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    IN CUBA,US EMBARGO ELICITS A SHRUG

    IN CUBA,US EMBARGO ELICITS A SHRUG
    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
    lifted.

    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 –
    http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/3/24/in-cuba-us-embargoelicitsashrug.html