US aid ship in Cuba: Ending the embargo?

Fifty years after the US imposed a trade blockade, the first officially sanctioned aid ship from Miami arrives in Cuba.

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Cuba's economy has languished in recent years and the government is planning an austerity programme [Reuters]

Fifty years after President John F Kennedy initiated a trade embargo on Cuba, a US aid ship has landed on the island, further weakening the Cold War-era blockade.

The 300ft boat, Ana Cecilia, apparently the first officially sanctioned direct maritime shipment from Miami to Cuba, docked in Havana on Friday carrying food, medicine and personal hygiene products sent by Cuban-Americans to their families on the island.

The decision to allow the ship to sail would have been made between the US Treasury Department and the Commerce Department, who would have liaised with other branches of the US government, said John Kavulich from the US-Cuba Economic and Trade Council, meaning it could signal part of a broader political thaw in Washington.

“The simple answer as to why the blockade continues – inertia … Any substantial change in the relationship between Cuba and the US brings uncertainty.

– John Kavulich, US-Cuba trade lobbyist

“The simple answer as to why the blockade continues – inertia,” Kavulich told Al Jazeera. “Any substantial change in the relationship between Cuba and the US brings uncertainty.”

Analysts do not believe the shipment is the beginning of the end for the embargo, which is supposed to prohibit US companies from trading with Cuba, located just 90 miles (144km) off the coast of Florida.

Other ships, including aid vessels from US groups opposing the embargo, have been sent to Cuba before, but this is the first shipment to be sanctioned to travel via Miami’s port.

‘Significant gesture’

Professor Antoni Kapcia, Cuba specialist at the University of Nottingham, believes Friday’s docking is a “significant gesture” from the US, but not a “fundamental change”.

“It sends a strong message that if [US President Barack] Obama gets a second term in office, he means business on Cuba,” Kapcia told Al Jazeera. “It is probably one of the largest changes [in the US approach], that have been mostly cosmetic until now.”

Since the revolution of 1959, when Fidel Castro and his comrades turfed out Fulgencio Batista, a dictator with proven links to the US mafia, relations between the Caribbean island and its larger neighbour have been frosty at best.

Pioneered by US President Dwight Eisenhower, the total embargo was announced by Kennedy in February 1962. He cited the “subversive” nature of Cuba’s 1959 revolution. The CIA, working with Cuban exiles, attempted to invade the island in 1963 in a botched mission known as the Bay of Pigs operation.

Cuba’s revolution and the imposition of a Communist-inspired government led to the nationalisation of assets formally controlled by what supporters deemed “the capitalist elite”. It also saw single party domination over the political system, heavy censorship of the news media, long jail sentences – or worse – for dissidents, along with the creation of internationally recognised public health and education systems.

Despite a trade blockade by the world’s largest economy, former Cuban leader Fidel Castro outlasted nine US presidents. If the embargo couldn’t fulfill its goal of unseating the bearded leader and his Communist Party, other measures should be considered, say critics within the US establishment.

“Fidel Castro managed to embody Cuban nationalism, as the David defying the American Goliath and its economic embargo.

The Economist, May 2012

“In general, the US business community has taken a global position that sanctions are usually not a beneficial tool in the political arsenal,” lobbyist Kavulich said, adding that US firms have been selling food to the island since 2001, and healthcare products since 1992. “I think you have some executives who have an active position in believing that interaction, specifically trade, can bring political change to a country.” 

Some analysts believe the embargo has actually benefited the Communist government, allowing them to blame economic problems on outsiders. “Fidel Castro managed to embody Cuban nationalism, as the David defying the American Goliath and its economic embargo,” noted The Economist, which opposes the current government, in May.

Angry exiles

Today, Fidel’s brother Raul calls the shots in Havana. While some on the island consider him a moderate reformer, opponents view him as a standard despot.

“Cuba is a state sponsor of terrorism,” John Suarez, a Cuban-American activist and blogger, told Al Jazeera. “The aim [of the Communist government] is to stay in power by whatever means necessary. They have been doing this since 1959.”

After the revolution, more than one million Cubans, or some ten per cent of the island’s population fled, usually heading for the US, where they are often granted automatic citizenship, unlike migrants from other poor Caribbean countries including those with worse human rights records.

Many Cuban-Americans want to see the embargo continue, and some analysts believe the small, yet vocal population of Cuban exiles in Florida, a crucial electoral swing state, partially explains why the trade blockade outlasted the Cold War.

A significant portion of Cuban-Americans in Florida are “single issue voters” who will cast their ballots depending on who has the toughest anti-Castro stance, Kavulich said. “Florida as a state is still incredibility important to US presidential candidates. Given the expected closeness [in November’s election], every vote matters.”

Popular support for communism?

“More Cubans than one might suppose want to keep the system, while changing aspects of it, particularly the economy… They recognise the state gives them a lot [in terms of social programmes] which they would lose if they went for a full transition to capitalism … they don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

– Prof Antoni Kapcia, University of Nottingham

Unlike the population who fled the island, who often had links to the privileged classes, many Cubans who stayed support the government, Professor Kapcia said.

“More Cubans than one might suppose want to keep the system, while changing aspects of it, particularly the economy,” he said. “They recognise the state gives them a lot [in terms of social programmes] which they would lose if they went for a full transition to capitalism … they don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s main patron, the Communist government had “eliminated” child malnutrition and adult illiteracy, according to The Economist. “Fidel poured resources into social programmes that reached from cradle to grave, providing free world-class health care and education, as well as free pensions and funerals … life expectancy and many other social indicators rose above those of the United States,” the magazine reported, noting that social programmes have deteriorated significantly since then.

To deal with deep-seated economic problems on the island, Raul Castro has promised something resembling a communist austerity plan. In August 2010, Castro stated that the state needed to shed one million workers from its payrolls, including half a million by mid-2011.

Today, about 200,000 of those workers have moved into private businesses, Kapcia said, which have become easier to start due to incremental changes introduced by Raul. The large scale lay-offs have not happened yet, due to opposition from the country’s Communist Party-linked labour unions, the professor said.

Black gold?

While the state sector sputters, foreign firms are – thus far unsuccessfully – searching for oil off Cuba’s coast. The US Geological Survey estimates Cuba has five billion barrels buried under the sea, while the island’s government pegs the figure at 20 billion. Malaysian, Spanish, Russian, Venezuelan and Chinese companies – among others – have expressed interest and some have begun drilling wells or doing seismic tests.

In Depth

More from Cuba:

  Cuba: The times are changing
  Cuba’s economic revival

“A political nightmare for the US is Cuba being able to commercially develop oil and natural gas that would render US economic and political policy ineffective,” said Kavulich from the trade association. “US energy companies are – in a very small, indirect manner – participating in some of the energy exploration efforts in Cuba, because many of the drilling rigs have US components.” 

The cost of oil exploration in Cuba is 18-22 per cent more expensive than it would otherwise be, due to the US embargo, one analyst told Reuters

Cynics could link the softening of the embargo, as seemingly demonstrated by the recent aid delivery from Miami, to the search for oil in Cuban waters in the Gulf of Mexico.

Suarez, the anti-Castro activist, doesn’t think that is a good idea. “Those [possible] oil wells off Cuba will be deeper than the one that caused the BP disaster,” he said, “Whether it’s Russia or America, I don’t think anyone has good capacity for drilling at that depth.”

“If the argument is: ‘We [America] need to normalise relations [with Cuba] so BP can go in,’ that doesn’t fill me with much confidence.”

Follow Chris Arsenault On Twitter: @AJEchris

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies