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BEHIND THE HEADLINES: Embargo still a reality


BEHIND THE HEADLINES: Embargo still a reality

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“FAR FROM IT. Based on all the information available, the issue is far from dead.”

After all the hoopla of a United States (US) presidential visit; the opening of embassies in Havana and Washington; and the resumption of some economic and cultural ties, one would have thought there was little reason for Tony Marshall, Barbados’ Ambassador to the United Nations (UN); Courtney Rattray, Jamaica’s top diplomat at the UN; Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla, Cuba’s Foreign Minister and a host of other diplomatic representatives from around the world to be making statements about the urgent necessity to lift the economic embargo imposed on Cuba by the US more than half century ago.

But yes, Barbados’ permanent representative said despite the positive steps taken to normalise diplomatic links between the two states, the economic embargo remains a crucial bit of unfinished business.

An indication of the changed atmosphere came last Wednesday afternoon when the UN General Assembly voted 191 to zero with two abstentions – the US and Israel – to insist on the “ending of the economic, commercial and financial embargo” against the Spanish-speaking nation. For the first time, there weren’t any “no” votes.

“The vote tells much of the story but the embargo remains an issue,” said Marshall. “The matter can only be solved by US Congressional actions which would involve the passage of legislation that lifts the embargo. Even though the US president is in favour of rescinding it, the reality is the Congress must act.”

The stalemate remains for a straight forward reason: the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and the Senate are dead set against easing the economic restrictions while Obama is in office.

That’s why the outcome of the November 8 general election is so important. Should the Democrats take over the Congress and if Hillary Clinton becomes the next president, then the embargo would go the way of the Model T Ford, the typewriter and the dinosaur.

As Marshall explained it to BARBADOS BUSINESS AUTHORITY, the General Assembly vote was not simply “impressive, but overwhelming”.

Rattray, who spoke on behalf of the 14 Caricom member-states, described the embargo as a “pernicious” measure that has “restricted the ability of a proud, honourable, independent, talented and self-reliant people to conduct legitimate trade, to travel and to undertake international financial transactions”.

And he was quick to point that the “financial blockade” introduced at the height of the Cold War to “bring about political change” was a failure. The only thing it did was usher in an era of “undue hardship” on the Cuban people. Hence, CARICOM’s desire to see it ended.

Just as important, Jamaica, Guyana, The Bahamas, Antigua, Grenada, St Lucia and the rest of the region have embraced “Obama’s characterisation of the embargo as an outdated burden” on Cubans.

Rattray used strong language to paint a picture of the roadblock. It was, he charged, “unilateral, coercive and anachronistic” and “inconsistent with international law, transgresses fundamental humanitarian principles” and against the UN charter and the norms governing peaceful relations between countries.

Still, the US Congress wouldn’t budge. But Barbados, Jamaica and CARICOM weren’t alone in the Western Hemisphere in speaking out.

Francisco A. Cortorreal, the Dominican Republic’s UN Ambassador, who addressed the assembly on behalf of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, lamented the fact that even in the face of the “progress” made by Obama and Cuba to change things, “the blockade is still a reality for the Cuban people” and its existence was a “major obstacle” to economic growth.

When the time came for Cuba to speak, its Foreign Minister talked about the positive effects of Obama’s policies on the relations between the two countries and about the unfinished business.

The improvements he cited ranged from the return of three Cuban anti-terrorists; the re-establishment of diplomatic relations; and the re-opening of embassies to the visits by Obama, Federal lawmakers and by other top level US government officials to Havana.

“There is no doubt that progress has been made in terms of dialogue and cooperation in areas of common interest and a dozen agreements rendering reciprocal benefits have been signed,” said Parrilla.

“However, the economic commercial and financial blockade imposed by the United States against Cuba persists, seriously harming the Cuban people and impairing the country’s economic development,” he insisted.

Interestingly, the Cuban government is convinced that Obama could do more, even if Congress fails to change the laws governing the embargo. For instance, the US president could use his executive authority to loosen trade restrictions by authorising commercial operations, investments and the granting of private credits in all sectors of the Cuban economy. The White House obviously thinks otherwise.

That brings us back to Marshall, who said the president who takes office in Washington in January, whether Clinton or Donald Trump “must have the support of Congress” to accelerate the pace towards the demise of the embargo.

“He or she will need the support of Congress” to get things moving faster, Marshall said.

That’s the reality both Havana and Washington face. Just goes to show how complicated getting things done in Washington can turn out to be.