billboard.jpg (8302 bytes)Embargo or Bloqueo?

What’s in a name? In 1960, President Eisenhower declared a US embargo against the Republic of Cuba. An embargo prohibits one country from trading with another. In Cuba, US policy is known by the term bloqueo, Spanish for blockade. A blockade seeks to forcibly prohibit all countries from trading with another country. The terms describe two fundamentally different perspectives on US policy.

Like many Americans, I wasn’t very knowledgeable about current policy toward Cuba. I knew we had an embargo, I thought US companies couldn’t sell anything to Cuba and we couldn’t buy anything of theirs. I couldn’t understand the reports I heard of widespread shortages of medicine, gasoline and other goods. If they can’t buy them from us, why don’t they just buy them from someone else? I had the opportunity to visit Cuba last month as a member of a women’s delegation and spoke with Cuban women about how US policy impacts their lives. I was most interested in what role the US embargo has played in the severe shortage of medicine in Cuba. What I began to learn is how our embargo policy is used and sometimes misused to look more like a blockade.

In general, no US company can do business with Cuba but there are exceptions including many health-care related products. Companies in these fields can obtain an export license to sell their products in Cuba, provided the sale is to the Cuban Ministry of Health for the use of the Cuban people. The Cuban government would need to have US dollars to purchase these products which it gets by selling its products - sugar, nickel, tourism - on the world market. There is fierce competition for the use of the very limited supply of dollars in the Cuban government budget, with health care competing with oil, rice and nearly everything else that Cuba needs to import. The US seeks to regulate the trade of foreign companies with Cuba through "US-content" regulations. Any foreign company who sells products with more than 10% US content, which could include the technology used in the product, must obtain an export license from the US government. This is especially applicable in the health-care field since the US is a leader in developing medical products and technology.

But that doesn’t answer the question why is there such a severe shortage of medicine in Cuba? I think the shortest answer is that just because something is legally possible, that doesn’t mean it’s easy or even that people know it’s legal. Political realities have created an atmosphere of enforced ignorance on the part of the US government toward eligible businesses. The conventional wisdom holds that you can’t do business in Cuba and the US government is not doing anything to correct that misimpression so many eligible businesses never bother to try. John Kavulich of the US-Cuba Trade and Economic Council recounted for me a common scenario of the companies that do try to get a license: bounced from Congressional representatives to the State Department to the Treasury Department to the Commerce Department receiving contradictory information at every stop they finally give up. Foreign companies seeking licenses are especially vulnerable in this run-around. Companies are also extremely sensitive to any possible negative publicity in the US about their dealings with Cuba, something that politically powerful anti-Castro Cuban-Americans are able to credibly threaten. This has dramatically limited both the number of companies selling medicine to Cuba and the variety and quality of medicine available for purchase. The Cuban government has its role in the shortage when other imported goods like oil are deemed a higher priority for the use of scarce dollars.

Horror stories abound about the US government’s bullying tactics toward US and foreign companies that try to do business with Cuba. Stories of foreign companies being threatened with losing their US patents, or foreign company executives’ children being deported from US colleges may be urban legends, but they can be powerful deterrents to companies who may have considered doing business in Cuba. And the continuing escalation of anti-Cuba US policy in the Helms-Burton Act simply reinforces the global perception that the US is forcing its Cuban policy on the rest of the world. The latest UN vote against the embargo (only Israel voted with the US) is evidence, if we needed it, that the rest of the world doesn’t appreciate our setting their foreign policy.

Perception can be more powerful than reality and regardless of the technical provisions of our laws, we are perceived as a global bully in relation to Cuba. It has an enormous impact on every aspect of Cuban life and most Americans don’t have a clue. My brief time in Cuba was enough to show me how destructive our current policy is. We’ve thought that we could restore democracy to Cuba if we just kept tightening the economic screws a bit tighter. 38 years later the screws are plenty tight and aren’t any closer to forcing out Castro than the day Eisenhower began the embargo. The real victims are the Cuban people and our credibility in the international community.

Is US policy toward Cuba an embargo or a bloqueo? As with most things in life, the truth is somewhere in between.

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