America's Embargo of Cuba: What Result After 35 Years?

Next week, Cuba will ask the UN to condemn the embargo, a year after Helms-Burton took effect.

In an outdoor market in Old Havana, artisan Osmani Diafuente pronounces an often-heard judgment of the United States economic embargo of Cuba.

"Everything is the fault of the Americans: It's the embargo, the embargo, we're told. But if it's so effective," he asks, "why is it the people with money can get anything they want in the supermarkets of Miramar [the upscale end of town]?"

Half the city away, economist George Carriazo smiles in his office in an old Miramar mansion. He's heard the argument before. "The effect of the embargo is not what you see, it's what you don't see," he says. "We have Coca-Cola, but it can't come from the US, so it has to come from farther away. What the embargo does is make everything for us more expensive, more difficult."

Cuba will take its case against the embargo to the United Nations next week, when Foreign Minister Roberto Robaina is expected to ask the General Assembly to condemn the measure for the sixth year in a row. Calculating the cost of every last ramification - for example, the extra fuel cost Cubana Airlines faces for being prohibited from flying over US territory - Cuba will tell the UN that the 35-year-old embargo has cost the island $60 billion.

What it hasn't accomplished, on the other hand, is what it set out to do: topple the Communist regime that sits just 90 miles off the US shore.

In fact many Cubans argue that by giving Cuban President Fidel Castro an excuse for all of Cuba's woes, the embargo has actually prolonged unnaturally the life of a regime whose political and economic cousins have largely disappeared.

"The Soviet Union has collapsed, our Eastern European markets are gone, the only thing keeping this regime alive is US policy," says Oswaldo Pay Sardias, a Christian movement leader who favors Cuba's gradual economic and political transition. "The [Castro] regime and US policy just feed off of each other."

What is the embargo?

The Cuban Assets Control Regulations, under the Trading with the Enemy Act, covers every aspect of economic exchange with Cuba from imports and exports to gifts, travel, and humanitarian aid.

According to the US Treasury Department, charged with the embargo's enforcement, the law was a response to "certain hostile actions by the Cuban government." Such actions include the placement in 1962 of Soviet nuclear missiles trained on the US - a short-lived arrangement that led to the Cuban missile crisis - and the fomenting of communist revolution throughout Latin America.

"The basic goal of the sanctions," a Treasury Department statement says, "is to isolate Cuba economically and deprive it of US dollars." But over the decades as the embargo has not had its intended effect, the sanctions have been toughened - most recently by the "Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996," more commonly known as the Helms-Burton law.

What's its impact?

The embargo helped push Cuba into the orbit of the Soviet Union, from which the Caribbean island received as much as $6 billion in annual subsidies before the communist collapse. Since 1991, the embargo has contributed to Cuba's economic difficulties as the Communist regime has attempted to enter the global market.

Cuba must make this transition without the giant market - the US - that helped make it the second wealthiest country in Latin America before the 1959 revolution. "We now have to go thousands of miles to sell products that without the embargo could be selling just 100 miles away," says Mr. Carriazo, assistant director of Havana's Center for Research on the World Economy. "That's a big extra cost."

And of course it works the other way around. Fertilizer imports for Cuba's sugar industry, new tractors, spare parts - everything has to come from some place other than the US. US tourists, who came to a hopping Havana in droves before the revolution, are prohibited by the embargo from traveling here. (Although Americans are breaking the embargo in increasing numbers, traveling via Canada and Mexico.) And the embargo also denies Cuba access to favorable international credits through international financial institutions.

Where has it failed?

But a law that was designed to "deny Cuba US dollars" has failed miserably, and not so much because foreigners are trading with Cuba but because of dollars coming from the US itself. Although Cuban officials blame the US for all their problems, the reality is that Cuban Americans and exiles living in the US constitute perhaps the principal buoy keeping the island afloat. Earlier this month, the United Nation's Economic Commission for Latin America released a report stating that in 1996 Cuban exiles sent $800 million to Cuba. The report said this amount surpassed the sum of all payrolls in Cuba, thus making it a central factor in the regime's post-Soviet survival. This despite a "toughening" of the embargo last year by President Clinton supposedly prohibiting such remittances.

What is Havana's impact?

Given a porous embargo working against a trouble-plagued, state-run economy, it's difficult to sift out what part of Cuba's economic problems are the result of its system, and what part can be tied to US policy. "The embargo and pressure on other countries not to trade with us is the environment in which the Cuban economy must operate," says Carriazo - "to which you can add inefficiencies, bureaucracy, and, why not, policy mistakes."

Why not drop it?

Two decades after the Vietnam War ended, the US dropped its ban on trade with Communist Vietnam in 1994, and a year later full diplomatic relations were reestablished. If that could happen, why can't the US try engagement with Cuba - as Canada and the European Union insist is the better formula for encouraging change?

For one thing, Vietnam isn't just an easy boat ride off the US coast. There was no hefty community of Vietnamese Americans, as there are Cuban Americans in Miami, turning apoplectic at the idea of normalized relations.

And then of course, no Vietnamese leader ordered the shootdown of American planes right about the time it looked like relations with the US might improve.

Many Cubans maintain that Castro had two US-registered planes, piloted by Cuban exiles opposed to the Castro regime, shot down between Florida and Cuba in February 1996 because he thought President Clinton, the first post-cold-war president, might be contemplating a turnabout in US Cuban policy.

What Castro cannot fathom, these Cubans argue, is life without the US embargo.

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