President Barack Obama’s official visit to Cuba in March 2016 has deluded a lot of people into believing that relations between the United States and Cuba are now normal. They do not realise that the severe US economic sanctions against Cuba are still in force.
Of course there have been slight improvements in the application of some of the procedures pertaining to sanctions. Some travel restrictions have been eased and Cuba is no longer in the US list of states allegedly sponsoring “international terrorism,”an allegation that was utterly ludicrous from the very outset given the number of occasions Cuba and Cubans were subjected to acts of terror since the Cuban Revolution of 1959.
Sanctions continue to impede imports of critical goods and equipment from the US just as Cuba is prevented from exporting products and services to the US. Cuba has no direct banking relations with the US. US corporations cannot invest in the Cuban economy, except in the telecommunications industry.
The transfer of funds to Cuba is still being blocked. Payments even in currencies other than the US dollar are often withheld. Foreign banks and other corporations with links to Cuba continue to be fined. In February 2016 for instance a fine was levied on CGG Services S.A. of France for violating the blockade on Cuba. In May 2016 “the Royal Bank of Canada refused to transfer payment in Canadian dollars corresponding to Cuba’s membership fee of the Association of Caribbean States.” In the same month, a bank in Spain closed the current accounts of a business group “due to the group’s operations with Cuba.”
It has been estimated that the sanctions have cost Cuba billions of dollars just in the course of the first six months of 2016. The impact upon the public health sector — the comprehensiveness and affordability of public health care being one of the greatest achievements of the Cuban Revolution — has been dire. Between April 2015 and April 2016, the accumulated monetary repercussions of the sanctions policy amounted to some 82.7 million dollars. Cuba is compelled to purchase medicines, “spare parts for diagnostic and treatment equipment, medical instruments and other supplies necessary for (the health) sector to function” from distant markets when it would have been so much cheaper to obtain them from the US itself.
It is not just the health sector that has suffered from sanctions. The food sector, education, sports and culture have all had to pay the price. Even biotechnology, a field in which Cuba has registered excellent progress, has had to bear the adverse consequences of the unjust and vicious US policy.
It is widely known that it is the US Congress more than the White House that is determined to perpetuate sanctions against Cuba. While some members of both the Senate and the House of Representatives feel that the sanctions should be lifted, the lobbies and special interests that want to continue to punish Cuba remain formidable. It is significant that Congress has received 51 legislative initiatives that seek to reinforce the sanctions. Obama cannot afford to ignore this. Nonetheless, he has executive powers that can circumvent some of the hurdles erected by the pro-sanctions groups.
This is why pro-justice citizens’ groups in the US and from around the world should intensify their efforts to persuade the powers-that-be in the US to eliminate the sanctions totally. Voices from within the US are critical; more human rights advocates, academics and representatives of the different religious communities should speak up. They should also counter the untruths, the half-truths and the outright lies about Cuba, the sanctions and the “security of the American people”.
People outside the US should also play their role. They should remind their governments to stick to their anti-sanctions position when the issue comes up again before the UN General Assembly on 26 October 2016. For the last 24 years, the vast majority of UN member states have voted to end the US sanctions regime. The last UN General Assembly vote on 27 October 2015 was the most convincing ever. 191 out of the 193 member states of the UN demanded that the sanctions be lifted. The only two states that voted against the resolution were the US and Israel.
Near unanimous support for Cuba from the nations of the world is not enough. Their vote should be translated into action. I had suggested last year that the General Assembly should form a multi-national panel comprising various governments from the different continents which as the representative voice of the world would seek a formal meeting with the Speaker of the US House of Representatives and the majority leader of the US Senate to convey to them the strong feelings of the people of the planet that sanctions against Cuba should be lifted at once. It is important for the UN to convey this message to the US leaders especially at this moment because there would be some changes in the US Congress and a new President in the White House after the 8 November 2016 election.
There is a larger meaning to this proposal. By telling US leaders how the peoples and the governments of the world feel about an arrogant punitive action that has caused so much pain and suffering to a small nation of 11 million citizens, we would be expressing our total rejection of global hegemony and a unipolar system where might is right. We would be asserting the right of nations and peoples to determine their own destiny. At a time when the hegemon is in decline and is doing all it can to perpetuate its dominance there is no message that is more important than this.
Dr. Chandra Muzaffar is the President of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), Malaysia.