'Inhumane, failed and anachronistic', but still in effect
It seems to have become a permanent item on the agenda for the United Nations General Assembly, which convenes in New York every September. At the start of each session, leaders travel to the UN headquarters to mount the podium and brag about their achievements, lambaste their pet adversaries, lay out their fears and concerns about the future, or present a new hobby-horse for the world to consider adopting. With amazing longevity, certain items keep on appearing, and for the past 21 years, one particular item has come back like clockwork, with the same result - a total international rebuff of the domineering attitude of the only super-power left standing.
Last Tuesday was the date this year for the General Assembly's annual vote on the US embargo against Cuba - and the vote remained the same as it has during those 21 years - a resounding "End The Embargo"!When the voting ended on Tuesday, the final tally was 188 countries in favour, three against, with two countries abstaining. It was almost identical to last year's vote - 188 to two, with three abstentions. It is interesting to see who the No votes are - the United States, naturally, along with Israel and Palau. Abstaining were the Marshall Islands and Micronesia. Israel is America's biggest client - particularly for arms - and the other three countries are micro-states comprising strings of coral islets in the south-western Pacific. They are also clients of the US.
Every year we hear the same arguments from the American side that the Cubans are prisoners in their own country, held captive by the Castro brothers who deny them freedom and human rights. Opponents of the embargo argue that the US is imposing its will on its small neighbour, is in effect conducting economic genocide against Cuba and in any case its arguments are inconsistent, since it maintains relations with such bastions of democracy and human rights as Saudi Arabia and China.
On this occasion, Ronald Godard, a senior US adviser for western hemisphere affairs, defended the embargo as "one of the tools in our overall efforts to encourage respect for the human rights and basic freedoms to which the United Nations itself is committed ... Cuba's resolution seeks to identify an external scapegoat for the island's economic problems when they are principally caused by the economic policies that Cuban government has pursued for the past half century".
He noted that his country strongly asserts its sovereign right to conduct relations with whatever countries it wishes to. Therefore, this is a bilateral issue and of no concern to the General Assembly. Godard noted that in recent years the United States has sold appreciable amounts of goods to Cuba, mostly food and medicines, and he argued that the resolution didn't reflect present realities.
For his part, the Cuban foreign minister, Bruno Rodriguez, railed against the embargo and labelled the US policy as "inhumane, failed and anachronistic". "Keeping this policy in force is not in the national interest of the United States. Quite on the contrary, it harms the interests of its citizens and companies - especially in times of economic crisis and high unemployment - which, according to every poll, are demanding a change of policy ... What's the point of encroaching on the constitutional and civil rights and the freedom of travel of Americans by preventing them from visiting the island when they can visit any other place in the planet, including those where their country is waging wars?" Rodriguez added that although President Obama had offered a new beginning with Cuba after the 2008 election, "the reality of the last four years has been characterised by a persistent tightening of the economic, commercial and financial blockade".
Wang Min, China's deputy permanent representative to the UN, told the General Assembly on Tuesday that the embargo has caused shortage of commodities and dealt a heavy blow to Cuba's economy and also stands as the major stumbling block for Cuba's economic development and social progress. Wang said that one of the most prominent features of the embargo in the last year has been "interference with Cuba's international financial transactions". "This has not only hit Cuba's economy hard, but also affected the normal economic, commercial and financial interactions between other countries and Cuba and hence impairing the interests and sovereignty of third countries." Moreover, the call of the international community is getting louder and louder, demanding that the US government change its policy towards Cuba, lift the embargo and normalise its relations with Cuba.
The embargo, which the Cubans call el bloqueo (blockade), came into effect in 1960 as tensions between the fledgling revolution and Washington heated up to a higher degree with each passing day. The island's wide plains and gentle slopes with their deep, rich soil are ideal for growing sugar cane and when Fidel Castro took power in 1959 the United States had been for years Cuba's main market for sugar. After Castro nationalised US-owned businesses, the US cut Cuba's sugar quota and quickly moved to a full-scale blockade. Cuba's new buddy, the Soviet Union, jumped at the opportunity and agreed to buy all of Cuba's sugar.
This became the basis of relations between thee two countries for the next three decades. Moscow bought Havana's sugar at inflated prices and in return, sold Cuba oil at favourable rates, and as a bonus, armed and trained its Revolutionary Armed Forces. As the 1990s rolled around and the Soviet Union imploded, this all came crashing down around the heads of Cubans.
The United States has made clear that although some restrictions on travel and remittances have been eased under the Obama administration, it is not prepared to lift the sanctions entirely until the communist-run nation enacts more far-reaching political and economic reforms. Over the past half-century, Cuban officials have kept a tally of what they say is the damage the embargo has inflicted on their country's economy - just over US$1 trillion by the latest estimate.
This animosity between the United States and Cuba defies the laws of gravity in international relations. For decades Washington and Beijing traded nothing but a stream of heated invective after Mao Zedong toppled Chiang Kai-Shek's government in 1949, yet today China is the US's biggest trading partner and holder of US debt. The US waged a devastating war against Vietnam at a cost of more than a million Vietnamese and American lives while employing millions of tons of bombs and such nasty chemicals as Agent Orange (whose deleterious genetic effects continue to this day), but now both countries enjoy a vigorous and growing trade.
Yet the US cannot disentangle itself from its own web of harsh rhetoric and punitive actions and continues the embargo long after it has ceased to make any sense. Fidel Castro has become that rarest of all beasts - retired dictator - while his revolution lurches on, trying to adjust itself to a modern world and a perilous future. As for the Americans, they continue to mourn the loss of the colony they felt Cuba was destined to be and keep up the stale old rhetoric they no longer fully believe.
What keeps the situation going is simply inertia. And we all know the classic definition of inertia: "Bodies in motion tend to remain in motion; bodies at rest tend to remain at rest." To alter either state of affairs, you need an external influence.