962, remains in place. Evidently, Mr Obama still does not feel confident that the carrot and stick approach as yet allows him to achieve a domestic political consensus on lifting the embargo, without some Cuban concessions on opening up the country to democratic reform.

On the other hand, there is much speculation that President Castro would like to ease some of Cuba’s own internal restrictions but is prevented from doing so by the delicate balance of power within the Cuban leadership, between his own clique and big brother Fidel’s influence and entrenched support. Nevertheless, as far as the Cuban regime is concerned, the incremental measures being taken by the US government to improve relations with Cuba are not enough to signal a quantum improvement in relations between the two countries. Moreover, for Cuba, the removal of the embargo by the USA has always been and continues to be non-negotiable. The embargo is, as stated by the Cuban foreign minister, Bruno Rodríguez, in his recent speech to the United Nations General Assembly, “a unilateral act of aggression that must be ended unilaterally”.

In this respect, Cuba’s international diplomacy aimed at garnering support for the raising of the embargo is undiminished and during the General Assembly debate, several heads of state and foreign ministers also voiced their opposition to the embargo. Most notably, the first to do so was President Lula da Silva of Brazil. In speaking just before Mr Obama’s maiden address to the UN, he was obviously delivering a strong message to the American president, who has been under concerted pressure for most of the year from other Latin American and Caribbean leaders, to end the embargo.

On October 28, the General Assembly will vote for the eighteenth consecutive year on the lifting of the embargo. Since 1991, the embargo has been condemned by an increasing number of countries, reaching the highest number of votes last year, with 185 – no mean achievement for Cuban diplomacy and a recurring slap in the face for the USA. It however remains to be seen whether support for Cuba will be eroded by Mr Obama’s arrival in the White House and his efforts to reach out to Cuba.

Perhaps conscious of this, Mr Rodríguez has admitted that Mr Obama is “well-intentioned”, “intelligent” and a “modern politician”, who has succeeded in lowering the “aggressive rhetoric” towards Cuba. But at the same time, he has qualified as “limited and insufficient” some of Mr Obama’s measures, which though rectifying the “brutal” policies of the Bush administration, do not go far enough in signifying a real change in US policy.

The Cuban leadership is, of course, well aware that although the US president can ease some sanctions on Cuba, he cannot overturn the embargo; that power rests with the US Congress and the president must first certify that Cuba is moving toward democracy.

In this respect, the release on September 29 of a report prepared by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), at the request of three anti-embargo members of Congress – the Democrats, Charles Rangel and Barbara Lee, and Republican, Jeff Flake – offers a glimmer of hope. Mr Rangel stated then, on behalf of his two colleagues: “It is our hope that this GAO report will serve as a roadmap to finally reject a failed and outdated policy that has not resulted in any advances for the Cuban or American people… A thorough rethinking of our policy regarding our nearest Caribbean neighbour is long overdue, and we believe that the time to act is now.” As far as the three members of Congress are concerned, the embargo unfairly penalizes Cuban American families and the Cuban people, as well as American business interests. Nor has it brought about democratic change in Cuba.

The report accordingly outlines steps Mr Obama and Congress can take to bring an end to the embargo, such as easing travel to Cuba, increasing the value of remittances that may be sent to Cuba and the amount of cash travellers may take to Cuba, expanding the list of items eligible for gifts, and removing restrictions on vessels that have entered a Cuban port.

However, the president will ultimately still need Congress to suspend or terminate the embargo, by amending or repealing the 1996 Helms-Burton Law and other embargo-related statutes.

The congressional trio have therefore declared themselves ready to work with the White House to implement the roadmap outlined in the report and there are expectations that the Democrat-controlled House will pursue several bills in 2010 to ease US sanctions on Cuba, including one lifting all restrictions on travel to Cuba. Support is building, not least among influential travel and trade lobby groups.

There may be a tougher fight in the Senate, however, where the Democratic majority is narrower, but nobody expects a rapid reversal of the embargo. Nor does anyone believe that any relaxation of sanctions will bring about overnight change in Cuba. But these are the most positive signs yet that Congress is ready to change tack and they can help the Obama administration to open up the dialogue with Cuba.

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