Easing of Restraints in Cuba Renews Debate on U.S. Embargo
The New York Times
By DAMIEN CAVE
Published: November 19, 2012 54 Comments
The problem: Washington'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 Mr. López'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 United States 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 Raúl 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,
retired and President Raúl Castro, 81, leading a bureaucracy that is
divided on the pace and scope of change, many have begun urging
President Obama to go further and update American 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 engagement with Cuba. "What we should be doing is helping the
Any easing would be a gamble. Free enterprise may 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.
Indeed, Cuban officials have become adept at using previous American
efforts to soften the embargo to their advantage, taking a cut of
dollars converted into pesos and marking up the prices at state-owned
And Cuba has a long history of tossing ice on warming relations. The
latest example is the jailing of Alan Gross, a State Department
contractor who has spent nearly three years behind bars for distributing
satellite telephone equipment to Jewish groups in Havana.
In Washington, Mr. Gross is seen as the main impediment to an easing of
the embargo, but there are also limits to what the president could do
without Congressional action. The 1992 Cuban Democracy Act conditioned
the waiving of sanctions on the introduction of democratic changes
inside Cuba. The 1996 Helms-Burton Act also requires that the embargo
remain until Cuba has a transitional or democratically elected
government. Obama administration officials say they have not given up,
and could move if the president decides to act on his own. Officials say
that under the Treasury Department's licensing and regulation-writing
authority, there is room for significant modification. Following the
legal logic of Mr. Obama's changes in 2009, further expansions in travel
are possible along with new allowances for investment or imports and
exports, especially if narrowly applied to Cuban businesses.
Even these adjustments — which could also include travel for all
Americans and looser rules for ships engaged in trade with Cuba,
according to a legal analysis commissioned by the Cuba Study Group —
would probably mean a fierce political fight. The handful of
Cuban-Americans in Congress for whom the embargo is sacred oppose looser
When asked about Cuban entrepreneurs who are seeking more American
support, Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Florida Republican who
is chairwoman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, proposed an even
"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.
Cuban officials say the shortages fueling the black market are caused by
the embargo. But mostly they prefer to discuss the policy in familiar
terms. They take reporter after reporter to hospitals of frail infants,
where American medical exports are allowed under a humanitarian
exception. Few companies bother, however, largely because of a rule,
unique to Cuba, requiring that the American companies do on-site
monitoring to make sure products are not used for weapons.
"The Treasury Department is asking me, in a children's hospital, if I
use, for example, catheters for military uses — chemical, nuclear or
biological," said Dr. Eugenio Selman, director of the William Soler
Pediatric Cardiology Center.
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 Rodríguez 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 United States. 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 United States change
course. Mr. López, 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 José,
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."
A version of this article appeared in print on November 20, 2012, on
page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Easing in Cuba Renews
Debate on U.S. Embargo.