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    Easing of Restraints in Cuba Renews Debate on U.S. Embargo

    Easing of Restraints in Cuba Renews Debate on U.S.

    The New York Times


    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

    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 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 , 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 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

    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

    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 , 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 , 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.