Monday, March 24, 2014


Havana's communist leaders make halting changes, but no one expects an
end to the economic blockade
March 24, 2014 7:00AM ET
by Ben Piven @benpiven

HAVANA — The political pretext for gathering scarcely registered, as
100,000 raucous young Cubans — packed densely into a historic square
behind Havana University — clapped and jived to the salsa rhythm of
legendary big band Los Van Van.

Teenage boys, many bused in from outside the capital, showed off facial
piercings, tropical punk hairdos and Lycra muscle shirts as some chugged
from flasks of cheap rum. The band's front man sported a fitted blue
Yankees cap, while girls swayed with the music bellowing from massive
speakers that dwarfed an undersized poster advertising the local
communist youth group.

Officially, the reason for the concert held earlier this month was to
celebrate the return of Fernando Gonzalez, the second of the "Cuban
Five" to be released from prison in the U.S., after serving 15 years for
espionage. Before the show ended, there was a perfunctory call for the
liberation of the remaining three and mild cheers as the emcee denounced
"U.S. imperialism" and "el bloqueo" — the U.S. economic embargo of its
island neighbor, in force for the past 53 years without achieving its
goal of bringing down communist rule.

The failure of the embargo to end the Castro regime — and the fact that
Washington is internationally isolated in applying it — has prompted
periodic debate in the U.S. about its value. Despite hope that Barack
Obama's administration might ease the policy, any move to relax it draws
significant domestic political opposition. Meanwhile, Cuba's regime is
engaged in debates of its own, slowly making small policy changes that
would have been unthinkable at the height of communist rule.

An economy in which the state was once the sole employer now includes a
growing gray zone of private enterprises operating with the consent of
the authorities. That reflects an effort by the communist leadership to
stimulate an economy stunted by low growth, despite its relatively high
human development index and bountiful government benefits. Only a small
number of citizens have seen their living standards improve over the
past two decades.

Some people in Cuba believe that an end to the U.S. embargo — long
blamed by the leadership in Havana for all economic woes — would spur a
much-needed boom. "Five million tourists could come from the U.S. to
Cuba annually if the embargo were lifted," said Felipe Ventura, a
chemical engineer from Havana. Despite the potential offered by its
highly educated population, the Cuban economy's most dynamic sector
remains tourism, which generates $2.6 billion annually. Although the
embargo precludes conventional tourism from the U.S., Cuba welcomes a
steady stream of visitors from Europe, Canada and Latin America.

He said that Cuban society takes good care of ordinary people, keeping
down crime, drug abuse and homelessness, adding that Cuba's education
and health care are "one to two generations ahead" of other Latin
American nations such as Guatemala. Ventura, a Soviet-educated Ph.D.,
saw restrictive local laws on running private businesses as a far
greater drag on economic growth than the U.S. embargo but still wants it

He spoke while dining at Rejoneo Asador in the capital's upscale Miramar
neighborhood, an establishment that seems to illustrate his point. The
restaurant, which serves mammoth portions of beef, is subject to a
government rule limiting eateries to 50 chairs. So the owner created
three dining areas — adjacent but technically separate — for a legal
total of 150 seats. The venue includes a cafeteria called Tic-Tac W,
whose symbol is an upside-down McDonald's logo that represents two
interlocking J's, for the co-owners' common first initial.

President Raúl Castro, in office since 2008, has overseen a loosening of
rules to allow mobile phone use, limited Internet connectivity and
unrestricted foreign travel. But according to Freedom House, only about
5 percent of Cubans can access — largely through black-market sale of
other people's connections — slow Internet bandwidth.

The regime has implemented laws aimed at promoting growth in the Cuban
private sector and has even succumbed to that most capitalist of
solutions by undertaking massive layoffs in a bloated public sector.

None of that is likely to have much impact on the five-decade embargo,
although recent polling that found a majority of Americans believe it
should end. That's because its key base of support is in the electoral
swing state of Florida, where conservative Cuban exiles who insist on
tightening the embargo — until the Castro brothers are ousted — exert
exceptional influence.

"The embargo was relevant and useful at an earlier time, but the world
has changed," Ted Piccone, director of the foreign policy program at the
Brookings Institution, told Al Jazeera. "The U.S. has changed, Cuba has
changed, and it's time to update our policy."

"The embargo has been counterproductive, particularly because the
government and its supporters have used it as a scapegoat for decades in
blaming the U.S. for various problems," he added. "But the last five
years under Raúl have been more explicit in saying, 'We also have our
own problems, and we need to improve and protect our model of socialism.'"

Reforms enacted during Obama's first term of office, such as easing
travel rules for Cuban-Americans returning home, raised hopes of more
widespread rapprochement. But those hopes have been largely dashed — the
handshake between Obama and Raúl Castro at the funeral of South African
leader Nelson Mandela notwithstanding.

The embargo was imposed by an act of Congress and would require a
congressional majority to be repealed. But Obama has not recently used
his executive powers to make smaller changes in Cuba policy either,
despite record cooperation on issues such as migration and drug
trafficking. The administration attributes the lack of action to
Havana's human rights record and to the continued imprisonment of USAID
contractor Alan Gross. But given the likelihood that reversal of the
embargo would be blocked in Congress, Cuba does not appear to be a
priority for Obama.

Source: In Cuba, US embargo elicits a shrug | Al Jazeera America -

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