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Cuban Blockade: Cruel & Unusual

Cuban Blockade: Cruel & Unusual

It’s time again for the international community to remind the United States how absurd and futile their blockade of Cuba is. The vote to condemn the blockade is a UN affair (equally as absurd and futile perhaps, since the Cuba policy is largely a US domestic issue and UN votes are notoriously toothless) – the 20th of its kind. Last year, 185 countries condemned the blockade, with 2 nations dissenting: the USA and Israel (surprise! surprise!).

For those needing a bit of a primer, the US embargo was first enacted in 1962 – before many of us were even born. The purpose of the policy, then as now, is to isolate the country to such a degree as to foment regime change (seems they’re a bit obsessed up north with the ‘C’ word – in this case Castro). After about 30 years of the means failing spectacularly to attain the desired end, the policy was strengthened through the Helms-Burton and Torricelli Acts so brutally that today, it violates the most basic human right of 11 million Cubans – the right to self determination.

This chaps my ass. What also irks me is when analysts, academics, and others somehow hitching their wagon to Cuba’s star call the policy an ‘embargo’ when it is, in fact, an economic, commercial and financial blockade. Semantics you say? Not for those of us here suffering under it. And not for those who understand the difference between the two. It’s one thing to prevent your own government, people, and businesses from dealing with Cuba, it’s something entirely, extraterritorially else to penalize other countries for doing same.

Consider this explanation by Peter Schwab in his book Cuba: Confronting the US Embargo:The embargo blockade disallows Cuba from using US dollars in international trade, costing the country additional money for exchanging currencies. US regulations also disallow the export of US products from a third country, while products even developed through the use of US technology or design [emphasis mine] cannot be sold to Cuba.

Not only vicious, the policy is ridiculous in its application: there was the incident at the Mexico City Sheraton, when staff refused rooms to Cuban guests in 2007 in town for a conference; an Oslo hotel owned by Hilton repeated the gaffe with a Cuban trade delegation that same year. In October 2010, Twitter blocked messages originating from Cuban cell phones, citing the blockade as justification. Twitter quickly capitulated, but isn’t the convergence between the “free” market, politics and censorship interesting to consider? Taken together, all the elements petty and severe of the blockade have meant over $100 billion in losses for the island over the years.

What really boggles the mind, however, is the bang-your-head-against-the-wall determination with which the policy has been pursued, despite its failure to reach its stated goal. It puts me in mind of Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Yes, folks, this is an insane policy. What policytroublemakers in South Florida, Jersey, and D.C. doggedly ignore and don’t want you to know is how this policy lowers quality of life, separates families, and kills people on both sides of the Straits. Before I rant about the specific ways in which this policy makes life harder here as well as there, allow me to extend my deepest condolences to all the families, Cuban and otherwise, who have suffered under the blockade. I’d also like to voice my deepest respect and admiration to all those working towards a change in policy and the 11 million Cubans – 70% of whom have only known life under the blockade – affected daily as a result.

So you might better understand how this translates on the ground, I offer these snapshots of how the blockade has affected me and my loved ones.

I can’t hear you! Can you hear me?! – Phone calls originating from the USA get routed through China, Argentina and who knows where and cost upwards of $1/minute (except to the US naval base at Guantanamo, adding insult to injury). Getting a call to actually connect may take half a dozen attempts and forget wishing someone well on Christmas, New Year’s or Mother’s Day, when over 1 million Cubans living off island are all trying to do the same.

When the call actually does come through, it sounds like my sister is underwater and my mom is in a cave so deep, her voice is echoing off the walls. My PBS producer, meanwhile, may as well be talking into a Dixie cup on a string the delay between what she says and I hear is that long. To give you an idea how severely this affects communication, consider that in almost 10 years living here, only two friends have called me a total of three times – and I have some very devoted, (albeit poor), friends. For all these reasons, you can understand why I maintain my PO Box here, though even letters from the USA sometimes don’t leave domestic soil due to blockade politics. Thankfully, FaceBook and other social media aren’t blocked by either country.

Can I connect? No, you cannot – Recently PayPal threatened legal action and said my account would be blocked for trying to access the site from an ‘embargoed country.’ This is more serious than it may seem: like many freelance writers, I receive earnings from some clients via PayPal, and this prevented me from collecting payment for services rendered. Only I after I enlisted my own counsel and provided voluminous paperwork proving that I’m a journalist with US Treasury permission to be here (another absurdity: the US prevents it’s residents and citizens from traveling freely to the country of their choice, in this case Cuba), did they reinstate my account. I still can’t access it though and so only have use of my funds when I’m off-island. Other sites blocked for the same reason are iTunes and Tiger Direct. LinkedIn is also LockedOut thanks to US embargo.

Cash on the barrelhead – If you’ve been to Cuba, you know US credit and debit cards don’t work here. When I first moved to Havana in 2002, I thought my HSBC card would work. Silly me. Despite being a London-based bank, HSBC has offices in the USA (like most banks worldwide), and therefore cannot do business with Cuba under the terms of the blockade. I love how globalization works for those holding the reins. For the rest of us? Salsipuede.

Think of all the things you do with plastic funds. How would you live without debit and credit cards 24/7/365? How would you pay for webhosting or buy a plane ticket or god forbid, get money in an emergency? Anyone from the USA who travels or is based in Cuba has to do everything in cash – no exceptions (see note 1).

You’re sick and will stay that way – Of the more than 300 major drugs on the market since 1970, nearly 50% are of US origin and effectively blocked from export to Cuba (see note 2). The stories of people on both sides of the Straits who are denied life-prolonging or -saving medication due to the collusion between US big pharma and politics are heartbreaking. There’s the US drug Prostaglandin E1 – used in children born with congenital heart defects – is denied to Cuba. In fact, 90% of the products used to correct these malformations are manufactured by US multinationals or their subsidiaries and therefore are not available here due to the blockade. Anesthesia, diagnostic equipment and parts, and the latest in antiretrovirals to treat HIV are likewise unavailable. Cruel? You tell me.

But sadly, the policy affects US folks too. A dear friend of mine recently died of lung cancer. Had the breakthrough Cuban therapy Cimavax-EGF been available to her, she could have lived up to 5 years longer (if recent clinical trials in Europe are any indication); even if she didn’t respond optimally to the treatment and lived another half decade, the therapy certainly could have improved her quality of life at the end. The same holds true for meningococcal B outbreaks in college campuses across the country. Were the Cuban vaccine for the disease VA-MENGOC-BC available, these outbreaks could be averted. These Cuban therapies and vaccines, along with Heberprot-P, used to treat diabetic foot (a major cause of morbidity in diabetics) and blue scorpion venom used in cancer patients, are unique in the world. Thanks to the blockade, if you’re in the USA, you can’t have them.

The blockade causes pain, suffering, and grief. But it also strengthens our resistance, creativity and resilience. To Obama on down I say: stick with your failed blockade policy. Over here, we have 52 years proving unequivocally that Yes We Can!

Notes1. The Canadian company Caribbean Transfers issues debit cards for use in Cuba and American Express Traveler’s Checks work in some banks here, but for the overwhelming majority of us, we’re forced to live entirely in a cash-based economy. This means carrying drug dealer type wads of cash on any Cuba trip.2. See The Cuban Cure by S.M. Reid-Henry, pp 39.

September 2012

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