In Cuba, US embargo elicits a shrug

Havana’s communist leaders make halting changes, but no one expects an end to the economic blockade

Cuban youths dance at a concert on March 1, 2014, in honor of a freed member of the Cuban Five.
Ben Piven/Al Jazeera

HAVANA — The political pretext for gathering scarcely registered, as 100,000 raucous young Cubans — packed densely into a historic square behind Havana University — clapped and jived to the salsa rhythm of legendary big band Los Van Van.

Teenage boys, many bused in from outside the capital, showed off facial piercings, tropical punk hairdos and Lycra muscle shirts as some chugged from flasks of cheap rum. The band's front man sported a fitted blue Yankees cap, while girls swayed with the music bellowing from massive speakers that dwarfed an undersized poster advertising the local communist youth group.

Officially, the reason for the concert held earlier this month was to celebrate the return of Fernando Gonzalez, the second of the “Cuban Five” to be released from prison in the U.S., after serving 15 years for espionage. Before the show ended, there was a perfunctory call for the liberation of the remaining three and mild cheers as the emcee denounced "U.S. imperialism" and "el bloqueo" — the U.S. economic embargo of its island neighbor, in force for the past 53 years without achieving its goal of bringing down communist rule.

The failure of the embargo to end the Castro regime — and the fact that Washington is internationally isolated in applying it — has prompted periodic debate in the U.S. about its value. Despite hope that Barack Obama's administration might ease the policy, any move to relax it draws significant domestic political opposition. Meanwhile, Cuba's regime is engaged in debates of its own, slowly making small policy changes that would have been unthinkable at the height of communist rule.

An economy in which the state was once the sole employer now includes a growing gray zone of private enterprises operating with the consent of the authorities. That reflects an effort by the communist leadership to stimulate an economy stunted by low growth, despite its relatively high human development index and bountiful government benefits. Only a small number of citizens have seen their living standards improve over the past two decades.

Some people in Cuba believe that an end to the U.S. embargo — long blamed by the leadership in Havana for all economic woes — would spur a much-needed boom. "Five million tourists could come from the U.S. to Cuba annually if the embargo were lifted," said Felipe Ventura, a chemical engineer from Havana. Despite the potential offered by its highly educated population, the Cuban economy's most dynamic sector remains tourism, which generates $2.6 billion annually. Although the embargo precludes conventional tourism from the U.S., Cuba welcomes a steady stream of visitors from Europe, Canada and Latin America.

He said that Cuban society takes good care of ordinary people, keeping down crime, drug abuse and homelessness, adding that Cuba's education and health care are “one to two generations ahead” of other Latin American nations such as Guatemala. Ventura, a Soviet-educated Ph.D., saw restrictive local laws on running private businesses as a far greater drag on economic growth than the U.S. embargo but still wants it lifted.

He spoke while dining at Rejoneo Asador in the capital's upscale Miramar neighborhood, an establishment that seems to illustrate his point. The restaurant, which serves mammoth portions of beef, is subject to a government rule limiting eateries to 50 chairs. So the owner created three dining areas — adjacent but technically separate  — for a legal total of 150 seats. The venue includes a cafeteria called Tic-Tac W, whose symbol is an upside-down McDonald’s logo that represents two interlocking J's, for the co-owners' common first initial.

At a bodega, customers use ration books to acquire daily provisions.
Ben Piven/Al Jazeera

President Raúl Castro, in office since 2008, has overseen a loosening of rules to allow mobile phone use, limited Internet connectivity and unrestricted foreign travel. But according to Freedom House, only about 5 percent of Cubans can access — largely through black-market sale of other people’s connections — slow Internet bandwidth.

The regime has implemented laws aimed at promoting growth in the Cuban private sector and has even succumbed to that most capitalist of solutions by undertaking massive layoffs in a bloated public sector.

None of that is likely to have much impact on the five-decade embargo, although recent polling that found a majority of Americans believe it should end. That's because its key base of support is in the electoral swing state of Florida, where conservative Cuban exiles who insist on tightening the embargo — until the Castro brothers are ousted — exert exceptional influence.

"The embargo was relevant and useful at an earlier time, but the world has changed," Ted Piccone, director of the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution, told Al Jazeera. "The U.S. has changed, Cuba has changed, and it's time to update our policy."

"The embargo has been counterproductive, particularly because the government and its supporters have used it as a scapegoat for decades in blaming the U.S. for various problems," he added. "But the last five years under Raúl have been more explicit in saying, 'We also have our own problems, and we need to improve and protect our model of socialism.'"

Reforms enacted during Obama’s first term of office, such as easing travel rules for Cuban-Americans returning home, raised hopes of more widespread rapprochement. But those hopes have been largely dashed — the handshake between Obama and Raúl Castro at the funeral of South African leader Nelson Mandela notwithstanding.

The embargo was imposed by an act of Congress and would require a congressional majority to be repealed. But Obama has not recently used his executive powers to make smaller changes in Cuba policy either, despite record cooperation on issues such as migration and drug trafficking. The administration attributes the lack of action to Havana's human rights record and to the continued imprisonment of USAID contractor Alan Gross. But given the likelihood that reversal of the embargo would be blocked in Congress, Cuba does not appear to be a priority for Obama. 

The embargo has been counterproductive, particularly because the government and its supporters have used it as a scapegoat for decades in blaming the U.S. for various problems.

Ted Piccone

Brookings Institution foreign policy program

Lola, a pink-and-white Bel Air with smooth tail fins, and Nadine, a baby blue 1955 Chevy, pulled gracefully into the driveway of the high-end Meliá Habana Hotel. The cars came to a halt next to a wall plaque dedicated to Fidel Castro. Their owners, Julio Alvarez and his wife, Nidialys Acosta, are founding members of NostalgiCar, a small business–cum–club that restores old American vehicles to be used as taxis. Alvarez drives the pink diesel gas guzzler, since Acosta can't drive a manual.

Alvarez talked about expanding their operation, saying, "We purchased a 1959 Chevy Impala for $7,000, with half on financing, and we plan to spend another $8,000 on restoration."

However, due to the embargo, car companies cannot legally import certain parts from the U.S. But as private individuals, the couple could purchase the needed components in Santa Ana, Calif., for about half the price that a Cuban mechanic would offer. This difficulty remains, despite the abolition earlier this year of revolution-era regulations on foreign car imports.

“The embargo is bad mainly for the Cuban people, as we are not a government-affiliated venture,” said Alvarez, while jovially arguing with his wife about what color to paint the third addition to their car family.

For many Cubans, though, the concern is less about material goods than about expanding opportunity.

"The Cuban people don't need to live deluxe," said retired high school history teacher Otto Guerra, 71, over live music from the eastern city of Guantánamo. "Maybe I don’t need AC. Maybe I don't need a car. We just need possibilities," he added, after providing an American visitor with a quick lesson on the Cuban Missile Crisis, which unfolded while he was doing army service in Santiago.

Guerra also proudly recounted the first baseball championship broadcast direct to Cuba from Miami: the 1955 World Series between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Yankees. In Game 7, Yogi Berra hit a deep fly ball into left field, and little-known Cuban outfielder Edmundo Amorós made a memorable sliding catch, then threw to the infield for a double play at first base that helped clinch the win.

Nonchalantly, Guerra downplayed a potential post-embargo influx of American culture. "We don't talk about who is or isn't capitalist," he said. "McDonald's, why not? Coke, why not?"

Mosaic image of the Granma yacht, upon which Cuba's revolutionary leaders sailed from Mexico to the Caribbean island.
Ben Piven/Al Jazeera

But some of Guerra's compatriots who long ago settled in the U.S. strongly disagree. They reject Havana's attempts to project a kinder face, citing ongoing suppression of human rights, and insist that their decades-old strategy will hasten a transition to a new government that supports free-market capitalism.

Maria Werlau, executive director of the Free Society Project, was born in Cuba. She left as an 8-month-old and has returned to her homeland only once, during Pope Paul II's 1998 visit. Three of her applications to visit since have been rejected.

"I favor sanctions, but I don't like to use the word 'embargo' because it has connotations that I don't believe are accurate," she told Al Jazeera, referring to the limited impact of current policies. "[We put] diplomatic pressure on a totalitarian regime … [yet] we are giving in to things helping it stay in power."

Werlau, who runs the Cuba Archive, seeks "principled engagement" and more restrictions. She advocates multilateral sanctions, arguing that the present "one-country policy … is not very effective." Indeed, most of the countries historically willing to abide by U.S. sanctions against Iran have had little patience for Washington's Cuba policy. Cuba's government is reliant on Venezuela for cheap oil, benefits from Brazilian investment on a huge Mariel port project and is on the cusp of new trade talks with the EU.

"Cuba can buy mostly everything it wants," said Werlau, skeptical of claims about shortages of food and medicine, some of which — including frozen chicken and antibiotics — qualify under U.S. law as exemptions from the embargo. Last year U.S. companies did $350 million in business with Cuba, while Cubans living abroad sent home more than $2 billion in consumer goods, according to the Havana Consulting Group. "If they really want something, they'll get it. It's not like they're suffering because they can't buy X or Y."

Cuba can buy mostly everything it wants. If they really want something, they’ll get it. It’s not like they’re suffering because they can’t buy X or Y.

Maria Werlau

president, Cuba Archive

The embargo continues to be strongly backed by politically influential exiled groups and key Cuban-American legislators from both parties. Still, Obama could further loosen travel laws and promote expansion of cultural exchange programs without congressional approval. Other options include a presidential waiver of commercial restrictions and a higher limit on remittances.

"The big push again is to lift the embargo, accept the updated Cuban regime as a credible and legitimate world player and do business as usual with it," said Werlau. "I object to that strongly."

"The sanctions regime should be analyzed carefully and comprehensively to increase its effectiveness and … should be changed to make them consistent with our overall goal, which is to sanction and pressure Cuba until and unless the Cuban people are allowed all fundamental rights."

But Piccone sounded a hopeful note about the prospects for reform. "There is a hard-core group that would not change their views, but over time, that will soften," he said. "Cuba and its traumas are not unique in the world. Other societies have been divided for many years. There will be some kind of reconciliation among Cubans and between the governments as well."

But as the crowd partying with Los Van Van made clear, Cubans aren't exactly holding their breath waiting for that moment. Most of them, after all, were not even half as old as the embargo.

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