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Strangling Cuba's Economy

Sanctions as a War of Attrition

by HOPE BASTIAN

I’m living in a war zone, but what I see when I look out the window of my apartment in Havana, Cuba does not resemble the pictures in the papers of the war in Iraq. No missiles have been fired here, there are no camouflaged soldiers in the streets with guns, no armored tanks roll by. The sun is still shining, the birds still sing, and the streets are alive with people busy living their lives. There are no children dying in the streets from shrapnel wounds, but there is no doubt the nation is under attack. Here the war is manifested not in body counts and car-bombings but in the constant assault of material poverty: crumbling homes and rolling black-outs. It doesn’t look like a war zone, but the U.S. government is waging a silent war here and no one is left untouched.

The war in Iraq is not the only war that the Bush Administration is involved in today and its plans for "regime change" are not limited to the Middle East. They might have caught Saddam, but there’s another bearded "bad-guy" on the loose, and another nation, weak after years of U.S. sanctions, to be "liberated". There’s nothing new about the war against Cuba, which started in May of 1961, only four months after the Revolution overthrew U.S.-backed dictator, Fulgencio Batista. Forty-five years and over 600 assassination attempts later, the war against Cuba is now principally fought with weapons of economic destruction . The Bush Administration has intensified this economic war and made overthrowing the Cuban government a higher priority in this election year than in previous years.

Last October, Bush began his presidential campaign with a pledge to radical rightist elements of the Cuban-American community in South Florida to take drastic steps to strengthen the enforcement of the U.S. embargo against Cuba . "Clearly, the Castro regime will not change by its own choice," Bush said, "But Cuba must change." In his speech, Bush announced the establishment of the Commission for the Assistance to a Free Cuba, "to plan for the happy day when Castro’s regime is no more and democracy comes to the island." The Commission was asked to draw upon experts within the U.S. government to "identify ways to hasten the arrival of that day." Bush warned that, "The transition to freedom will present many challenges to the Cuban people and to America", and promised that, "In all that lies ahead, the Cuban people have a constant friend in the United States of AmericaÖwe are confident that no matter what the dictator intends or plans, Cuba ser· pronto libre" .

On May 6, 2004, the Commission for the Assistance to a Free Cuba, chaired by Secretary of State Colin Powell, and staffed by a "dream team" of high level cabinet officials reported back to the president. They presented a 458-page report outlining concrete steps to be taken by the Bush administration to overthrow the Cuban government . As soon as the report was released, wheels were set in motion to write these recommendations into law. On June 16, 2004, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) published a new set of regulations in the Federal Register to govern U.S. economic relations with Cuba. (OFAC administers and enforces economic and trade sanctions that support U.S. foreign policy and national security goals.)

Much of the press coverage in the U.S. about these new measures has focused on the ways in which they have affected Cuban families on both sides of the Florida Strait. However, the most controversial measures are contained in other new regulations. The U.S. government has instituted new measures limiting Cuba’s ability to engage in international trade in its attempt to overthrow the Cuban government.

Tools of economic warfare The Bush administration’s current war for regime change in Cuba depends not on cluster bombs and depleted uranium, but on the use of a 45-year old economic embargo as a weapon to isolate Cuba. By preventing other countries from trading with Cuba, the U.S. government hopes to make it impossible for the nation to provide for the needs of its citizens . Cuba will reach a breaking point; the people will rise up against their government and welcome the U.S. "liberators" with open arms. At least that’s the way it is supposed to work. A full 400 pages of the 458 page "Commission for the Assistance to a Free Cuba Report" are focused on the delivery of aid by the U.S. government to a new regime to ease the suffering caused by the crippling economic embargo. The report outlines in detail a plan for rebuilding the country in the U.S.’s image of a model representative democracy with a free-market economy. Does the term nation building sound familiar from some other context?

When socialism ended in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, Cuba lost its largest trading partner and fell into a deep economic depression. In the U.S., many hoped that Cuban socialism would follow and it was to that end that they chose that moment to tighten the embargo. In October 1992, less than a month before the U.S. general elections, Congress passed the Torricelli Act. Foreign subsidiaries of U.S. owned companies were prohibited from trading with Cuba. Ships that delivered goods to Cuba were prohibited from docking in U.S. ports for six months after, forcing shipping companies to decide who they wanted to trade with: Cuba or the United States. Because a ship docking in Cuba either loses access to the U.S. market or risk a steep fine if they dock in a U.S. port, Cuba’s shipping costs skyrocketed . The law also restricted remittances, prohibited economic assistance and debt forgiveness to any country conducting trade with Cuba, and increased punitive measures for anyone breaking the trade embargo or travelling to Cuba illegally.

Four years later, in another election year (1996), Congress passed the Helms-Burton Act. This Act included another series of harsh measures aimed at preventing non-U.S. firms from trading with Cuba by punishing those who engage in commercial dealings with Cuba. Under the Helms-Burton Act, any naturalized U.S. citizens whose Cuban property had been confiscated since the Revolution now had the right to sue, in U.S. courts, the foreign companies or individuals who they deem have gained from investments in those properties . It also authorized the U.S. State Department to deny visas to the executives, majority shareholders and their families of companies that have invested in property that belonged to U.S. companies prior to the Revolution .

Before the Helms-Burton Act, many elements of the embargo existed only as executive orders and regulations that could be modified by the president. Helms-Burton codified the embargo requiring an act of Congress to lift the embargo. It also dictated the conditions that must exist in Cuba before the embargo would be lifted. Top on the list were the creation of a new government in Cuba that does not include Fidel or Raul Castro and proof that this new government was "substantially moving towards a market-oriented economic system based on the right to own and enjoy property" .

The recent attacks by the U.S. Treasury Department on businesses trading with Cuba show the strength of the Bush administration’s commitment to "regime change" in Cuba. Perhaps these attacks also demonstrate its lack of commitment to fighting international terrorism. While the Treasury Department has 21 employees who track financial transactions with Cuba, it has only four employees responsible for tracking the funding of Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein . Al Qaeda operatives may remain at-large, planning future terrorist attacks, but we can all rest assured that James Sabzali, a Canadian citizen who sold resins used to purify public drinking water in Cuba, has been slapped with a $10,000 fine and a 12-month conditional sentence for his dangerous actions . To you or me, this may sound a little harsh; to the Bush administration, it is clear that an unequivocal message must be sent to the international business community that trading with Cuba is "trading with the enemy". As the well-known axiom of Bush’s foreign policy clearly states "You’re either with us or against us".

One recommendation in the Commission’s May report was that the U.S. government establish a Cuban Asset Targeting Group, to investigate and identify new ways in which hard currency is moved in and out of Cuba. In May, the U.S. Federal Reserve fined UBS AG, Switzerland’s largest bank, $100 million dollars U.S. for allegedly sending U.S. dollars to Cuba in violation of provisions of the embargo that prevent Cuba from trading in dollars. This action has created serious problems for Cuba by making it very difficult to deposit its dollars abroad and renew bills in circulation.

Although the Bush administration claims that, "There is a growing international consensus on the nature of the Castro regime and the need for fundamental political and economic change on the island." for thirteen straight years, the U.N. General Assembly has voted to condemn the U.S. embargo against Cuba. On October 28, 2004, the U.N. General Assembly voted 179 to 4 with one abstention on a resolution condemning the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba. During these thirteen years, the margin in favor of Cuba has steadily increased. This year, only the United States, Israel, Palau and the Marshall Islands voted against a condemnation of the embargo. Is this the "coalition of the willing" who supports U.S. policies for "regime change" in Cuba? Just as in the current military war for "regime change" in Iraq, the U.S. government stands alone in its economic war against Cuba, supported only by a weak coalition of "allies" who cannot refuse.

A war of attrition is being fought by the U.S. in Cuba. The Cuban people are suffering from the cumulative affects of 45 years of economic policies designed to create the conditions for a US-assisted transition to a free-market economy. The island is blockaded, not by U.S. battleships and destroyers, but by a collection of laws and presidential mandates that fly in the face of international law, limiting the free movement of trade and the economic sovereignty of Cuba and those who would do business with them.

HOPE BASTIAN is an eductor living in Florida.