A man checks his phone as telephone and internet connections were knocked out in a nationwide failure, in Havana, Cuba, last week. Picture: Reuters
A man checks his phone as telephone and internet connections were knocked out in a nationwide failure, in Havana, Cuba, last week. Picture: Reuters

Time to end the US blockade of Cuba

By Shannon Ebrahim Time of article published Feb 19, 2021

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The winds of change are potentially blowing in Cuba’s direction, and an end to the US blockade of 59 years has never been more urgent.

Cuba is facing a devastating food crisis with people lining up for hours and sometimes days for basic commodities that are unaffordable and sometimes impossible to find.

The country has been facing one of the worst food shortages in 25 years, with severe shortages of cooking oil, rice, chicken, corn, beans, fruit toothpaste, personal hygiene products, medicine, fuel, fertilizer and raw materials.

Cuba imports 80 per cent of its food, and has to pay for imports in dollars and euros. With a lack of hard currency in the country it is difficult, if not impossible, to purchase essential imports. The situation has reached crisis proportions as a result of former US President Donald Trump’s tightening of the economic embargo against the island nation, and his administration’s concerted efforts to go after Cuba’s sources of currency.

In 2019 Trump restricted travel by Americans to Cuba, and even ended charter flights to the island. Remittances sent to the island from Cuban Americans were also restricted, and the Trump administration forced Western Union, which was an important conduit for remittances, to close its shops in Cuba.

All of these measures caused a severe shortage of hard currency in the country, and without it Cuba cannot afford to buy food. Last year exports from Brazil to Cuba fell by 23 per cent, exports from Spain to Cuba fell 36 per cent, and exports from the US were down by 45 per cent. As Covid wreaked havoc in the international community, Cuba found that its tourism industry came to a virtual standstill last year and its luxury hotels remain empty. Covid also led to serious job losses for Cuban Americans living in the US, drastically reducing the amount of remittances that could be sent.

But despite the desperate situation Cubans find themselves in - suffocating under the most unjust economic blockade imposed by the world’s largest economy on a tiny island nation whose main export is sugar - Cuba has still found ways to help other nations even when it is starved of help itself. It has fanned out across the globe, sending its experienced medical doctors to assist in the fight against Covid-19 in some of the most badly affected countries. It has put its health professionals on the front line in a typical display of common humanity.

It is now time for the world to recognise that Cuba also needs urgent assistance so that its people can put food on the table and procure the medicines they need. The new Chair of the US Senate Finance Committee, Democrat Ron Wyden, has recently said what many nations expected from the US for decades: “Our nation’s embargo on Cuba is an artifact from the 1960s… To continue this outdated, harmful policy of isolation would be a failure of American leadership,” Wyden told his colleagues in Congress.

The most senior member of the US Senate, Patrick Leahy, has lobbied President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken to change US policy on Cuba and establish full diplomatic and trade ties with Cuba after six decades of failed US policy. There may be pushback, however, from Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, who is a hawk on Cuba and is the new Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

But so far the Biden administration has signalled that it will reverse the draconian measures taken by the Trump administration on Cuba. Limits on remittances will be removed and Western Union services are to be restored. More travel will be allowed between the US and Cuba, and the US will resume issuing visas to Cuban nationals. In his presidential campaign Biden had promised to aggressively reverse Trump’s Cuba policy, and indications are that he will renew diplomatic talks and rebuild the staff component at the US embassy in Havana.

At the end of his tenure, Trump declared Cuba to be a “state sponsor of terrorism” making it more complicated in terms of red tape for the next administration to reverse. But it is expected that the Biden administration will correct this fabrication. Designating a country as a state sponsor of terrorism is usually done only after an extensive review by the State department and consultation with Congress - none of which was done.

The normalisation of relations with Cuba by the US will be a critical turning point, as it was five years ago when US steps towards normalisation led to the EU starting to normalise its own relations with Cuba. The EU is now Cuba’s top commercial partner and investor, and cooperation between Cuba and the EU has tripled over the past two years, according to EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini.

It is now for the rest of the world to pressure the US to completely abandon its futile policy of isolating Cuba, and to enable it to engage in normal trade and political relations with the rest of the world, and feed its people.

* Ebrahim is Independent Media Group Foreign Editor.

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