Thursday, November 22, 2012

Cuban embargo: Should U.S. loosen it?

Cuban embargo: Should U.S. loosen it?
Posted: 11/22/2012 12:01:00 AM MST
By Damien Cave
The New York Times

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 U.S.'s 50-year-old trade embargo, which prohibits even
the most basic business dealings across the 90 miles separating Cuba
from the United States. Indeed, 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 long-standing 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 previously 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, 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."

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 e-mail.
"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, Cuba's
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. Rather, he called for hundreds of millions of dollars to
expand a local port.

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 the
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 anticipate real benefits should the U.S. change course.
Lopez, a meticulous mechanic who wears plastic gloves to avoid dirtying
his fingers, said legalizing imports and investment would create a flood
of the supplies that businesses needed, overwhelming the government's
controls while lowering prices and creating more work apart from the state.

Other Cubans, including political dissidents, say softening the embargo
would increase the pressure for more rapid change by undermining one of
the government's main excuses for failing to provide freedom, economic
opportunity or just basic supplies.

"Last month, someone asked me to redo their kitchen, but I told them I
couldn't do it because I didn't have the materials," said Pedro Jose,
49, a licensed carpenter in Havana who did not want his last name
published to avoid government pressure.

"Look around — Cuba is destroyed," he added, waving a hand toward a
colonial building blushing with circles of faded pink paint from the
1950s. "There is a lot of work to be done."

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