for-phone-onlyfor-tablet-portrait-upfor-tablet-landscape-upfor-desktop-upfor-wide-desktop-up
Columns

After Obama win, goodbye to Cuban embargo? Bernd Debusmann

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - If votes in the United Nations serve as a gauge of global opinion, 98.9 percent of the world opposes the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba, a measure imposed 46 years ago to isolate the communist-ruled island and bring down its leaders.

People watch the daily news on Mesa Redonda to follow up on the U.S election, in Havana November 4, 2008. REUTERS/Enrique de la Osa

It failed on both counts. As far as international opinion is concerned, the country that is isolated is the United States, not Cuba. In the latest of 17 successive U.N. General Assembly resolutions on lifting the embargo, Washington mustered only two allies -- Israel and Palau, a Pacific island nation difficult to find on a map. It has a population of 21,000.

The Marshall Islands (pop. 63,000), which had voted with the United States from 2000 to 2007, unexpectedly and without public explanation broke ranks this year and abstained in the vote, a non-binding resolution taken a week before the U.S. presidential election.

The count -- 185 countries in favor of lifting the embargo, three against -- speaks volumes about a bankrupt policy stuck in the Cold War era.

Will that kind of America versus the world line-up change under Barack Obama? Not necessarily. The man who made history on November 4 by becoming the first black to be elected president of the United States has promised to “ease” sanctions if Cuba took “significant steps toward democracy, beginning with freeing all political prisoners.”

He has not said what it would take for the United States to end the embargo, kept in place by 10 successive U.S. presidents, both Democrats and Republicans.

During the Cold War, when Cuba was a heavily-armed outpost of the Soviet empire just 90 miles from Florida, a majority of Americans agreed with a hard line on a Communist government that violates human rights and holds political prisoners. That attitude has been changing since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

According to a Zogby poll taken a week before the election, 60 percent of Americans believe that Washington should revise its policies toward Cuba. In particular, 68 percent thought Americans should be allowed to travel to the island and 62 percent said U.S. companies should be allowed to trade with it.

If that happens, it won’t be soon.

Latin America in general and Cuba in particular are not likely to figure high on the agenda of a new president who is inheriting two wars and the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. American presidents tend to promise greater attention to southern neighbors but usually do not follow through.

“I’m not so idealistic as to think that the embargo will be lifted immediately,” Cuban dissident and writer Jorge Olivera told Reuters Havana correspondent Jeff Franks.

“But I expect better times as much for the United States as for Cuba. I don’t want to die without seeing an end to this conflict that began when I was born.”

Worth noting: Under a 1996 law, the president needs congressional approval to lift the embargo or to recognize any government that includes Fidel Castro, who officially stepped down in February, or his brother Raul, who took over from him.

STATIC AND COUNTER-PRODUCTIVE

In the past, the most fervent opposition to ending the embargo -- the effects of which have punished the population for the actions of a leadership it did not elect -- has come from the Cuban-American community in South Florida.

But even this is changing.

“U.S. policy toward Cuba is at best static and at worst counter-productive, a source of increasing frustration to many Cuban Americans,” Jorge Mas Santos, chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), wrote late in October in a Washington Post opinion column that endorsed Obama.

CANF was set up in 1981 by Mas’s father, Jorge Mas Canosa, with the express aim of overthrowing the government of Fidel Castro. For years, the group exerted enormous influence on Washington policy makers -- as well as on presidential candidates keenly aware that winning the White House without winning Florida is a very difficult undertaking.

Obama won the state comfortably.

Cuban exiles, numbering around 650,000, account for just over a quarter of the total population of the greater Miami area. In the past, the Republican Party took the loyalty of most of them for granted -- Cuban Americans have traditionally voted four to one for Republicans.

The three Miami-based Cuban American Republicans who serve in the House of Representatives -- all supporters of the embargo -- were re-elected. Their votes against changes Obama might propose once he takes office on January 20 can be taken for granted.

Some of the most pointed criticism of the embargo has come not from Democrats but from conservative businessmen who resent the fact that American business has been kept out of Cuba while most of the world is engaged there.

In the words of Tom Donohue, CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce: “All you have to do is go over to Cuba and watch how the Spanish, the French, the Latin Americans and everybody else on the globe are building resorts or trying to invest, and we are sitting here with a 50-year-old policy that doesn’t work.”

The prime beneficiaries from an end to the embargo would be American agricultural exporters. “But just about every industry could benefit,” according to Donohue, “for the simple reason that there is such pent-up demand. Look at the cars they are running -- Jack Kennedy was in office when half of them were sent down there.”

(You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com)

Editing by Sean Maguire

for-phone-onlyfor-tablet-portrait-upfor-tablet-landscape-upfor-desktop-upfor-wide-desktop-up