America’s Cuba embargo turns 50
HAVANA, Cuba, Thursday February 9, 2012 - Cuba is free to trade with other nations, but the US threatens sanctions against foreign companies that do not abide by its restrictions. One example of this is the extent that Repsol had to go to in order to begin its oil exploration off the coast of Cuba last month without inviting US sanction. Its massive oil exploration rig had to be built with less than 10 percent US parts to qualify under the embargo and then it had to be brought all the way from Singapore at considerable expense, while comparable platforms sat idle in US waters just across the Gulf of Mexico.
Supporters say the embargo is a justified measure against a repressive government that has never stopped being a thorn in Washington's side. Critics call it a failed policy that has hurt ordinary Cubans instead of the government.
All acknowledge that it has not accomplished its core mission of toppling Fidel and Raul Castro.
“All this time has gone by, and yet we keep it in place,” said Wayne Smith, who was a young US diplomat in Havana in 1961 when relations were severed and who returned as the chief American diplomat after they were partially re-established under President Jimmy Carter.
“We talk to the Russians, we talk to the Chinese, we have normal relations even with Vietnam. We trade with all of them,” Smith said. “So why not with Cuba?”
In the White House, the first sign of the looming embargo came when President John F. Kennedy told his press secretary to go buy him as many H. Upmann Cuban cigars as he could find. The aide came back with 1,200 “stogies”.
Kennedy announced the embargo on February 3, 1962, citing “the subversive offensive of Sino-Soviet communism with which the government of Cuba is publicly aligned.”
It went into effect four days later at the height of the Cold War, a year removed from the failed CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion meant to oust communism from Cuba and eight months before Soviet attempts to put nuclear missiles on the island brought the two superpowers to the brink of war.
Washington already had some limited sanctions in place, but Kennedy's decision was the beginning of a comprehensive ban on US trade with the island that has remained more or less intact ever since.
Little was planned to mark Tuesday's anniversary, but Cuban-American members of Congress issued a joint statement vowing to keep the heat on Cuba.
Supporters of the policy acknowledge that many US strategic concerns from the 1960s have been consigned to the dustbin of history, such as halting the spread of Soviet influence and keeping Fidel Castro from exporting revolution throughout Latin America. But they say other justifications remain, such as the confiscation of US property in Cuba and the need to press for greater political and personal freedoms on the island.
“We have a hemispheric commitment to freedom and democracy and respect for human rights,” said Jose Cardenas, a former National Security Council staffer on Cuba under President George W. Bush. “I still think that those are worthy aspirations.”
With just 90 miles (145 kilometers) of sea between Florida and Cuba, the United States would be a natural number 1 trade partner and source of tourism. But the embargo chokes off most commerce, and the threat of stiff fines keeps most Americans from sunbathing in balmy resorts like Cayo Coco.