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Economic War Against Cuba

Ricardo Alarcon
From the Print Edition:
The Cuba Issue, May/Jun 99

(continued from page 1)

It's enough to read the autobiographies of ex-U.S. presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon to find proof that within weeks of the triumph of the Cuban revolution, the U.S. government began its hostilities toward Cuba and launched the economic war that continues today. This occurred months before Cuba adopted a socialist program, and before it had reestablished relations with the Soviet Union.

But the history between the two nations goes back further. In 1805, 13 years before the birth of Karl Marx, in a note to the English minister in Washington, President Thomas Jefferson made the first official declarations that aimed at taking control of Cuba for strategic reasons. In 1809, the United States made its first attempt to convince Spain to cede its colony to America. In 1823, 25 years before the publication of Marx's Communist Manifesto, the United States formulated the theory of "fruta madura," or "ripe fruit," that suggested when Cuba separated from Spain, it should be incorporated into North America. The father of Cuban independence, José Martí, would later note this danger.

In 1898, three years after Martí's death, the United States intervened in Cuba's War of Independence and began four years of military occupation. In 1901, it imposed in the Cuban constitution a clause that took away part of Cuba's territory [Guantánamo--ed.], which is still illegally occupied, and claimed the "right" to intervene in Cuba. In the decades of the twentieth century before the Cold War began, the United States repeatedly sent occupation troops to depose and install governments, and intervene in various ways in the internal affairs of the country. Finally, Cuba won its full independence on January 1, 1959. From the beginning, the U.S. embargo not only prohibited all commerce between Cuba and the United States, but it also banned entry into the United States of any product made with some or all Cuban products, even if it was made in a third country. The ban also applied to the sale of any U.S.-made products to Cuba, even a product containing just 20 percent U.S.-made components. Additionally, for most of the past 40 years, the regulations have closed U.S. ports to any ship carrying goods to or from Cuba, just because that ship had been in a Cuban port.

This economic war has been governed by a combination of laws, regulations and executive orders that were finally codified by the U.S. Congress with the March 12, 1996, enactment of the Helms-Burton Act. Of course, all these rules not only affect Cubans but also U.S. citizens, because any violation of these rules is a "grave crime," punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 if committed by an individual or $1 million if committed by a corporation. Also, the U.S. Treasury Department has authority to impose an administrative fine of $55,000 per violation.

The Torricelli bill of 1992 [the Cuban Democracy Act, sponsored by then Representative, now Senator Robert G. Torricelli of New Jersey--ed.] also toughened the embargo against Cuba by prohibiting any commercial transaction with Cuba by a sub-sidiary of any U.S. corporation based in third countries.

This business had a value of $700 million, mostly in food and medicine. The new law reduced that business by 90 percent when it took effect. In the past seven years alone, the embargo has produced damages of $1.2 billion in the area of health. Despite supposed flexibility in the Torricelli bill, Cuba has not been able to buy a single aspirin in the United States.

The Helms-Burton Act further intensified these measures and tried to halt foreign investment in Cuba by imposing fines on the investors, something that is without precedent under international law. It has been strongly opposed and rejected by some of America's principal allies.

Some experts have quantified the value of damages caused to Cuba by the embargo at more than $60 billion, a figure that grows daily. Just to give you an idea of the impact, let's look at the statistics for damages in 1997 alone: $130 million in extra freight charges; additional credit fees of $155 million because of higher interest rates; $200 million in import costs because Cuba must go farther to acquire goods, and often at higher prices than world market rates; losses due to currency exchange of $260 million; and $55 million for low prices for export goods.

This all comes to about $800 million. Those five areas alone require the Cuban government to expend 20 percent more funds than it would have to otherwise. This damage estimate does not include: the value of tourism that Cuba could have had with the United States and other countries, the increase in direct communications revenues, the increased income that would come from more airplane flights, the rise in investments, or new financing. Each of those areas would increase if the embargo ended.

There has been universal rejection of U.S. policy. Since 1992, the United Nations General Assembly has consistently condemned the embargo against Cuba by a vote equal to the membership of the body; in the last vote, it was 157 to 2, with Israel, a country that has investments in Cuba, joining the United States in this unjust policy. Within the United States, there is growing opposition to the embargo; it includes religious leaders from different denominations, businessmen, academics, prominent leaders from past administrations and a growing group of Democrats and Republicans in Congress who have expressed their support for a revision of the policy. Pope John Paul II called the embargo "unjust and ethically unacceptable."

Despite the embargo, Cuba has maintained standards of health, education and social security that are much higher than the rest of Latin American countries. It has maintained an infant mortality rate of 7.1 per thousand births, a number that is better than the United States.*

In 1997, specialists from the Latin American and Caribbean Economic Commission of the United Nations, in a study of the Cuban economy, said that Cuba had overcome its crisis and started to grow, at a modest rate. But, the report added, "paradoxically and contrary to what has been occurring in Latin America, the liberalization of markets [in Cuba] has caused a social solidarity that has served to mitigate some regressive results in the distribution of costs from the so-called 'special period' that Cuba is living. Given the magnitude of the external shock, the cost of the stabilization policy has been relatively low, with a more equitable distribution in comparison to other Latin economies, thanks to the guarantees for employment and the money received by the population."

Someday this absurd embargo policy will have to be revised. It must be abandoned, because nothing can be sustained with the growing opposition to it around the world, in the United States and in the face of the patriotic will of the Cuban people that has served to save their independence and national dignity.

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