Outside the US special interests building in Havana, Cuba
On the morning of Wednesday 17th December 2014, I was attending lessons at Habana University when my mobile telephone vibrated with a text message. I ignored it and continued listening to the lesson. A few minutes later it vibrated again with another message that I continued to ignore. A call followed which I diverted to answerphone. After a few minutes I received more and more text messages so I switched off my phone as it was distracting others in the lesson.
Simultaneously, a loud exchange of dialogue could be heard from the corridor outside, which was not uncommon due to the architecture of the university, which amplifies normal conversations, but this was somehow different.
From outside the window I could hear cheering erupt from local houses nearby. What on earth is going on? I thought.
Well, Raúl Castro was addressing the nation on television, announcing that the final three members of the group known as the “five heroes” in Cuba had been freed from the US and had arrived back in Cuba that morning. For people outside of Cuba they would be better known as the Cuban Five - or Miami Five. The whole of Habana erupted (along with myself), taking to the streets in a huge celebration of their freedom.
Diplomatic relations were never going to be restored between Cuba and the US until the release of the Cuban Five. To know why, I recommend you read What Lies Across The Water by Stephen Kimber.
The presidential announcements by Barack Obama and Raùl Castro on 17th December 2014 concerning the restoration of full relations between Cuba and the United States could go down in history as an incredible victory of resistance against an imperialist power.
In what was a historic rapprochement after over 50 years of “frozen relations”, Obama described the restored relations as “a new chapter among the nation of the Americas”.
So, is it the case that now Cuba and Cubans have nothing to fear from the United States? Is everything hunky-dory?
Well, I have noticed that what people say and what they mean can be different, just as language used can change the way news is reported. For example, it is widely reported in pay negotiations that employers make “a pay offer” and the unions always make “pay demands”. Employers are reported as being “reasonable” and the unions “unreasonable”. The relationship between Cuba and the United States is no different.
On the same day as the presidential announcements on 17th December 2014, a new White House factsheet was issued - “Charting a New Course for Cuba” - that highlights that the United States has not changed its objectives, just its tactics & strategy.
Obama said: “We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests and instead we will begin to normalise relations between our two countries.” He stated regarding the blockade: “I do not believe we can continue doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result.”
Obama has never, to my knowledge, said or acknowledged that the blockade was wrong, but that it was an “outdated approach” and “failed to advance our interests”.
The concluding section of the new factsheet headed “Unwavering commitment to Democracy, Human Rights and Civil Society” states: “The US Congress funds democracy programming in Cuba…the administration will continue to implement US programs promoting positive change in Cuba.” Is this positive change for Cuba, though? It would appear that the US remains committed to advancing its interest in Cuba.
A few days after the announcements, on Wednesday 24th December 2014, it was revealed that the US state department was making $11 million available for “regime change” programmes in Cuba.
Now, nobody calls them that – they’re called “Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour”. Grants of millions of dollars will be handed out to “US or foreign-based organisations” aimed at boosting “civil, political and labour rights” in Cuba. Priority is given that “emphasise the role of Cuban partners in developing and achieving pragmatic objectives”. Now, these “objectives” are the same as before no matter how dressed up in the words of labour and civil rights they are.
Sound a little far-fetched? Well, read my chapter entitled, What Does USAID Really Do In Cuba? further on in this book.
Sound a little far-fetched? Well read What the chapter on what does USAID really do.
The US Blockade of Cuba
To understand possible future relations between the Cuba and US, it’s best to comprehend the difference between a blockade and an embargo, which was first explained to me by Cubans. A blockade is called this rather than an embargo because the latter could mean a legal, territorial action that prohibits commerce and trade with a specific country. Strikingly different, a blockade goes further and spreads extra-territorially, impacting on more than just commerce and trade.
A blockade cuts and closes any bonds in order to isolate the country from the outside world. This would include the effort to stop food, supplies and communications from entering or leaving the country.
It is designed to restrict economic, commercial, financial and other exchanges. The US blockade is estimated to have cost the Cuban economy more than 109 billion dollars.
The blockade under US law is called the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act (known also as the Helms–Burton Act) and it came into force in 1996. It helped to strengthen the blockade against Cuba, adding to the Torricelli Law, which was already in place.
The Helms-Burton Act doesn’t just have a devastating effect on Cuba and Cubans, it has an impact on other countries and their citizens.
In 2014, French Bank BNP Paribas was fined $8.97 billion by the US for extending credits to Cuba and other countries. In 2012, British bank HSBC was also fined by the US. Other financial institutions have been investigated by US authorities including, Grench leaders Credit Agricole SA, Societe Generale SA, Germany’s Deutsche Bank AG and Commerzbank AG, and Italy’s largest lender, UniCredit Spa.
Travel companies based in Argentina and the Netherlands were fined $2.8 million and $5.9 million by the US for servicing travellers to Cuba. The manufacturer of Red Bull paid a fine of $90,000 to the US for filming a documentary on the island.
Cuba is denied life-saving medication and equipment. For instance, a number of antivirals are unavailable because the US holds a monopoly over their patents.
Acquiring equipment and products in markets further away (from US), having to deal with agencies or intermediaries subsequently increases the costs as everybody takes their cut. In cases of child leukaemia in Cuba, where 75% were defined as “acute lymphoid”, doctors were unable to provide the optimum treatment because it is US-manufactured. There are also obstacles in buying equipment which impact upon the diagnosis, control and prevention of congenital disorders and genetic diseases.
Cuba is forced to spend more money to import food from further away, so freight costs are often 50% higher than if bought direct from the US. Living in Cuba I purchased toothpaste imported from Indonesia!
Universities suffer losses of millions of dollars, causing academic programmes and projects to be cancelled, a loss of production and services and a lack of access to US technology, which means having to go further afield.
Cuba is prohibited from trading with US dollars worldwide, and this also prevents any financial institutions, such as the World Bank and the IMF (International Monetary Fund), from granting finance to Cuba.
Despite the consequences of the blockade, the free and universal healthcare in Cuba is ranked with the best in the world. Healthcare in Cuba is defined as a human right, unlike in other countries. This is also the case when it comes to education. Not only have the Cuban people benefited from achievements in education, but they have exported literacy programmes across Latin American. In 1961, the Literacy Campaign resulted in eradicating illiteracy in less than a year.
In 2003, Cuba helped to launch a programme called “yes, I can” in Venezuela. This eradicated illiteracy within one year by teaching more than one million people to read. Since 2003, the programme has progressed to “yes, I can continue”, providing further education for more than one million students in Colmbia, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela.
Yet Cubans witness and experience the impact of the US blockade of their country every day.
The return of the remaining “Cuban Five” was a small step in the right direction, according to my Cuban student friends at Habana University.
For more than half a century, the Cuban people have resisted the US blockade and other types of aggression and terrorism against them, at a monstrous cost. After outlining the agreements on the 17th December 2014, Raùl Castro said: “This in no way means that the heart of the matter has been solved. The economic, commercial and financial blockade, which causes enormous human and economic damage in our country, must cease.”
One of my student friends said: “Cubans are like elephants, we never forget…the hard-right Cuban-American lobby has made a lot of noise since the initial announcements in December, but a presidential victory for Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush, who successfully campaigned against the imprisonment in the US of the convicted Cuban airliner bomber, Orlando Bosch, would result in not a step back, but a jump.”
Members of the UJC (Young Communist League (Spanish: Unión de Jóvenes Comunistas) and FEU (University Students Federation Spanish: Federación Estudiantíl Universitaria) openly gave their support for what Mariela Castro, Cuban National Assembly member and gender rights campaigner, said in the press after the announcements. She stated: “If the US thinks these changes will bring Cuba back to capitalism and return it to being a servile country to hegemonic interests of the most powerful financial groups in the US, they must be dreaming…They are still dreaming and they are still planning.”
This is a belief echoed by my Cuban friends, taxi drivers, general workers and doctors.
One Cuban woman I know told me: “We Cubans are one of the most educated populations in the world. Nothing changes until the end of the US Blockade, Cuba is removed from the terrorist list and Guantánamo Bay has been returned to us.”
On 29th May 2015, Cuba was removed from the list of states sponsoring terrorism. This has eliminated another major obstacle towards restoring diplomatic ties.
Despite the changes, the US blockade of Cuba remains in place. So little has changed since December 2014. In July and August 2015, both countries have opened embassies and there has been an increase in the limit of money that can be sent by Cuban-Americans from the US, plus a reduction in restrictions on travel for Cuban-Americans to Cuba.
In order to rescind the laws of the US blockade, a vote in the US congress is required. The speaker of the house and the deputy speaker have reportedly said that there was “little appetite for a vote and they would not be tabling a vote as it was unpopular with republicans”. It seems unlikely that there will be any major changes anytime soon, but more talking and no action. I believe that the recent dialogue between the two countries could be because since April 2014 there has been a steady stream of Russian and European countries sending diplomatic envoys to Cuba for talks about international development. The US therefore felt it could be missing out. The US was becoming increasingly isolated from the rest of the world in continuing the US blockade and the media profile of US contractor Alan Gross (imprisoned for clandestine acts in Cuba) had been increasing, thus acting as a thorn in the side of the US State Department.
Nobody claims that Cuba is perfect. I believe that the vast majority of Cuban people in Cuba do not want or need foreign interference in their country. I wonder if people in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Egypt feel like they have experienced any more freedom or more democratisation than before the wars. In July 2015, Greece’s debt crisis saw the opposite of freedom and democracy for the Greek people. The leaders of the European Union took the power of democracy from the Greek people and gave it to German, French, Belgian, Dutch and other European multinational corporations and banks (which the Greek government has no control over, either now or in the future).
The majority of Cubans feel that they have an active and important role in participating and shaping their country’s future. They smile when they are informed that they have no freedom to do so by the US government, foreign press and commentators. There are a minority who would like to embrace capitalism but without losing the benefits of the revolution and socialism. A pink fluffy version of capitalism, where everybody is an entrepreneur and there is no destitution or starvation.
It should be up to Cubans what happens in Cuba. It is their country and we all still wait for the end of the US blockade.
CounterPunch Radio host Eric Draitser sits down with renowned Cuban-American attorney José Pertierra to discuss the latest developments in Latin America, especially the warming of relations between the US and Cuba. Pertierra draws on his decades of experience working in international cases dealing with both Cuba and Venezuela, providing insight into issues ranging from the opening of embassies in Washington and Havana, to the geopolitical imperatives driving the shift in US policy. José and Eric contrast the US attitude toward Cuba and Venezuela, and discuss the political and strategic reasons for this. They also touch on the state of the Cuban economy, the mindset of young Cubans today, the importance of Hugo Chavez and his legacy, and the role of China and other non-western countries in the region.
Pope Francis in Cuba Vatican