The Costs of the Embargo March 7, 2009Posted by rogerhollander in Cuba, Economic Crisis, Foreign Policy.
Tags: Barack Obama, Cuba, cuba educatin, cuba healthcare, cuba history, cuba husing, cuba infant mortality, cuba literacy, cuba medicine, cuba unemployment, cuban blockade, Cuban embargo, Cuban Revolution, expropriation, foreign policy, margot pepper, roger hollander, tv marti
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The 47-year-old blockade now costs the United States far more than it costs Cuba.
On January 1, Cuba celebrated the 50th anniversary of the revolution against the U.S.-backed Batista regime. For 47 of those years, Cuba has suffered under what U.S. officials call an “embargo” against the Caribbean nation. Cubans’ name for the embargo—el bloqueo (the blockade)—is arguably more apt, given that the U.S. policy also aims to restrict other countries from engaging in business with Cuba.
What’s surprising is that while the blockade continues to take a considerable toll on the Cuban people, it costs the United States far more, and the gap is widening. Given the economic meltdown, it is only fitting that a growing chorus of diverse voices is calling for an end to the costly vendetta.
The original justification for the embargo was Cuba’s expropriation of “some $1.8 billion worth of U.S.-owned property,” according to the U.S. Foreign Claims Settlement Commission. In turn, Cubans argue that early in the century, the United States had seized control of 70% of Cuban land and three-quarters of Cuba’s primary industry. By the 1950s, as a result of U.S. colonialism and preceding Spanish rule, five out of six Cubans lived in shacks or were homeless, 80% of Havana suffered from hunger and unemployment, and two out of three Cuban children didn’t attend school. Cubans say such conditions left them no recourse but to expel the Yanquis, just as the Yankees had expelled the British in 1776.
Today, U.S. public opinion is turning against the embargo. A majority—52%—wants the embargo to be lifted, with 67% favoring an immediate end to the travel restrictions, according to the Cuba Policy Foundation (CPF), a nonprofit run by a former U.S. ambassador. Recent polls have even shown that a majority of Miami Cubans now support lifting the embargo.
These percentages might be even higher if the U.S. public were aware that the blockade is actually costing them more than the Cubans, something that is finally beginning to dawn on the U.S. business community. Representatives of a dozen leading U.S. business organizations, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, signed a letter in December urging Barack Obama to scrap the embargo. The letter pegs the cost to the U.S. economy at $1.2 billion per year. The CPF’s estimates are much higher: up to $4.84 billion annually in lost sales and exports. The Cuban government estimates the loss to Cuba at about $685 million annually. Thus the blockade costs the United States up to $4.155 billion more a year than it costs Cuba.
The U. S. government also spends $27 million each year to broadcast Radio and TV Martí, even though the television signal is effectively blocked by the Cuban government. The largely futile propaganda effort has cost U.S. taxpayers half a billion dollars over the last twenty years, according to the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.
Beyond the economic costs, the blockade has deprived U.S. citizens of Cuba’s medical breakthroughs. Cuba has developed the first meningitis B vaccine; treatments for the eye disease retinitis pigmentosa; a preservative for un-refrigerated milk; and PPG, a cholesterol-reducing drug gobbled up by foreigners for its side effect: increased sexual potency. And last summer Cuba released CimaVax EGF, the first therapeutic vaccine for lung cancer. The drug triggers an immune response that extends life in lung cancer patients and can ease breathing and restore appetite.
The blockade has always cost the United States more, but the gap has widened considerably. By 1992, U.S. businesses had lost over $30 billion in trade over the previous thirty years, according to researchers from Johns Hopkins. At that time, Cuba’s loss for the same period was smaller, but not by much: $28.6 billion, according to Cuba’s Institute of Economic Research. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba’s diversification and increased trade with other countries has widened the gap between the costs to Cuba and the costs to the United States.
While the dollar cost to the United States may be higher, Cuba has suffered a greater economic hit relative to its size and resources. Although lifting the blockade will inevitably boost Cubans’ living standard, the Cuban economy will still be saddled with its colonial legacy as a mono-crop producer. Unequal trade terms enforced by treaties and organizations such as the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund maintain formerly colonized countries as underdeveloped purveyors of raw materials, subsidizing the high standard of living in industrialized countries. It is useful to remember this uneven playing field whenever making U.S.-Cuba comparisons.
Regardless of all these obstacles, the socialist island has managed to provide its inhabitants with what the United States, one of the most affluent countries in the world, so far has not: free top-notch health care, free university and graduate school education, and subsidized food and utilities. Meanwhile, 36.2 million people go hungry in the United States and 47 million lack health coverage. Indeed, Cuba compares favorably to the United States on a number of basic social factors:
- Housing: There is virtually no homelessness in Cuba. Thanks to the 1960 Urban Reform law, 85% of Cubans own their own homes and pay no property taxes or interest on their mortgages. Mortgage payments can’t exceed 10% of the combined household income.
- Employment: Cuba’s unemployment rate is only 1.8% according to CIA data, compared with 7.6% (and rising) in the United States. One factor contributing to Cuba’s low unemployment is undoubtedly the 350,000 jobs that have been recently created by the burgeoning sustainable urban agriculture program, one of the most successful in the world, according to U.S.-based economist Sinan Koont.
- Literacy: The adult literacy rate in Cuba (99.8%) is higher than the United States’ rate (97%), according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
- Infant mortality: Cuba has a lower infant mortality rate (4.7 per 1000 live births) than the United States’ (6.0).
- Prisons: Cuba even does better on prisons. Its rate of incarceration—estimated at around 487 per 100,000 by the UNDP—is among the highest in the world, yet it is considerably lower than the U.S. rate of 738 per 100,000. Now that the number of political prisoners Cuba locks up is in decline, according to a February Associated Press news release, there is even less justification for the blockade.
The fact that a poor, formerly colonized country can meet its citizens’ basic needs, while outperforming the United States on key measures, underscores how inexpensively the United States could follow suit. Cuba’s example could prove instructive to President Obama and his constituents as the United States faces economic collapse. And herein may lie the real motivation of the blockade, and its most significant cost: it keeps people from making such comparisons first-hand. If the only concrete threat the Cuban Revolution poses to the United States these days is the threat of a good example, isn’t it high time we bury the blockade?
Venezuela, an imaginary threat February 19, 2009Posted by rogerhollander in Foreign Policy, Latin America, Venezuela.
Tags: Bolivia, bush administration, Cuba, Cuban embargo, democracy, foreign policy, hillary clinton, Hugo Chavez, insulza, james steinberg, joe biden, Latin America, Lula, mark weisbrot, Obama, roger hollander, terrorism, Venezuela
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guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 18 February 2009
Obama is maintaining a hostile policy towards Hugo Chávez – which will cost the US friendships elsewhere in Latin America
US-Latin American relations fell to record lows during the George Bush years, and there have been hopes – both north and south of the border – that President Barack Obama will bring a fresh approach. So far, however, most signals are pointing to continuity rather than change.
Obama started off with an unprovoked verbal assault on Venezuela. In an interview broadcast by the Spanish-language television station Univision on the Sunday before his inauguration, he accused Hugo Chávez of having “impeded progress in the region” and “exporting terrorist activities”.
These remarks were unusually hostile and threatening even by the previous administration’s standards. They are also untrue and diametrically opposed to the way the rest of the region sees Venezuela. The charge that Venezuela is “exporting terrorism” would not pass the laugh test among almost any government in Latin America.
José Miguel Insulza, the Chilean president of the Organisation of American States, was speaking for almost all the countries in the hemisphere when he told the US Congress last year that “there is no evidence” and that no member country, including the US, had offered “any such proof” that Venezuela supported terrorist groups.
Nor do the other Latin American democracies see Venezuela as an obstacle to progress in the region. On the contrary, President Lula da Silva of Brazil, along with several other presidents in South America, has repeatedly defended Chávez and his role in the region. Just a few days after Obama denounced Venezuela, Lula was in Venezuela’s southern state of Zulia, where he emphasised his strategic partnership with Chávez and their common efforts at regional economic integration.
Obama’s statement was no accident. Whoever fed him these lines very likely intended to send a message to the Venezuelan electorate before last Sunday’s referendum that Venezuela won’t have decent relations with the US so long as Chávez is their elected president. (Voters decided to remove term limits for elected officials, paving the way for Chávez to run again in 2013.)
There is definitely at least a faction of the Obama administration that wants to continue the Bush policies. James Steinberg, number two to Hillary Clinton in the state department, took a gratuitous swipe at Bolivia and Venezuela during his confirmation process, saying that the US should provide a “counterweight to governments like those currently in power in Venezuela and Bolivia which pursue policies which do not serve the interests of their people or the region.”
Another sign of continuity is that Obama has not yet replaced Bush’s top state department official for the western hemisphere, Thomas Shannon.
The US media plays the role of enabler in this situation. Thus the Associated Press ignores the attacks from Washington and portrays Chávez’s response as nothing more than an electoral ploy on his part. In fact, Chávez had been uncharacteristically restrained. He did not respond to attacks throughout the long US presidential campaign, even when Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden called him a “dictator” or Obama described him as “despotic” – labels that no serious political scientist anywhere would accept for a democratically elected president of a country where the opposition dominates the media. He wrote it off as the influence of South Florida on US presidential elections.
But there are few if any presidents in the world that would take repeated verbal abuse from another government without responding. Obama’s advisers know that no matter what this administration does to Venezuela, the press will portray Chávez as the aggressor. So it’s an easy, if cynical, political calculation for them to poison relations from the outset. What they have not yet realised is that by doing so they are alienating the majority of the region.
There is still hope for change in US foreign policy toward Latin America, which has become thoroughly discredited on everything from the war on drugs to the Cuba embargo to trade policy. But as during the Bush years, we will need relentless pressure from the south. Last September the Union of South American Nations strongly backed Bolivia’s government against opposition violence and destabilisation. This was very successful in countering Washington’s tacit support for the more extremist elements of Bolivia’s opposition. It showed the Bush administration that the region was not going to tolerate any attempts to legitimise an extra-legal opposition in Bolivia or to grant it special rights outside of the democratic political process.
Several presidents, including Lula, have called upon Obama to lift the embargo on Cuba, as they congratulated him on his victory. Lula also asked Obama to meet with Chávez. Hopefully these governments will continue to assert – repeatedly, publicly and with one voice – that Washington’s problems with Cuba, Bolivia and Venezuela are Washington’s problems, and not the result of anything that those governments have done. When the Obama team is convinced that a “divide and conquer” approach to the region will fail just as miserably for this administration as it did for the previous one, then we may see the beginnings of a new policy toward Latin America.
The Seeds of Latin America’s Rebirth Were Sown in Cuba January 29, 2009Posted by rogerhollander in Bolivia, Cuba, Latin America, Venezuela.
Tags: aymara, Bolivia, che guevara, Chile, Cuba, Cuban embargo, Cuban Revolution, deregulation, Evo Morales, Hugo Chavez, Latin America, neoliberalism, Obama, pinochet, privitization, reagan, roger hollander, seumas milne, south america, thatcher, Venezuela
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On 9 October 1967, Che Guevara faced a shaking sergeant Mario Teran, ordered to murder him by the Bolivian president and CIA, and declared: “Shoot, coward, you’re only going to kill a man.” The climax of Stephen Soderbergh’s two-part epic, Che, in real life this final act of heroic defiance marked the defeat of multiple attempts to spread the Cuban revolution to the rest of Latin America.
But 40 years later, the long-retired executioner, now a reviled old man, had his sight restored by Cuban doctors, an operation paid for by revolutionary Venezuela in the radicalised Bolivia of Evo Morales. Teran was treated as part of a programme which has seen 1.4 million free eye operations carried out by Cuban doctors in 33 countries across Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa. It is an emblem both of the humanity of Fidel Castro and Guevara’s legacy, but also of the transformation of Latin America which has made such extraordinary co-operation possible.
The 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution this month has already been the occasion for a regurgitation of western media tropes about pickled totalitarian misery, while next week’s 10th anniversary of Hugo Chávez’s presidency in Venezuela will undoubtedly trigger a parallel outburst of hostility, ridicule and unfounded accusations of dictatorship. The fact that Chávez, still commanding close to 60% popular support, is again trying to convince the Venezuelan people to overturn the US-style two-term limit on his job will only intensify such charges, even though the change would merely bring the country into line with the rules in France and Britain.
But it is a response which also utterly fails to grasp the significance of the wave of progressive change that has swept away the old elites and brought a string of radical socialist and social-democratic governments to power across the continent, from Ecuador to Brazil, Paraguay to Argentina: challenging US domination and neoliberal orthodoxy, breaking down social and racial inequality, building regional integration and taking back strategic resources from corporate control.
That is the process which this week saw Bolivians vote, in the land where Guevara was hunted down, to adopt a sweeping new constitution empowering the country’s long-suppressed indigenous majority and entrenching land reform and public control of natural resources – after months of violent resistance sponsored by the traditional white ruling class. It’s also seen Cuba finally brought into the heart of regional structures from which Washington has strained every nerve to exclude it.
The seeds of this Latin American rebirth were sown half a century ago in Cuba. But it is also more directly rooted in the region’s disastrous experience of neoliberalism, first implemented by the bloody Pinochet regime in the 1970s – before being adopted with enthusiasm by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and duly enforced across the world.
The wave of privatisation, deregulation and mass pauperisation it unleashed in Latin America first led to mass unrest in Venezuela in 1989, savagely repressed in the Caracazo massacre of more than 1,000 barrio dwellers and protesters. The impact of the 1998 financial crisis unleashed a far wider rejection of the new market order, the politics of which are still being played out across the continent. And the international significance of this first revolt against neoliberalism on the periphery of the US empire now could not be clearer, as the global meltdown has rapidly discredited the free-market model first rejected in South America.
Hopes are naturally high that Barack Obama will recognise the powerful national, social and ethnic roots of Latin America’s reawakening – the election of an Aymara president was as unthinkable in Bolivia as an African American president – and start to build a new relationship of mutual respect. The signs so far are mixed. The new US president has made some positive noises about Cuba, promising to lift the Bush administration’s travel and remittances ban for US citizens – though not to end the stifling 47-year-old trade embargo.
But on Venezuela it seemed to be business as usual earlier this month, when Obama insisted that the Venezuelan president had been a “force that has interrupted progress” and claimed Venezuela was “supporting terrorist activities” in Colombia, apparently based on spurious computer disc evidence produced by the Colombian military.
If this is intended as political cover for an opening to Cuba then perhaps it shouldn’t be taken too seriously. But if it is an attempt to isolate Venezuela and divide and rule in America’s backyard, it’s unlikely to work. Venezuela is a powerful regional player and while Chávez may have lost five out of 22 states in November’s regional elections on the back of discontent over crime and corruption, his supporters still won 54% of the popular vote to the opposition’s 42%.
That is based on a decade of unprecedented mobilisation of oil revenues to achieve impressive social gains, including the near halving of poverty rates, the elimination of illiteracy and a massive expansion of free health and education. The same and more is true of Cuba, famous for first world health and education standards – with better infant mortality rates than the US – in an economically blockaded developing country.
Less well known is the country’s success in diversifying its economy since the collapse of the Soviet Union, not just into tourism and biotechnology, but the export of medical services and affordable vaccines to the poorest parts of the world. Anyone who seriously cares about social justice cannot but recognise the scale of these achievements – just as the greatest contribution those genuinely concerned about lack of freedom and democracy in Cuba can make is to help get the US off the Cubans’ backs.
None of that means the global crisis now engulfing Latin America isn’t potentially a threat to all its radical governments, with falling commodity prices cutting revenues and credit markets drying up. Revolutions can’t stand still, and the deflation of the oil cushion that allowed Chávez to leave the interests of the traditional Venezuelan ruling elite untouched means pressure for more radical solutions is likely to grow. Meanwhile, the common sense about the bankruptcy of neoliberalism first recognised in Latin America has now gone global. Whether it generates the same kind of radicalism elsewhere remains to be seen.
Tags: condemn U.S. Cuban blockade, Cuba, Cuban embargo, General Assembly Cuba, roger hollander, U.S. blockade Cuba, U.S. embargo Cuba, United Nations Cuba, world support Cuba
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The following is my (condensed) translation of an Associated Press article that appeared in the Guayaquil (Ecuador) daily, “El Universo,” October 29, 2008.
By a near unanimous vote, the United Nations General Assembly asked the United States to put an end to the financial and commercial embargo against Cuba that was imposed 46 years ago. The vote was 185 in favor, 3 opposed (the United States, Israel and Palau) and 2 abstentions (Micronesia and the Marshall Islands).
The approved resolution “once again insists that the United States, as soon as possible and within judicial procedures take whatever measures are necessary to rescind or render null the laws and regulations in existence that are applied in such a way [against Cuba].”
As well the General Assembly requested that the U.N. Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, prepare a report on the implementation of the resolution.
This show of international support for Cuba received slightly higher results than a year ago when a similar resolution was supported by 184 nations.
From 59 nations approving similar text in 1992, the numbers have improved progressively to 179 in 2004 to the present185.