The Aging of the Cuban Embargo and the Coming Era in U.S.-Latin American Relations

November 10, 2015

CREDIT: Balint Földesi

If Fidel Castro has grown wizened and grey during the long wait for normal relations between the United States and Cuba, so too has the Cuban trade embargo. Even though President Obama has opened diplomatic relations with Cuba, the embargo remains stubbornly in place and can only be ended by an act of Congress. Meanwhile, Cuba has managed to form partnerships with a number of other countries while gaining worldwide sympathy for its struggle under the conditions of the embargo. This essay looks at Cuba's network of overseas alliances, which range from trade to education, medical diplomacy, and peacekeeping, and discusses areas of fruitful cooperation between the U.S. and Cuba.

First imposed in 1960, the embargo was a U.S. response to the Cuban government's program of nationalization, which included businesses, sugar mills, and other forms of private property. And while claims made by Spain, France, Switzerland, and Canada have long since been settled by the Cuban government, those of U.S. citizens have not. In fact, rather than authorizing a settlement in the 1990s, the U.S. Congress made the embargo even more restrictive even as our trade relations with China and Vietnam were opening up. The result for Cubans, whose fragile economy was already reeling from the collapse of the Soviet Union, was a severe shortage of food, energy, and other basic needs.

Since then, Cuba has managed to recover somewhat with the help of China, Venezuela, and a few other countries. With this and the near universal rejection of the Cuban embargo, it is now the U.S. which stands to lose by its continuation. On October 27, 2015, the UN General Assembly voted by a wider margin than ever before—191 to 2—to condemn the embargo. The year before, the vote had been the same with three small Pacific island nations—Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau—abstaining. This year, all three have established diplomatic relations with Cuba leaving only Israel to side with the U.S. on the issue.

Cuba's Economic Partnerships

While the U.S. remains stalled, Cuba has moved by fits and starts toward greater economic openness with China, Venezuela, Brazil, and the EU. Of some concern for the State Department is the growing connection between Cuba and China. During Cuba's food and energy crisis in the 1990s, China obliged Cuba by shipping 500,000 bicycles as a means of transportation and technical assistance for the development of a bicycle industry in Cuba. China has since become Cuba's leading trade partner with substantial investments in mining and energy development, and sizeable loans and credits for the development of telecommunications and the purchase of home appliances such as fans, television sets, and refrigerators.1

The two countries have also formed and steadily expanded academic programs in one another's countries. This includes the formation of the Center for Chinese Language Training at the University of Havana, the founding of one of China's famous Confucius Institutes in Havana's Chinatown, and the training of thousands of medical and other Chinese students in Cuba. In addition, a Cuban tourism office has opened in Beijing with plans to greatly increase the number of Chinese tourists in Cuba.2 Now deeply grateful to China, many Cubans are unwilling to give up this partnership in moving closer to the U.S. "The Chinese were our friends when we needed them," says one young woman in the tourist industry. "If we leave them behind, what will happen to us if the U.S. chooses to isolate us again?" 

Brazil, which formed an alliance with Cuba in 2003, has also provided loans, subsidies, and assistance to the island on a grand scale. A $957 million project to overhaul the port of Mariel is expected to provide Brazilian investors with key connections to ports in Florida and other states in the southern U.S. In exchange, Cuba sends thousands of Cuban doctors and other medical specialists to remote areas of Brazil through the More Doctors program. Policy analyst Maria Werlau maintains that growing relations between Brazil and Cuba have borne no real economic benefit for Brazil, however. Instead, as she sees it, the alliance has been built around an ideological affinity and has served mainly to bolster the influence of the Brazilian government in the hemisphere.

Cuba's Medical Diplomacy

In fact, one of Cuba's greatest resources has been its doctors and other medical personnel. These trained individuals have provided the country with the hard currency needed to purchase imports and the chance to build good will and closer relations with other countries. 

With the election of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela in 1998, Cuban leaders were able to cultivate a particularly beneficial partnership involving the export of Cuban medical personnel. In exchange for some 30,000 doctors, nurses, athletic trainers, and military advisers, Venezuela has shipped about 100,000 barrels of oil a day to Cuba, though this amount fallen lately. In addition the Cuba-Venezuela partnership has resulted in new initiatives such as Telesur, the hemisphere-wide, noncommercial television network founded by Venezuela, Cuba, Argentina, and Uruguay in 2005. Telesur is known for broadcasting a distinctly critical perspective on U.S. policy in Latin America.3

The alliance between the two countries was also critical in the formation of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of the Americas (ALBA) in 2004. ALBA's chief purpose has been to foster greater unity among its member countries through its opposition to Washington's neoliberal or free-trade approach to development. Member countries, which include Antigua and Barbuda, Bolivia, Dominica, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent, and the Grenadines, in addition to Cuba and Venezuela, meet yearly to design alternative development strategies. This has included the founding of the ALBA Bank, the use of an alternative currency for development loans, a separate arbitration court system, and the allowing of payment in goods for some countries rather than cash.4 

While many in the U.S. have been sharply critical of ALBA's left-leaning orientation, some of ALBA's accomplishments have been lauded throughout Latin America. Most important among these has been "Operation Miracle," a medical program to restore the sight of patients lost due to diabetes, glaucoma, cataracts, and other causes. The program has reached poor, vision-impaired Venezuelans through the staffing of 26 eye surgery centers, and those in 17 other Latin American countries as well as Italy, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Haiti, and several other Caribbean countries. Host countries pay Cuba between $2,700 and $5,000 in hard currency for each health worker they receive. In the case of Haiti, funding is provided by NGOs, international organizations, and other governments, rather than from the government in Haiti.

Operation Miracle has also managed to win support and praise from leaders around the world. Financial assistance for missions in some of the poorest countries has come from traditional U.S. allies such as Germany, France, Japan, Norway, and Australia, as well as the World Health Organization (WHO), the Pan American Health Organization, UNICEF, and various non-government organizations based in the U.S., Canada, Spain, and Belgium. In Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves recently proclaimed, "Cuba and Venezuela with their resources have thought of helping restore vision of the world. This is not only socialism; these actions are Christianity in action." On her recent visit to Cuba, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) Margaret Chan lauded "the Cuban purpose of benefiting not only the health of Cubans but also of the citizens of Latin America and the rest of the world." Furthermore, "The Pan American Health Organization and the World Health organization will always be your good and trustworthy friends."

The 2009 recession and subsequent slowing of support from China and Venezuela have prompted Cuba to expand its medical diplomacy to oil-producing countries Angola, Qatar, Algeria, Kuwait, and Angola. At the same time, concerns have been raised about the extent to which Cuban medical personnel actually choose to go on these missions and the sometimes abysmal conditions in which they are expected to live during their period of service.

While concerns persist, Cuba's successes with international medical assistance provide a potential area of cooperation for the U.S. A push for closer relations is already coming from leaders in both countries hoping to improve the delivery of medical assistance. The 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa provides an illustration. During the crisis in Sierra Leone, Cuba dispatched 165 physicians, proportionately more than any other country. This prompted praise from Secretary of State John Kerry, International Medical Corps, and several UN spokespeople. As one State Department spokesman stated,

We welcome the opportunity to collaborate with Cuba to confront the Ebola outbreak. Cuba is making significant contributions by sending hundreds of health workers to Africa. In that spirit, the U.S. Department of State is communicating with all members of the international community, including Cuba, involved in this global effort through multilateral channels such as the World Health Organization, as well as diplomatic briefings.

To this, Raul Castro responded that "Cuba is willing to work elbow-to-elbow with all countries... including the U.S."

We might even consider the ways in which closer relations between the U.S. and Cuba could benefit the health of U.S. citizens. While the victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 could have benefited from the 1500 medics and 83 tons of medical supplies Cuba was prepared to send, the offer was rebuffed by the White House. By way of explanation, a White House spokesman stated that the U.S. did not have full diplomatic relations with Cuba. As a result, emergency medical personnel in Louisiana remained overworked and undersupplied throughout the crisis. As Representative José Serrano of New York noted, "These doctors could help people. That's the bottom line. The decision to help people should not have any political calculations attached."

U.S. medical patients might also benefit from the importation of Heberprot, a high-tech medicine developed in Cuba for treatment of diabetic wounds. Specialists note that Heberprot has performed well for over 170,000 diabetic patients in 23 countries. While the drug is now being tested in France and the UK, the embargo prevents similar testing in the U.S.  "It just rips me apart to know that there may be something out there that has the potential to save limbs and we can't get a chance to test it because of politics rather than public health," says surgeon David Armstrong.

There has also been a call by medical workers in both the U.S. and Cuba for greater cooperation in Haiti where the health care system remains woefully inadequate. In September, a delegation of Cuban medical personnel and embassy staff working in Haiti were invited onto the USNS Comfort, a U.S. hospital ship docked in Port-au-Prince. After a tour of the ship's medical treatment facilities and reception, the two teams met to share expertise in the areas of pediatrics, general medicine, optometry, ophthalmology, and general surgery. As Captain Christine Sears, commanding officer of the Medical Facility observed, "In each of our mission stops, it has been our goal to provide the best patient care possible. By participating in these engagements, we are able to further that goal by exchanging best practices and observations."

Creeping Cooperation

In contrast to its past image as a promoter of revolution, Cuba has more recently sought to play the part of peacemaker. Since 2012, Cuba has hosted peace talks between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Front in Colombia (FARC), the largest guerrilla group in the Western Hemisphere. This has included assisting the two sides in setting goals around such issues as land reform, reparations, transitional justice, and the reintegration of FARC rebels into the political process. At the Summit of the Americas in April, Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos took the opportunity to publicly highlight the role that Cuban leaders had played and thank them for their assistance.

On a number of other security matters, military forces in the two countries have been cooperating for years. In 1993, U.S. and Cuban armed forces began to notify each other in advance of military movements. As Cuba expert Jorge Dominguez notes, "The highest-ranking military officers from both sides established regular and periodic communication" to address the tens of thousands of illegal migrants being held at Guantanamo Naval Base. "Meetings between respective top military commanders took place every six weeks; lower-level technical meetings took place more frequently."5 In 1998, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) determined "that Cuba did not represent a significant military threat to the United States or to any of its neighbors (and that) its military capacities and intentions were limited to the defense of the homeland."6

Since then, the armed forces in the two countries have cooperated to bring a malaria outbreak at the Guantanamo Base and a dengue outbreak in eastern Cuba under control. They have also conducted catastrophe simulations together on a yearly basis and, for the last 15 years, the FBI has been informing the Cuban government of suspected plans for terrorist activities by Cubans in the U.S. In addition, the U.S. and Cuban coast guards have been cooperating on an ad hoc basis to combat drug trafficking for nearly two decades. While the U.S. Coast Guard supplies intelligence, Cuban Border Guards arrest criminals in their territory and even provide testimony against alleged drug traffickers in U.S. courts.7

Regaining Lost Ground

Latin American leaders are now more willing than in the past to stand up to the U.S. in international forums. In fact, the issue of the embargo has become a catalyst for unity among countries that might otherwise be at each other's throats. This was exemplified by the 2014 Summit sponsored by the Organization of American States (OAS).  As one Obama administration official pointed out, "Instead of talking about things we wanted to focus on—exports, counter-narcotics—we spent a lot of time talking about U.S.-Cuba policy. A key factor with any bilateral meeting is, 'When are you going to change your Cuba policy?'"

Prior to this year's OAS Summit in April, a large contingent of Latin American countries threatened to boycott the event if Cuba did not receive a formal invitation. At a meeting of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) in 2014, the organization passed a resolution in support of Cuba's unconditional inclusion at the 2015 summit. Secretary General Ernesto Samper described the prevailing situation as "sitting at the dinner table without inviting a family member." Things turned around for the U.S., however, after President Obama opened diplomatic relations with Cuba. As Brookings analyst Richard Feinberg describes it, "In one blow, the United States transformed a thorn in relations with Latin America into a triumph of inter-American diplomacy that significantly enhanced U.S. prestige in the region."

The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), a 33-member successor to the Rio Group, has also found unity in opposition to the Cuban embargo. Earlier this year, the European Union (EU) met jointly with CELAC to promote mutual interests. While welcoming Obama's move toward normalization in December 2014, the inter-continental group made common cause by condemning the embargo as a violation of international law and urged that “all necessary steps” be taken to end it. Speaking on behalf of the Caribbean Common Market group CARICOM, Courtenay Rattray of Jamaica, remarked that the embargo was not only damaging to Cuba but was also "an impediment to our shared regional development." Nonetheless, as he saw it, "Cuba is the most popular state of the Caribbean."

No Cuban Spring

Many in the U.S. now expect a surge of change in Cuba, a decisive turnaround that will place Cuba squarely back within the U.S. camp. In fact, this view has dominated thinking in the U.S. since the embargo was first enacted in 1960. Yet whatever Cubans may think of their government—and there is quite a range of opinion on that—there is no mass uprising in the manner of an "Arab Spring" about to take place. Unlike many countries in the Middle East where inequalities are extreme, Cubans, while poor, have been the beneficiaries of public policies that have allowed for higher degree of equality. In addition, as Feinberg observes, "many Cubans identify the revolution with nationalizations of private property, so it will be difficult to explain to them why foreign investment is now so welcome." In fact, for financial reasons, Cuban leaders are now more inclined to cut back on the role of government than Cubans themselves. 

In the U.S., change will likely be incremental as well. In calling for an end to the embargo, President Obama has the support of agro-exporters and 73 percent of Americans including 55 percent of conservative Republicans. However, the logic of collective action—the idea that a small dedicated group is more effective than a large diffuse one—still gives Cuban-American lawmakers the edge in determining policy toward Cuba. Among these lawmakers are two of the Senate's most charismatic individuals, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. Both are currently running for the office of president and both are firmly in favor of retaining the embargo. 

In the meantime, the U.S. would do well to consider a more conciliatory approach with Cuba. This would entail greater cooperation around medical assistance and peacemaking in the region, and an acknowledged role for Cuba in the fight against drug trafficking. These measures would, in turn, open up the opportunity for the U.S. to gain credibility in appealing for the protection of civil rights—freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, the right to due process, and the democratic process—in Cuba and elsewhere in Latin America.


NOTES
1 Brenner, Philip, Marguerite Rose Jiménez, John M. Kirk, and William M. LeoGrande, editors, A Contemporary Cuba Reader: The Revolution under Raúl Castro, Second Edition (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014)
2 Krull, Catherine, Cuba in a Global Context: International Relations, Internationalism, and Transnationalism (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2014).
3 Krull, Cuba in a Global Context, 131.
4 Krull, Cuba in a Global Context, 129–33.
5 Jorge Dominguez and Byung Kook Kim, Between Compliance and Conflict (London: Routledge, 2013), 206.
6 Dominguez, Between Compliance and Conflict, 210.
7 Dominguez, Between Compliance and Conflict, 207.

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