End the Cuba trade embargo and support US exports

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to join a “people-to-people” trip to Cuba, visiting not only Havana but smaller towns, such as Ceinfuegos and Trinidad. We met with Cubans from many walks of life, in their businesses, on their farms and in their homes.

The Cuban government has slowly opened their economy to private enterprise, especially in the visitor sector, and has lifted restrictions on technology and access to a world of information. The new influx of American visitors, eating at private restaurants, staying in bed-and-breakfasts booked on Airbnb and supporting artists and musicians is slowly changing the Cuban economy.

But as relations between the U.S. and Cuba are starting to thaw, the trade embargo remains, leaving U.S. companies on the outside as our competitors from abroad gain a foothold.

While the 1962 trade embargo appears to have trapped Cuba in the 1950s, it is a superficial view supported by the sight of old American cars and the few signs of post-1960 construction in city centers. Behind that old facade are modern products from countries from across the globe — Samsung refrigerators, LG flat-screen TVs, French and South Korean cars and smartphones. While Cuba trades with China, Canada, Europe and Brazil, there are no American cars on the road manufactured after 1961, no GE appliances, no parts for their fishing boats or construction materials. Our minor footprint is in the form of food products, like Tabasco sauce and Coke — though the Coke comes from Mexico, not Atlanta.

Meanwhile, there is an underground economy that imports products into the country on every flight from Miami. Mountains of shrink-wrapped products are included as “luggage” by Cubans traveling with U.S. visas. Ask a restaurant owner how he has Costco salt and pepper grinders on each table, and he will tell you it is the same way he has umbrellas from Home Depot: He pays a big surcharge to bring the items back from his regular visit to Florida.

While I am old enough to remember the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis, most Cubans, like most Americans, are not. It is hard to explain how an island of 11 million people can still be seen as a threat to peace and stability in the region. In fact, we know it isn’t.

A Gallup poll in 2015 found that almost 60 percent of Americans support ending the trade embargo. As far back as 2009, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — not exactly a bastion of liberalism — testified before Congress that “The U.S. embargo on Cuba is one of the biggest foreign policy failures of the past half century and should come to an end.”

The world economy has changed since the early 1960s, so we can never account for 70 percent of Cuban imports like we did before the embargo. However, we should see some new American cars on the streets of Havana amongst those from Europe and Asia, more agricultural goods and technology products.

Change is coming to Cuba, and America should recognize what’s good for business and be a trading partner in that process.

Cuba-U.S.: February 7, 1962

More than half a century later, ordinance 3447 signed by Kennedy has not lose all its strength in official circles of Washington; it has neither erased the political-moral isolation of those clinging to its loose ends.

On February 7, 1962 started the execution of the already virtually established North American blockade against Cuba.

On January 1, 1959 the tyranny of Fulgencio Batista was overthrown and hours later Fidel Castro Ruz forewarned: “The happiness is great, but perhaps from now on, everything will be more difficult”, said the revolutionary leader.

Where resides the core of the bilateral conflict that Washington government imposed –around that time - to frustrate the agrarian reformation and other domestic measures?

Firstly, the Revolution had shattered the neocolonial status given to Cuba since the military North American intervention of 1898.

A social justice program began shortly afterwards for millions of “ordinary people” and expelled from Cuban soil the military North American mission that supported tyrant Batista.

Some analysts characterize this singular period as something Washington called “the original sin” of the Cuban Revolution.

That explains that three weeks prior January 1, 1959, the word blockade against Cuba was already mentioned.

Such one-sided politics was further defined on February 3, 1962, when the U.S. President at the time, John F. Kennedy, passed ordinance number 3447 that established the “embargo” of trade with its former colony.

That document halted all imports to the northern country of all Cuban products, since when?

Starting at 12 a.m. February 7, 1962.

The document read: “I hereby order the Secretary of Commerce to keep banning all exports from the United States to Cuba…”

When was the blockade put into force?

When the former Cuban colony still greatly depended of its commerce with the powerful neighbor from the North, and a serious military crisis between both countries was looming.

On February 7, 1962 the already virtually established North American blockade against Cuba was set in motion.

More than half century later, ordinance 3447 signed by Kennedy it’s still strong in official spheres of Washington.

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Cuban embargo unlikely to end on Obama’s watch

President Obama may not have enough time remaining in his term to end the U.S. embargo against Cuba despite his executive orders ending the U.S. policy of isolating the island nation.

Diplomatic relations have been restored, trade and travel between the two countries have increased, and a bilateral pact on oil-spill cleanups is pending.

But the Obama policy of engagement may prove fleeting unless Congress lifts the longstanding embargo. The new U.S. relationship with Cuba is based on presidential executive orders that Obama’s successor can reverse.

However, Congress cannot consider ending the embargo unless the Castro brothers are no longer running Cuba and U.S.-certified claims against the Cuban government for nationalizing American-owned businesses and properties in the 1960s.

Fidel Castro resigned his post as president of Cuba in 2008, and his successor and brother Raul Castro has said he will resign by February 2018.

Settling U.S. claims against Cuba could take much longer, and with less than 250 days remaining in the Obama presidency, his administration may not have time to negotiate a U.S. claims settlement and further normalize relations with Cuba.

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Regional Solidarity Meeting Demands Lifting of U.S. Blockade of Cuba

A regional meeting for solidarity with Cuba was held over the weekend in Argentina, with participants demanding the lifting of Washington's economic, commercial and financial blockade against the Caribbean state.

The event, organized by solidarity groups and Cuba friends across Latin America, was attended by Hero of the Republic of Cuba Ramón Labañino, one of the five Cubans who served long, unfair prison terms in U.S. jails for fighting terrorism.

The meeting's final declaration demands an end to all U.S. terrorist and subversive actions against Cuba, as well as Washington's attempts to interfere in Cuba's internal affairs.

The solidarity activists also demanded the return of the portion of Cuban territory in Guantánamo illegally occupied by the U.S. Naval Base and due compensation for the economic damage that the blockade policy has inflicted on the Cuban economy.

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Indiscreet Editorial of Las Americas Newspaper?

Partially financed by the Cuban-Venezuelan far right-wing of Miami, it approached the current politics of Washington towards Havana.

It did it in an editorial where it suggests that its essential purpose is to impose a régime change.

Such writing was published on Thursday entitled “Obama, Castro and the Embargo.”

It affirms that the new meeting between “ruler” Castro and president Obama, now in New York, left to many mouths opened.

On one side, it adds, Cuba demanding among other matters the end of what the editorial calls embargo.

On the other hand, Obama defending to eliminate a policy that has failed in more than 50 years.

It is worth clarifying that it did pay off thanks to those who have promoted it in Washington and Miami: its huge diplomatic isolation in that topic.

The first voting of the UN General Assembly on the “blockade to Cuba” took place in 1992 and it would repeat with that message for 20 of its yearly sessions until 2014.

In that first year, 57 countries rejected it and about twelve months ago 188 did the same, while Washington, supported by Israel, remained as main supported.

A detail worth mentioning is that never during that UN period has used the term “embargo” to substitute the most exact term “blockade”.

Now it’s speculated that after the well known gradual approach between Cuba and United States, the White House could abstain in the coming voting of the United Nations on this issue.

Las Americas newspaper point out that apparently Obama and Raúl coincide, but there’s a great difference between them on how to achieve the same objective.

Seemingly the Cuban régime conquered in the last days, but Obama insists “that only his strategy has changed to take a future of progress and human rights to the people of Cuba”, adds the editorial.

It reads that it’s a politics where the régime from Havana attempts to keep the cave in darkness or with a dim light.

At the same time, according to the article, the United States shows Cubans that the world “is full of light and opportunities.”

How to assess the meaning of those words amid the everyday tragedy of so many millions of inhabitants in the planet?

Simply, like a slap to human intelligence, a mock to the doomed of the Earth.

Just that blundered criterion strips from all seriousness everything written up to that point and what comes afterwards.

Like when they insist in the version that Washington has given plenty to Cuba without receiving something in return, mistake, firstly they would have to lift the blockade.

Then it resorts to a more aggressive approach when it outlines that in the long run “there won't be anyone capable to contain the huge influence that the most powerful nation in the world through its “soft power.”

The Editorial Staff of Las Americas finished with a sentence that strips naked all that insinuates very clearly:

“There isn’t a strong rock for soft waves.”

Hence, the forewarned war circling above Cubans bare its fangs wider enveloped in silk.

And Las Americas Newspaper, unlike others, strips it naked, untimed, and brutally.

Will any official or propagandist spokesman from Washington dare to deny it? The ball is in their turf.

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White House preparing new rules to weaken Cuba embargo

The White House is drafting sweeping regulations to further weaken the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba that would ease restrictions on U.S. companies and make it safer for Americans to travel there, U.S. government sources said on Thursday.

The regulations could be announced as soon as Friday.

U.S. companies would be allowed to establish offices in Cuba for the first time in more than half a century, according to a draft of the new rules seen by Reuters.

The regulations make it easier for airlines and cruise ships to import parts and technology to improve safety in Cuba; loosen restrictions on software exports; and allow authorized companies to establish subsidiaries with Cuba, possibly via joint ventures with Cuban firms such as state telecommunications monopoly Etecsa.

However, they do not authorize private financing of trade nor change current rules on who can travel to Cuba, though it is possible regulations could still be modified by other agencies or updated later in the year, according to people familiar with the White House's thinking on Cuba policy.

There was no immediate comment from President Barack Obama's administration.

"These are the most comprehensive expansion in U.S. trade and investment regulations with Cuba in decades," said John Kavulich, head of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, who is familiar with the new rules.

"The result will be an exponential increase in interest towards Cuba by U.S. companies and pressure upon Cuba by those same companies to permit access to the marketplace," Kavulich said.

The regulations expand on others that Obama announced in January to ease the 53-year-old embargo of the Communist-ruled island.

Those rules were an initial gesture after Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced on Dec. 17 they would move toward normal relations between the former Cold War foes for the first time in more than half a century.

Although legislation seeking to promote commercial ties between the two countries has support from Democrats and some Republicans, efforts to pass bills that would ease trade and travel restrictions have been stymied by opposition from Republican congressional leaders.

Given the resistance from Congress, Obama is using executive powers to ease the trade barriers.

The administration was preparing the new regulations as Jose Cabanas, a veteran diplomat, on Thursday became Cuba's first ambassador to the United States in 54 years.

Washington has yet to name an ambassador to Cuba.

Cuba is also preparing for a three-night visit from Pope Francis starting on Saturday.

One advocate of U.S. engagement with Cuba who has been briefed on the matter said administration officials first discussed the regulations with supporters of Obama's Cuba policy in July.

"The focus is on ease of doing business, and (the regulations) have been in hopper to be released for a couple of weeks. Interesting that they're choosing it to coincide with the pope's visit," said Felice Gorordo, co-founder of the Cuban-American group Roots of Hope.

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United States-Cuba relations are warming, but not warm enough to end the embargo

Forget Venice, Paris and Barcelona, the hot spot for travelers this year is none other than La Habana, Cuba.

Yes, it seems our next-door neighbor — with its mystique as a forbidden island — has become the destination of choice for Americans after last December 17, when President Obama and Cuban president Raúl Castro launched a new era of warmer relations between their two countries.

“It has been non-stop,” said Bob Guild, vice president of Marazul Charters, Inc., a long established agency specializing in travel to Cuba. Although it is based in North Bergen, N.J., Marazul has been the main agency serving New York travelers for many years.

“We are going crazy with work,” Guild added. “Just think — (through) June this year we have sent 40% more people to Cuba than last year. Hotels (in Havana) are fully booked for months to come.”

With interest in traveling to the island exploding, it's not surprising that airlines are trying very hard to position themselves to get a piece of the tourist bonanza they predict will come.

A month ago, JetBlue became the first airline to launch direct flights from New York to Havana, and last week American Airlines announced it would begin charter flights to the Cuban capital from Los Angeles in December.

Many advances have been made in these past months, not the least of which is the much longed-for better access to the Internet for Cubans.

“For the first time ever I am able to connect to the Internet using a Wi-Fi connection in Havana. If this is not progress, I don’t know what is. Many around me are glued to their mobile devices. What a great moment to be here,” Iraida López, a Cuban-American college professor at Ramapo College, posted on Facebook last month during a visit to the island.

Yet despite the undeniable advances, the anachronistic 54-year-old trade embargo is still in place, and only Congress has the power to toss it into the ash heap of history, where it belongs. The White House, though, is not calmly waiting for the Marco Rubios of this world to come to their senses and drop their stubborn — and, by now, ridiculous — opposition to lifting “el bloqueo” (the blockade), as the embargo is known in Cuba.

The American Airlines announcement comes hot on the heels of reports that Obama is looking for ways to circumvent Congress by considering new measures to allow more flexibility in traveling to Cuba. One such move would permit Americans to go to the island as individuals — instead of as part of a group — for the first time in 50 years.

The White House is also talking to Cuban authorities about reestablishing regular commercial flights to and from the island before the end of the year.

Although so far things have been moving in the right direction, there is still a long and tortuous road ahead until fully normalized relations are achieved.

I, for one, am keeping my fingers crossed.

U.S. priest: Spiritual costs of Cuban embargo have been high

The U.S. trade embargo against Cuba turns 55 in October, and its effects are clear in the dilapidated buildings, scant food supply of Cuban stores and infrastructure around the island.

But what's not easy to see is the spiritual cost. Trinitarian Father Juan Molina, director of the U.S. bishops' Office for the Church in Latin America, said that spiritual cost has been great.

"The embargo has literally put a block between two hands, two sister churches working together," Father Molina said. "The church in the United States is very much a missionary church that goes to very different places around the world, not only to spend time with their brothers and sisters, but also to help them."

The embargo has prevented Cubans from receiving supplies from the U.S., even during natural disasters and emergencies. Financial donations from U.S. church members and groups that want to help pastoral programs for the church in Cuba also have been blocked. But it also has eroded something even more important to the Catholic Church: a spiritual fraternity between Catholics on the island and those in the United States.

"All that has been lost for last 50 years," Father Molina said.

Richard Coll, a foreign policy adviser for Latin America and global trade at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said he sees hope, however, and it arrived with the Dec. 17 news that diplomatic relations between the two countries would be restored -- a move facilitated by the diplomatic hand of the Vatican.

"It was a day that marked Cuba," and one largely welcomed by the island's denizens, said Lourdes Maria Escalona, who works at a Catholic formation center on the eastern end of the island.

In April, Cuba was removed from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. Both countries opened embassies in each other's territory July 20, and on Aug. 14, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry raised the U.S. flag at the embassy in Havana.

The hope now, Coll said, is "that there's no backtracking" by Congress on the flexibility granted to Americans so they can travel to Cuba, which includes permission to travel to the island for religious activities. The greater hope, however, is getting rid of the embargo.

"Certainly the conference (of bishops) in the United States, in conjunction with the Cuban bishops' conference, for many years, has favored that kind of action, the lifting of the embargo," Coll said. Such a move can bring about greater dialogue, commerce and contact with the Cuban people, their government, and foster human rights, freedom and democracy, just as it did in the similar landscape of Eastern Europe after the Berlin Wall fell, he said.

"The more they were able to rely on commerce and engage in dialogue with the West, the more possible it became for their own societies to be able to open up to human rights advances and eventually to a move toward democracy rather than pulling away from the West," Coll said.

Even St. John Paul II, an ardent opponent of communism, favored lifting the sanctions.

"Embargoes," he said while addressing a group of young people during his visit to Cuba in 1998, "are always deplorable because they hurt the most needy."

Any benefits that come from the historic thaw have the potential to affect more than just relations between Cuba and the U.S., Coll said.

"Cuba is a key that unlocks many other doors within Latin America," said Coll. "You can think about the situation in Venezuela, for example ... that's related very much to what's happening in Cuba."

Success with Cuba can lead to success addressing issues such as religious freedom, violence and poverty in other neighboring nations. And that's very much an interest of Pope Francis but it's also not an interest that began with him, Coll said.

"Sometimes in the press, and elsewhere, there's a desire to talk about how Francis is a revolutionary and so different from other popes, but on Cuba policy and on many other issues, including even economic policy, I would argue that Francis is very much in the tradition of Benedict XVI, John Paul II, going back to Leo XIII, so this is a chain ... it really is a pretty unbroken chain," Coll said.

Eduardo Azcarate, a native Cuban who lives in Falls Church, Virginia, said he does not like to get involved in politics and does not like to address the embargo. But the embargo has made it complicated for Cuban Catholics like him to help the church and its members carry out its mission.

"If the embargo did not exist ... it perhaps would help to facilitate an openness of service, of help to the church" in Cuba, he said.

However, he also tries to understand those who favor the sanctions and those who see it as "holding a chip" to "remind the government about the importance of human rights and religious freedom."

Just before Kerry arrived in Havana, a group of activists was arrested and released, following a protest in which they wore masks with the image of U.S. President Barack Obama.

The topic of the embargo almost seems unavoidable for Pope Francis, who will head directly from Cuba to the United States Sept. 22.

"I wouldn't be surprised if the pope speaks about that," Father Molina said, though it may not be a welcome topic in Congress.

"The challenge is that we're going to be heading into 2016, which is a presidential election year, and I think that most candidates are going to be very cautious and most members of Congress are going to be very cautious about taking any action," Coll said.

But the pope may see it as a priceless opportunity for world diplomacy, Father Molina said, and as another step in the path of his predecessors.

At a recent panel of policy advisers in Washington, Demetrios Papademetriou, president emeritus of the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington think tank, said directly or indirectly, the subject of the embargo will come up during his U.S. visit.

"Even if the pope does not say the words Cuba directly, he will probably say something about facilitating dialogue and opening up within Latin America," he said. "After all, let's not forget that this is a pope that understands, has lived all his life, has preached, became a cardinal, in Latin America. He has lived with these issues."

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