Obama under growing pressure to end US blockade of Cuba

By Marce Cameron

US President Barack Obama faces growing pressure to end the US economic blockade of socialist Cuba, imposed in 1962. On April 13, prior to attending the Organization of American States (OAS) heads of government meeting in Trinidad, Obama eased restrictions on Cuban-Americans visiting and sending money to family members in Cuba. He also authorised US telecommunications firms to provide internet, phone and TV services to Cuba.

While these measures leave the blockade intact, the tide is turning against it. It’s likely that during Obama’s term in office significant steps will be taken to dismantle the blockade. This is not because US imperialism has had a change of heart towards the Cuban Revolution, which has suffered the consequences of Washington’s brutal economic siege for nearly half a century. Rather, it is because the blockade has failed to achieve its objective of destroying the revolution, and the political benefits to the US rulers of maintaining the blockade are increasingly outweighed by the costs. This has led to divisions within the US capitalist class and its political elite about how to “deal” with Cuba.

What the US rulers hoped the blockade would achieve was spelt out in a now declassified State Department document dated April 6, 1960: “Every possible means should be undertaken promptly to weaken the economic life of Cuba ... to bring about hunger, desperation and the overthrow of [Cuba’s revolutionary] government.” By cutting off all trade with Cuba, the US rulers sought to subject Cuba’s workers and farmers to deprivation, hunger and disease until, demoralised, they would rise up against their revolutionary socialist government. In the resulting chaos, the US military could then invade Cuba and install a counter-revolutionary puppet regime. Cuba would be restored to its pre-revolution status as a US neocolony. This would send a chilling message to the workers and peasants throughout Latin America and the rest of the Third World: if you challenge imperialist domination of your countries, you will be crushed by US military might.

Obama’s dilemma

However, as Obama himself recognised in January 2004, when he was an Illinois state senator, the blockade had “utterly failed in the effort to overthrow Castro” (the US rulers pretend that the Cuban socialist revolution is solely the result of the will of one man, not the will of the island’s 11 million working people). Obama’s words were echoed by his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, on the eve of the OAS summit: “We are continuing to look for productive ways forward because we view the present policy as having failed”. In February, Richard Lugar, the senior Republican representative on the US Senate foreign relations committee, delivered a report that concluded: “After 47 years ... the unilateral embargo on Cuba has failed to achieve its stated purpose of ‘bringing democracy to the Cuban people’”.

During the presidential election campaign Obama had affirmed he would maintain the blockade against Cuba because, as he told a Cuban-American audience in Miami in August 2007, “it provides us with the leverage to present the [Cuban] regime with a clear choice”. However, as Obama’s 10 predecessors in the White House discovered to their frustration, Cuba’s revolutionary socialist government has never once sought to appease Washington by conceding to the US rulers’ demands to replace Cuba’s own system of people’s power democracy with the money-dominated farce that the US rulers hold up to the world as “democracy”.

This principled stance was reiterated by Cuban President Raul Castro at an April 29 gathering in Havana of ministers from 118 member-countries of the Non-Aligned Movement. “We are willing”, he said, “to talk about everything with the United States, in equality of conditions, but not to negotiate our sovereignty, nor our political and social system, the right to self-determination, nor our internal affairs.” Castro noted that “while the measures recently announced by President Obama are positive, their reach is minimal. The blockade has remained intact.” He pointed out that Cuba had not imposed any sanctions against the US and (in a reference to the US military base at Guantanamo Bay) Cuba does not have “a military base on United States territory, against the will of its people ... therefore, it is not Cuba that has to make gestures” toward the US.

Obama and other US officials have made contradictory statements about the US government’s intentions regarding the blockade. At the OAS summit, Obama said that his government “seeks a new beginning on Cuba”. After the summit, he said that Cuba must concede to long-standing US demands to release “political prisoners” and begin moving towards US-style “democracy” before he would take further steps to normalise relations with Havana — hardly a “new beginning”.

These contradictory statements reflect the dilemma Obama faces. He knows that the US blockade has failed, but as the commander-in-chief of the US empire he doesn’t want to be seen to be making too many unilateral concessions to Havana, after decades of US economic, political and military bullying have failed to crack Cuba’s resistance. Obama’s tough line coming out of the OAS summit appears to be face-saving rhetoric, aimed at appeasing the chorus of ultra-conservative condemnation in the US which followed his shaking hands in Trinidad with Venezuela President Hugo Chavez, Cuba’s staunchest ally.

US isolation

The US rulers’ blockade of Cuba, has not only failed to destroy its socialist revolution. It has failed to block the emergence of a new socialist revolution in South America. With solidarity from Venezuela, Cuba is gradually emerging from the harsh “special period” economic crisis that it was plunged into at the beginning of the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s principal trading partner. The worst years of this crisis period have been left behind.

The services provided by Cuban health and other professionals in Venezuela have overtaken tourism as Cuba’s largest source of foreign currency earnings. There is growing integration between Cuba’s socialist state enterprises and their counterparts in Venezuela, as more of the Venezuelan economy has been expropriated by the revolutionary working people’s government led by Hugo Chavez.

Together, Venezuela and Cuba have launched ALBA, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, and other initiatives for continental solidarity and regional integration. Cuba’s prestige among the working masses of Latin America keeps growing. Such is the admiration and support for Cuba that at the OAS summit, Latin American government leaders from across the political spectrum — including such staunch US allies as Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and Mexican President Felipe Calderon — spoke with one voice to demand that Obama lift the US blockade of Cuba.

The blockade was supposed to isolate Cuba. Yet today it is the US that is isolated. Every year since 1992 the overwhelming majority of UN member countries have voted for Cuba’s resolution demanding an end to the blockade. Last October, Cuba’s resolution was approved by the highest margin ever, with 185 of 192 UN member states voting in favour. When the US imposed its economic blockade in 1962, Canada and Mexico were the only countries in the Western hemisphere not to break off diplomatic relations with Cuba. Following the announcement a month before the OAS summit by the newly-elected leftist government in El Salvador and the conservative government of Costa Rica that they will restore relations with Havana this year, the US will become the only government in the Americas not to have diplomatic and trade relations with Cuba.

Capitalist rivalry

Since the early 1960s, Washington has tried but been unable to get its imperialist allies in Canada, Europe, Japan and Australasia to participate in its economic blockade of Cuba. In an epoch of global capitalist decline marked by saturated markets and vast accumulation of money capital that cannot be profitably invested in expanding the production of goods and services, imperialist transnational corporations cannot ignore even a small post-capitalist “market” of just 11 million people. What makes Cuba attractive for foreign investors is, ironically, the existence of the US blockade, which means the absence of US corporate competition.

When the US Congress passed the Helms-Burton Act in 1996 and then-president Bill Clinton signed it into law, Canada and the European Union protested and asked the World Trade Organisation to intervene and rule against this imposition on “free trade”. The Helms-Burton law threatened third-country companies investing in US property nationalised by Cuba in 1960 with compensation suits in US courts. The law barred executives of such companies from entering the US. Ships involved in trade with Cuba were prohibited from entering US ports for six months after visiting Cuba. In retaliation Canada, Mexico and the EU each introduced legislation to counteract Helms-Burton.

Today more than 2 million Canadian, European and Latin American tourists are holidaying in Cuba annually. Cuba is special not only because of what it has, but because of what it lacks — McDonalds, commercial advertising, abject poverty and hordes of US tourists. As well as being a unique tourism destination, Cuba has 34% of the world’s nickel reserves and 26% of its cobalt reserves. Nickel and cobalt are strategic metals used in the production of high-strength, corrosion-resistant alloys such as stainless steel. In 2000, nickel displaced sugar as Cuba’s top export commodity, thanks to a joint venture with Canada’s Sherritt corporation.

After Venezuela, China is Cuba’s second largest trading partner. China’s capitalist rulers favour good relations with Cuba in order to secure a reliable supply of nickel, and are offering favourable trade and investment deals to resource-rich Third World states in conflict with Washington. Meanwhile, US oil giants have watched from the sidelines as state oil companies from Venezuela, Brazil, China, India and Russia have been bidding for the rights to drill for oil in Cuban territorial waters in the Gulf of Mexico. According to both Cuban and US geological surveys, Cuba’s largely untapped Gulf oil reserves may rival those of the US.

Lying deep underneath the seabed, this oil will be costly and difficult to extract, and it is not yet known exactly how much is down there. Washington’s calculations must take into account the real possibility that Cuba could become an energy independent, oil exporting country within as little as five years. Were this to happen the US blockade would become all but irrelevant — except for the US oil corporations, which would be denied even a slice of the action!

Travel ban

There is already a large crack in the US economic blockade. Under pressure from US farmers and agribusiness companies, an amendment to the US trade embargo against Cuba was made in 2002 to allow US companies to export food products to the island. The Cuban government has steadily increased its food purchases from the US, using trade deals with US farming states as leverage to get them to lobby for Washington to lift the blockade. In 2008, US companies exported US$718 million in agricultural products to Cuba. As a result, the US has become Cuba’s fifth largest trading partner (though Washington still bans all imports from Cuba).

The prospects for further expansion of US trade with Cuba have led some conservative Republicans to join with liberal Democrats in a bipartisan “anti-embargo” caucus that enjoys growing support in Congress. Other sectors of the US capitalist class that would gain from an immediate lifting of the blockade, such as airline and tourism businesses, have begun to lobby harder for an end to the ban on US citizens, other than those with family in Cuba, being able to legally travel to the island.

A legislative bill to end the ban is currently before Congress. “I am very involved trying to get a law passed to lift the travel ban, and we have lots of [bipartisan] sponsors”, United States Tour Operators Association president Bob Whitley told the May 1 USA Today. Whitley thinks the bill could pass this year. While Obama could veto it, he would come under intense corporate and public pressure not to do so. An April 15 nationwide poll conducted by the University of Maryland found that 70% of US residents thought Americans “should be free to visit Cuba”. The same poll found that 49% favoured ending the blockade, with 48% opposed.

Ending the travel ban would undermine the blockade, making its continued existence increasingly untenable. Allowing US residents to travel to and spend money in Cuba without restriction would result in hundreds of millions of dollars annually flowing into the coffers of Cuba’s socialist state. This would have an immediate and tangible impact on the daily lives of millions of Cubans, easing some of the hardships caused by the blockade. Pressure on the US government to allow US construction and services firms to compete with their European and Latin American rivals for contracts with the Cuban state to enter into joint ventures to build and operate tourism hotels and resorts would intensify. Many more Americans would be able to see with their own eyes that Cuba is not the grim caricature painted by US corporate propaganda, and with more Americans able to appreciate first-hand the suffering caused by Washington’s cruel economic siege, US capitalist politicians would find it even more difficult to justify maintaining the blockade.

Cuba’s victory

The conflict between US imperialism and the Cuban Revolution is a life-and-death struggle between two irreconcilable social systems — decaying global capitalism and the shoots of a new socialist world order. As Cuba’s retired president Fidel Castro wrote on May 1, “The collision between the great power of the North and the Cuban Revolution was inevitable. The heroic resistance of the people of our small country was underestimated. Today they are willing to forgive us if we will resign ourselves to returning to the fold as slaves that, after knowing freedom, will accept again the whip and the yoke.”

If the US rulers abandon the blockade this would not be the end of their crusade to destroy the Cuban Revolution; it would merely change the terrain of the battle. The blockade would give way to a more subtle policy in which Cubans’ minds, rather than their stomachs, would be the primary target. The US rulers would seek to flood Cuba with US investments and tourists who, they hope, will dazzle Cubans with the supposed superiority of “the American way of life”. What the US rulers have failed to achieve through force, they would try to achieve through seduction.

This would present new and difficult challenges for the Cuban Revolution and its leadership, but an end of the blockade is what the Cuban government and people, as well as their supporters throughout the world, have been struggling for since 1962. Revolutionary Cuba’s friends should not think that if the blockade is lifted the island will be quickly taken over by US corporations and that there will be a McDonald’s on every street corner. In Cuba, the working people have state power. They can decide how much, or how little, US investment to accept. Other imperialist countries have not blockaded Cuba, but this has not led to Cuba’s workers and farmers handing over their country to the Canadian and European transnational companies.

When the blockade is finally lifted, it will be a momentous victory for the Cuban people and for the working people of the entire world. With Obama being forced to ease the sanctions against Cuba, now is the time to step up pressure on the US government to bring that day closer.