Ending the blockade of Cuba

Speculation is rife as to prospects under the Obama administration for a changed U.S. approach toward Cuba. Firmly in place since 1962, economic embargo remains the centerpiece of U.S. Cuban policies. Along the way, the embargo took on a worldwide reach and became a blockade. Cruel effects and condemnations under international law hinted at genocide. The announcement in June of recent measures taken by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) testifies to unhealed wounds.

OFAC, the U.S. agency enforcing embargoes, reported that Philips Electronics of North America paid a $128,750 fine on behalf of its Dutch-based parent corporation Philips Electronics. Philips’ offense was twofold: sales of unspecified “medical equipment” to Cuba and unauthorized travel there related to those sales by an employee of Philips’ U.S. subsidiary. The offending transactions most likely involved X-ray, ultrasound, cardiac catheterization and/or mammography equipment.

Philips, which operates in 60 countries and earned $38 billion last year, completed its purchase of VMI-Sistemas Medicos of Brazil, a leading manufacturer of imaging equipment for the Latin American market, in 2007. (See dotmed.com/news/story/4081/) U.S. investors account for 20 percent of its capital.

OFAC has imposed $355,000 in penalties for trading with Cuba during the Obama presidency ― one-third of all fines this fiscal year for violations of all U.S. trade embargoes. Liberty International Holdings of Boston was fined $35,000 for a foreign subsidiary’s dealings with Cuba, and Varel Holdings paid OFAC $110,000 because of oil drilling equipment supplied Cuba by an affiliated foreign company.

Most OFAC penalties are levied under the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act (CDA), which by threatening human survival attempted to finish Cuba off after the fall of the Soviet Bloc. At the time Cuba bought most of its imported food and medical supplies from foreign companies that, crucially, were still allowed under U.S. rules to sell to Cuba even though most were affiliated with U.S. corporations. The CDA ended that loophole.

The legislation also added provisions for end-use monitoring of medical supplies and drugs donated or sold to Cuba that were impossible to accomplish. It banned freighters from docking in U.S. ports within six months of visiting Cuba.

A harvest of suffering ensued. Adults lost 20-40 pounds during the 1990s. Shortages accounted for increased death rates and difficulties treating and preventing specific illnesses. The 1997 study, “Impact of the U.S. Embargo on the health and Nutrition in Cuba,” produced by the American Association of World Health, provided clear documentation.

The CDA added an estimated 30 percent cost to Cuban imports of “essential goods.” (See Levy and Sidel, “War and Public Health,” 2000.) Cuba had to pay extra to third parties to secure off-limits medical supplies. Only small and distant suppliers remained.

Human rights advocates highlighted illegalities. Canada’s Pugwash group, for example, noted eight years ago in its report “Medical Research in Cuba,” that this is “the only embargo in recent history that explicitly included food and medicine. In so doing U.S. policy is in direct violation of Article 4 of the Geneva Convention, Article 12 of the UN Charter on Human Rights, and various other international human rights accords.”

Cruelty and legal lapses were hardly inadvertent. At a policy-setting session in 1960 Deputy Under-Secretary of State Lester D. Mallory pointed out, “The majority of Cubans support Castro …The only foreseeable way to reduce his internal support is through disenchantment and dissatisfaction that would arise from economic malaise and material difficulties. [We need] a line of action that, if carried very cleverly and discretely, would achieve major progress in denying Cuba money and supplies … and thereby cause hunger, desperation and the collapse of the government.”

The Helms Burton Law of 1996 assigned Congress responsibility for changing blockade rules. Riding last year’s election wave ― the watchword was change ―the Democratic Party assumed majority status.