Wednesday, November 21, 2012

As Cuba Eases Restraints, U.S. Is Urged To Follow

As Cuba Eases Restraints, U.S. Is Urged To Follow
New York Times
Published 8:11 p.m., Tuesday, November 20, 2012

HAVANA — "If I could just get a lift," said Francisco Lopez, imagining
the addition of a hydraulic elevator as he stood by a rusted Russian
sedan in his mechanic's workshop here. All he needed was an investment
from his brother in Miami or from a Cuban friend there who already
sneaks in brake pads and other parts for him.

The problem: The United States' 50-year-old trade embargo, which
prohibits even the most basic business dealings across the 90 miles
separating Cuba from the U.S. Every time Lopez's friend in Florida
accepts payment for a car part destined for Cuba, he puts himself at
risk of a fine of up to $65,000.

With Cuba cautiously introducing free-market changes that have legalized
hundreds of thousands of small private businesses over the past two
years, new economic bonds between Cuba and the U.S. have formed,
creating new challenges, new possibilities — and a more complicated
debate over the embargo.

The longstanding logic has been that broad sanctions are necessary to
suffocate the totalitarian government of Fidel and Raul Castro. Now,
especially for many Cubans who had stayed on the sidelines in the battle
over Cuba policy, a new argument against the embargo is gaining
currency: that the tentative move toward capitalism by the Cuban
government could be sped up with more assistance from Americans.

Even as defenders of the embargo warn against providing the Cuban
government with "economic lifelines," some Cubans and exiles are
advocating a fresh approach. The Obama administration already showed an
openness to engagement with Cuba in 2009 by removing restrictions on
travel and remittances for Cuban Americans.

But with Fidel Castro, 86, retired and President Raul Castro, 81,
leading a bureaucracy that is divided on the pace and scope of change,
many have begun urging President Barack Obama to go further and update
U.S. policy by putting a priority on assistance for Cubans seeking more
economic independence from the government.

"Maintaining this embargo, maintaining this hostility, all it does is
strengthen and embolden the hard-liners," said Carlos Saladrigas, a
Cuban exile and co-chairman of the Cuba Study Group in Washington, which
advocates for engagement with Cuba. "What we should be doing is helping
the reformers."

Any easing would be a gamble. Free enterprise might not necessarily lead
to the embargo's goal of free elections, especially because Cuba has
said it wants to replicate the paths of Vietnam and China, where the
loosening of economic restrictions has not led to political change.

When asked about Cuban entrepreneurs who are seeking more U.S. support,
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., who is chairwoman of the House Foreign
Relations Committee, proposed an even tighter embargo.

"The sanctions on the regime must remain in place and, in fact, should
be strengthened, and not be altered," she wrote in an email.
"Responsible nations must not buy into the facade the dictatorship is
trying to create by announcing 'reforms' while, in reality, it's
tightening its grip on its people."

Many Cubans agree that their government cares more about control than
economic growth. Business owners complain that inspectors pounce when
they see signs of success and demand receipts to prove that supplies
were not stolen from the government, a common practice here.

One restaurant owner in Havana said he received a large fine for failing
to produce a receipt for plastic wrap.

As for the embargo's restriction on investment, Cuban officials have
expressed feelings that are more mixed. At a meeting in New York in
September with a group called Cuban Americans for Engagement, Cuban
Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla said business investment was
not a priority.

"Today, the economic development of Cuba does not demand investments of
$100,000, $200,000, $300,000," he said, according to the group's account
of the meeting.

Owners of Cuba's small businesses, mostly one-person operations at this
point, say they know that the government would most likely find ways to
profit from wider economic relations with the U.S. The response to
informal imports that come from Miami in the suitcases of relatives, for
instance, has been higher customs duties.

Still, in a country where Cubans "resolve" their way around government
restrictions every day — private deals with customs agents are common —
many Cubans expect real benefits, should the U.S. change course.

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