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Cuba economic embargo turns 50

 

BigPond News

 

It is 50 years since the US imposed its economic embargo on communist-run Cuba, and many are questioning why the trade ban still remains.

 

'All this time has gone by, and yet we keep it in place,' said Wayne Smith, who was a young US diplomat in Havana in 1961 when relations were severed and who returned as the chief American diplomat after they were partially re-established under President Jimmy Carter.

 

'We talk to the Russians, we talk to the Chinese, we have normal relations even with Vietnam. We trade with all of them,' Smith said. 'So why not with Cuba?'

 

Supporters of the trade ban say it is a justified measure against a repressive government that has never stopped being a thorn in Washington's side.

 

But critics call it a failed policy that has hurt ordinary Cubans instead of the government.

 

All acknowledge that that the ban, announced by President John F. Kennedy on February 3, 1962, has not accomplished its core mission of toppling Fidel and Raul Castro.

 

Little was planned to mark the anniversary, but Cuban-American members of Congress issued a joint statement vowing to keep the heat on Cuba.

 

Supporters of the policy acknowledge that many US strategic concerns from the 1960s have been consigned to the dustbin of history, such as halting the spread of Soviet influence and keeping Fidel Castro from exporting revolution throughout Latin America.

 

But they say other justifications remain, such as the confiscation of US property in Cuba and the need to press for greater political and personal freedoms on the island.

 

'We have a hemispheric commitment to freedom and democracy and respect for human rights,' said Jose Cardenas, a former National Security Council staffer on Cuba under President George W. Bush. 'I still think that those are worthy aspirations.'

 

With just 145km of sea between Florida and Cuba, the United States would be a natural No. 1 trade partner and source of tourism.

 

But the embargo chokes off most commerce and the threat of stiff fines keeps most Americans from sunbathing in balmy resorts like Cayo Coco.

 

Cuba is free to trade with other nations, but the US threatens sanctions against foreign companies that don't abide by its restrictions.

 

A stark example arrived off the coast of Havana last month: A massive oil exploration rig built with less than 10 per cent US parts to qualify under the embargo was brought all the way from Singapore at great expense, while comparable platforms sat idle in US waters just across the Gulf of Mexico.

 

The embargo is a constant talking point for island authorities, who blame it for shortages of everything from medical equipment to the concrete needed to complete an eight-lane highway spanning the length of the island.

 

Cuba frequently fulminates against the 'blockade' at the United Nations and demands the US end its 'genocidal' policy.

 

Every Autumn, like clockwork, the vast majority of nations agree, and overwhelmingly back a resolution condemning the embargo. In November, 186 countries supported the measure, with only Israel joining the US in opposition.

 

Also each year, Cuba updates its estimate of how much the embargo has cost it, using a complicated - and some say flawed - calculus that takes into account years of interest, the end of the gold standard and other factors. Last year's estimate summing 49 years of sanctions was $US975 billion ($A905.54 billion).

 

Even some critics of the embargo call Havana's claims exaggerated, saying that while the sanctions had a tremendous impact when first put in place, Cuba was able to adapt and benefited from relationships with like-minded allies such as the former Soviet Union and Venezuela.

 

'There's no doubt that the embargo is detrimental to the Cuban economy. It complicates international financial transactions, but more importantly, it limits Cuban families' access to medicine,' said Geoff Thale, a Cuba analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, which supports ending the policy.

 

'At the same time, Cuba's economic problems go beyond the embargo.'

 

While 50 years of socialism have brought advancements in areas such as education and health care, even island authorities acknowledge their perennially struggling economic system must change.

 

President Raul Castro is in the process of allowing more private sector activity, decentralizing state-run businesses, implementing agricultural reform and slimming government payrolls.

 

The United States actually does have significant trade with Cuba under a clause allowing the sale of food products and some pharmaceuticals.

 

According to the most recent information available from Cuba's National Statistics Office, the US was the island's seventh-largest trading partner in 2010, selling $US410 million ($A380.79 million) in mostly food products.

 

However, that was down from nearly $1 billion in 2008, as the island increasingly turned to other countries that don't force it to pay cash up front.

 

Many US businesses would love to be allowed into the Cuban market, but an end to the embargo seems a long way off.