Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Effects of the US blockade on Cuba

by Murray Andrews, written for RATB
21 September 2010

On 2 September 2010, US President Barack Obama signed a presidential memorandum, announcing the continuation of the blockade of Cuba for yet another year. For the last 50 years, the US has sought, and failed, to regain influence over Cuba by unilaterally imposing their far-reaching blockade, hoping to squeeze Cuba hard enough to overthrow the revolutionary government. As Cuba prepares to deliver its 19th report to the UN, 'Necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States against Cuba', and as it undertakes a difficult process of economic restructuring, it is worthwhile considering the real impact of the decades-long blockade.

The blockade seeks to strangle Cuban economic activities so much that it simply cannot survive. Calculations suggest that, in today’s prices, direct economic repercussions against Cuba as a result of the blockade cost as much as $236,221 million. Obstacles are put up to Cuban exports, as well as access to foreign funding – due to Cuban operations being assessed as at higher risk, alongside prohibitions on the use of the US dollar in transactions. The blockade has, however, created a range of very specific attacks on the lives of Cubans, and stands as an ever present danger to the Revolution.

Effects of the blockade
Nowhere can the presence of the US blockade be more felt than in the public health sector. Economic problems resulting from the blockade falls largely on increased costs and difficulties in acquiring products and medical equipment. By having to pass through intermediaries in far-flung countries, Cuba has to pay more to receive the same goods than they could have, had the blockade not been in place. Between May 2009 and April 2010, the impact on the public health sector was $15.2 million. However, it is in the public health sector that the real human costs of the blockade can be felt.

For example, Cuban children who suffer from lymphoblastic leukaemia are unable to use the medicine Erwinia L-asparaginasa, sold commercially as Elspar, as the pharmaceutical company owning the rights to the product refuse to sell to Cuba, under the obligations set up by the US blockade. Similarly, Toshiba, while not a US Company, refuses to trade with Cuba, preventing high-tech equipment, such as gamma radiation chambers, entering the country. In the face of such fundamental obstructions, the outstandingly high quality of Cuba’s healthcare system becomes even more impressive.

Another area of key importance is food. Despite US food imports to Cuba being permitted since 2000, they have to pass through a strict process of supervision and licensing, making purchases needlessly bureaucratic and costly. In 2008, for instance, the additional costs created from US transactions meant that ALIMPORT, the company responsible for importing food to Cuba, lost $154.9 million dollars – costs which, at average US prices, could have purchased anything from 615,000 tonnes of corn to 126,760 tonnes of chicken for the over 11 million Cubans involved in the Canasta Básica, or basic shopping basket programme.

The blockade makes itself felt repeatedly in food production as well – for example, in 2008-09, 6000 hectares of rice were not planted, as delays caused by the blockade meant that pesticides and fertilisers did not arrive on time. This led to 12,400 tonnes of rice being unavailable for consumption – and to a cost to Cuba of $7.5 million in extra imports. Similarly, between April 2008 and March 2009, the fishing industry lost $5.4 million dollars by having to pay extra tariffs on the destinations of products, increased transport and other costs, as a direct result of having to ship products further afield.

Despite the phenomenal achievements of the Cuban education system, the blockade, as in all other spheres of Cuban life, makes its presence felt in this sector too. From May 2008 to April 2009, Cuba spent $40 million on importing products for the education system.  However, 8.7% of this was spent on freight costs from the Asian market – had these products been bought in the US, costs would have been reduced to 3.9% - which could have bought 40 million pencils, 550,000 boxes of crayons, and 1 million boxes of Plasticene.

The blockade particularly impacts on higher education, where internet access is of crucial importance. However, the US forbids Cuba access to underwater cables which would give Cuba access to widespread broadband connections, leaving Cuba reliant on slow and costly satellite connections. The process spreads right across the internet itself. For example, on 28 January 2010, it was announced that the website Sourceforge, a central repository for free and open source software projects, blocked access to Cuba and other countries on which the US applies unilateral sanctions, effectively denying Cuba access to a vast array of software  - the same applying to websites as diverse as Symantec (a virus protection program), Cisco Systems (technology for internet connection) and even Microsoft Windows Live. The University of Havana has found similar problems particularly damaging, with access to websites being limited as they connect from Cuba, and updates for software being unavailable. So much for the vaunted 'freedom of information' of the US!

The blockade is also felt across Cuban culture. In May 2009, renowned Cuban musician Silvio Rodríguez was refused a US visa to perform at the 90th birthday concert for US folk musician Pete Seeger, a direct effect of the blockade.

ARTEX, the distributor of Cuban cultural products, has been seriously harmed in record selling rights, with proper distribution and promotion of artists being severely limited by the US blockade. ICAIC, the Cuban Institute of Cinema Art and Industry, has found it difficult to distribute and exhibit its films, as it is forbidden access to the US market. Troubles have also arisen in attempting to restore and preserve old material, as technology and materials for this are almost exclusively available from the US, so has to pass through numerous third parties to purchase goods at higher prices. Sport is also affected, with Cuba unable to buy essential analytical equipment for anti-doping controls from US companies and subsidiaries that are prohibited from selling to Cuba.

Hiding 50 years of failure and genocide
Through 10 successive governments, the blockade against Cuba has only tightened. Since the inauguration of Barack Obama, a media offensive has attempted to suggest that the blockade is being removed – laws restricting Cuban residents in the US from visiting family members (up to a limit of third degree of consanguinity), and an elimination on Cubans in the US sending remittances to family members in Cuba (to a third degree of consanguinity, and excluding members of the government of Cuba and members of the Cuban Communist Party) have allowed the current US government to portray the image that it is making gestures to Cuba, or even offering friendship. The image, however, is cosmetic. The substantive reality of these measures is that they simply revert to the situation before 2004, under Bush Jnr., when the blockade was still in effect.

As much as the US tries to play down the blockade, which they call an ‘embargo’, with Secretary of State Clinton alleging that ‘the Castros do not want to see an end to the embargo … because they would lose all of their excuses for what hasn't happened in Cuba in the last 50 years’, the US blockade qualifies as genocide. Article II, Section C of Geneva Convention of 1948 on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, gives one definition of genocide as: ‘Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part’ – a categorisation which the US blockade certainly fits under. Try as it may to hide it, the US government have been engaged in 50 years of genocide against the people of Cuba, a genocide that gets concealed behind a mask of ‘democratic’ rhetoric.