Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Death, Taxes and the Cuban Blockade

The famous expression about the only things that will happen with absolute certainty, death and taxes, is actually missing one: the annual vote in which 99% of the world's nations declare that the blockade against Cuba is illegal and must end. Yesterday, for the 23rd straight year, the United Nations General Assembly voted to end the U.S. blockade against Cuba by the astounding margin of 188 to 2. The annual resolution may seem like mere political theater meant to embarrass the U.S. government, but in reality it is a sincere objection to an inhumane policy.

Washington will now ignore this resounding rejection, as it always does, and and go on breaking the law with impunity since there is nothing anyone can do to stop them. Don Corleone would be envious of their gall.

Since the last vote against the blockade, it was revealed that the top 10 recipients of U.S. aid all practice torture. During the last year, at least half of these allies have reportedly tortured people on a "massive scale." This doesn't even include the U.S.'s close ally Saudi Arabia, who in the last year has beheaded 59 people and sentenced a popular activist to death by crucifiction

The lone supporter of the blockade, Israel, even tortures Palestinian children, who make up several hundred of the more than 5,000 prisoners held in military custody. All of Israel's colonial subjects are subjected to "slow-motion genocide" and collective punishment

Israel's human rights violations drastically intensified this summer after they declared war on Hamas and carried out the slaughter of 2,150 Palestinians, including 578 children. Civilians accounted for at least 70% of all Palestinian deaths. Recently, the jury of the Russell Tribunal in Brussels found evidence of "war crimes, crimes against humanity, crimes of murder, extermination and persecution and also incitement to genocide." Israel is the number one recipient of U.S. aid - receiving $3.1 billion per year from Uncle Sam to carry out its criminal atrocities, in violation of U.S. law and international law.

Torture does happen in Cuba as well - but only at the Guantánamo Bay detention center. U.S. military personnel there practice "torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment" of prisoners who are denied protections of the Geneva Conventions. It would hardly be fair to hold Cuba responsible for the war crimes of the U.S. military, which is illegally occupying the country. 

Cuba is the only country the United States applies the Trading With the Enemy Act to because the blockade has never had anything to do with human rights. From the beginning, the blockade was instituted to cause "disenchantment and disaffection and hardship" in order to "bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government,” wrote former State Department official Lester Mallory. These savage measures were necessary, Mallory reasoned, because "the majority of the Cuban people support Castro. There is no effective political opposition." [1] 

The blockade against Cuba has been strengthened over the course of the last half century to include various extraterritorial provisions that violate the sovereignty of impartial countries. These include sections of the Torricelli Act that prohibit subsidiaries of U.S. companies in third countries from trading with Cuba. Ninety percent of such trade with Cuba consists of food and medicines. Additionally, the Helms-Burton Act prevents international financial institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank, from granting credit to Cuba. This violates the policies of these institutions as well as those of other international organizations. [2]

Many foreign companies have been caught in the U.S.’s illegal, extraterritorial web of laws in the past year. An Argentina-based travel agency settled for $2.8 million fine for offering services to people who traveled to Cuba. A large Dutch travel company settled for $5.9 million for similar charges. A Canadian subsidiary of the insurance giant AIG, which sold policies to people traveling to Cuba, was levied a $279,038 fine. Energy drink maker Red Bull was forced to pay a $90,000 fine for sending seven people to Cuba to make a documentary. 

This year the blockade has cost Cuba an estimated $3.9 billion in foreign trade, which brings the inflation-adjusted total to $1.1 trillion lost since the blockade was implemented 55 years ago, according to the Cuban government.

It is civilians in Cuba, especially children, who are suffering the worst. Many antiviral medications are unavailable to minors because of the blockade. North American companies who make these medications don't respond to requests for their purchase or claim they cannot sell them to Cuba, according to diplomat Jairo Rodríguez, who recently testified at the UN. 

Nearly 80 percent of patents in the medical sector are held by American corporations and their subsidiaries. Cuba cannot gain access to these pharmaceutical medications and medical equipment because of restrictions imposed by the U.S. government. [3]

To purchase Braille machines, the Cuban Ministry of Education has to pay triple the price it would cost to purchase them from the United States, as they have to buy them from third countries for a much higher price, according to CubaInformación.tv.

The nickel industry in Cuba suffered more than $50 million in losses in the last year, according to Cuban officials. Not only are they deprived of a huge market close to their borders, forcing them to ship much farther away, but products made in foreign countries containing Cuban nickel are not allowed by the U.S. to be imported there. [4]

The U.S. denies Cuban baseball players visas to play in Major League Baseball if they reside in Cuba. Mexico, on behalf of the U.S. government, enforces the same policy for their professional league. If they want to play in the Major Leagues, Cuban athletes must seek refugee status in the U.S. and give up living in their native country. When they do, it is used as propaganda. The press declares a "wave of defections" while purposefully omitting the context.   

The blockade is selectively enforced, allowing for a Cuban like Yoani Sánchez who parrots Washington's ideological position to operate her 14ymedio.com Web site. Companies like Paypal, GoDaddy, IBM and Akami appear to violate the blockade by providing financial and technological support to a Cuban national, facilitating the subversion of Cuba's socioeconomic system. 

But when companies do business with Cuba without trying to destabilize the country, the U.S. government uses its full power to punish them. In June, the Justice Department levied the largest fine in the history of the blockade against French bank BNP Paribas, who paid $9 billion to settle criminal charges brought against them for transactions with Cuba and other countries. For comparison, there has not been a single criminal charge brought against an American bank for the subprime mortgage crisis that would have collapsed the entire financial system if the government had not stepped in with a taxpayer bailout.

The BNP Paribas case demonstrates how enforcement of the blockade has significantly increased under President Barack Obama. During the last 5 years, 130 extraterritorial actions were taken against Cuba resulting in $11.4 billion in fines. With the case against the huge French financial giant setting a precedent, the door is open to fines possibly even greater in the future. 

French Economy Minister Arnaud Montebourg said in June “the U.S. has an unfair advantage in the global ‘economic war’ because of a law that authorizes prosecution of foreign companies for activities outside American soil. He called for fair and equitable treatment of the bank,” according to USA Today.

The French complaint is not a new one. It was pursued by European countries nearly two decades ago but never settled. In May 1996, the European Economic Community argued against the Helms-Burton Act in the World Trade Organization. President Bill Clinton, eager to pander to reactionary Anti-Castro voters in Florida and New Jersey, a strategic group important for his re-election, had signed the bill into law that year.

The European Committee “claim(ed) that U.S. trade restrictions on goods of Cuban origin, as well as the possible refusal of visas and the exclusion of non-U.S. nationals from U.S. territory, are inconsistent with the U.S. obligations under the WTO Agreement.”

The U.S. government took the illogical position that the Helms-Burton Act was a matter of “American national security,” of which the WTO “has no competence to proceed" and stated they would refuse to take part in the proceedings. 

The U.S. didn’t end up invoking its national security exemption, which the European countries feared would wreak havoc on the whole international trade system, as negotiations continued. In the end, the European countries backed down and the WTO panel convened on the matter was suspended with the issue unresolved.

Salim Lamrani writes that French President Francois Hollande was mistaken to accept the argument that BNP Paribas had committed a crime even though no such crime exists in the French legal code. 

"Instead of defending national sovereignty and condemning the extraterritorial and illegal application of American law against the fundamental interests of the nation, Paris limits itself to pleading for a less severe punishment," Lamrani writes. "By folding so docilely to Washington's orders, France renounces its independence and tarnishes its image on the international stage." 

It is not just the rest of the world that is against the blockade. A majority of Americans - even a majority of Cuban Americans - favor lifting the blockade and normalizing relations with Cuba. The U.S. government cannot even claim the political support of its own population to justify its policy. 

With the human cost and the economic cost growing every day, there is a possibility that in the near future the unanimous opposition to the blockade will manifest itself in a stronger challenge than a non-binding measure without teeth. When the blockade is finally removed, many years later than it should have been, the expression can go back to being just "death and taxes."

Works Cited

[1] Lamrani, S. (2013). The Economic War Against Cuba: A Historical and Legal Perspective on the U.S. Blockade. Monthly Review Press.

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Cuban Assistance Programs Disprove the Myth of American Exceptionalism

In the wake of the Ebola outbreak in Africa, President Barack Obama has misrepresented the response of the Empire he leads as another example of American "exceptionalism." The fantasy that U.S. leaders have drilled into the public is that the United States is the one indispensable nation, and its people are uniquely exceptional, leading the rest of the world in the battle for justice and peace. Obama blusters about the remarkable leadership the United States in providing in its response to the Ebola crisis. Meanwhile Cuba, as usual, has been at the forefront of containing and treating the disease, doing the work the United States claims to be doing without seeking the credit.

Obama recently told Steve Kroft on 60 minutes that: "America leads. We are the indispensable nation. We have capacity no one else has. Our military is the best in the history of the world. And when trouble comes up anywhere in the world, they don't call Beijing. They don't call Moscow. They call us. That's the deal." Obama's words echo Hillary Clinton, who earlier this summer told Terri Gross on Fresh Air: "the United States is the indispensable nation."

Presumably Obama is not referring to the millions of people who marched against the United States illegal and immoral war in Iraq in 2003, what Time called "by some accounts the largest single coordinated protest in history," when "roughly 10 million to 15 million people.. assembled and marched in more than 600 cities." He is right in one sense. People did call on Washington - to stop their plans for criminal aggression. As usual, the world was ignored.

Neither was Obama presumably referring to the latest Win/Gallup International poll in 2013 that found "the US is widely regarded as posing the greatest threat to peace." So much so, in fact, that people in 65 countries across the globe believed the US was three times more dangerous to peace than the next country. This poll is not an outlier; the results are consistent year after year.

Obama has consistently expressed his jingoistic and patronizing worldview throughout his Presidency.

"I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being," Obama told graduates at West Point in May. "But what makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it's our willingness to affirm them through our actions."

Last year, when Obama made his case for military attacks against Syria, after chemical weapons attacks that now appear to have been falsely attributed to the government of Bashar al-Assad, Obama proclaimed: "when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death... I believe we should act. That's what makes America different. That's what makes us exceptional."

He failed to address the obvious contradiction of the idea that bombing people will save them. The details of the plan do not matter, because since the intentions are noble and benign, the results that follows are also, by definition. Because of the U.S.'s "exceptionalism", it can literally do no wrong.

When you look at the latest example Obama gives about the U.S. being "indispensable", you can clearly see how his imagined narrative does not hold water.

"When there's an earthquake in Haiti, take a look at who's leading the charge making sure Haiti can rebuild," Obama told Kroft.

Let's do that, indeed. In 1998, Haiti and Cuba signed a medical cooperation agreement. So, when disaster struck in Haiti with the earthquake in 2010, 344 Cuban medical personnel were already on the scene. They were joined shortly by hundreds more medical first responders from Cuba's Henry Reeve Brigade, a medical team of disaster specialists who have served in China, Pakistan, Guatemala, Indonesia, Bolivia and other countries.

The Henry Reeve brigade was formed in 2005, when they planned to send 1,600 medical professionals to New Orleans to help in the aftermath of Hurrican Katrina. The State Department declined the offer, probably because the benefit that Cuba's highly qualified and trained professionals could provide to desperate American citizens was not worth the embarrassment to the U.S. government of the inevitable comparisons to its own woefully incompetent agencies.

In Haiti, members of the Brigade worked with other Cubans in 40 centers across Haiti, treating more than 30,000 cholera patients.

"They are the real heroes of the Haitian earthquake disaster, the human catastrophe on America's doorstep which Barack Obama pledged a monumental US humanitarian mission to alleviate. Except these heroes are from America's arch-enemy Cuba, whose doctors and nurses have put US efforts to shame," writes Nina Lakhani.

Despite this monumental effort by Cuba, there was a noticeable media silence on their role.

"Public health experts say the Cubans were the first to set up medical facilities among the debris and to revamp hospitals inmediately after the earthquake struck," writes Tom Fawthrop in Al Jazeera. "However, their pivotal work in the health sector has received scant media coverage."

The same was true when the Henry Reeve Brigade "was the first team to arrive in Pakistan after the 2005 earthquake, and the last to leave six months later," Lakhani writes.

In the current Ebola crisis, Cuba is playing its customary role of being the world's leader in providing desperately needed medical care to countries who need it most, for free. Almost immediately, Cuba sent a team of 165 people to Sierra Leone to work on the front lines, treating the deadly disease.

The Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), Margaret Chan, recognized Cuba when she said: "Money and materials are important, but those two things alone cannot stop Ebola virus transmission. Human resources are clearly our most important need. We need most especially compassionate doctors and nurses" to work under "very demanding conditions."

Shortly after this, Obama responded with an offer to send 3,000 military troops, not doctors or nurses. Their mission would not be to provide "direct patient care" but to build a "command and control center" as well as "treatment centers." While surely 3,000 bodies on the ground who can help indirectly will be more valuable than nothing, this response is not what the Director of the WHO pleaded for and stated was most necessary.

The reason the U.S. is not sending their equivalent of the Henry Reeve Brigade is that they don't have one. They have hundreds of thousands of soldiers, who are trained to kill people. The U.S. is determined to invest as much as possible in its war machine and forever expand its military apparatus, providing mind-boggling windfalls to weapons manufacturers and defense contractors, rather than investing in public health and disaster relief. So they send soldiers instead of health care professionals and act as if it is at all rational to provide a military response to a medical emergency.

Cuba, on the other hand, has mobilized the Henry Reeve Brigade and will send an additional 461 healthcare workers to additional African countries who have been devastated by Ebola. More than 15,000 Cubans volunteered to join the medical mission to Liberia and Guinea. This may seem remarkable to outsiders, but is fully consistent with the ethos displayed by the revolution for more than 50 years, especially in Africa.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the tiny Caribbean nation came to the aid of African countries who were fighting for their liberation from European colonialism. A Cuban ship brought weapons and medical supplies to the National Liberation Front of Algeria (FLN), and after dropping them off in Algeria brought back wounded freedom fighters and war-orphaned children to be educated in Cuba.

In his book Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington and Africa, 1959-1976, Piero Gleijeses describes the visit of newly elected Algerian President Ahmed Ben Bella to Havana in 1961 to give thanks to Fidel Castro for helping the newly liberated republic gain independence. Gleijeses says it was during this trip that Castro thought of a new way to continue Cuba's aid to the Algerian revolution. After Ben Bella's departure, Castro gave a speech in which he said that Algerians had been left a "great many diseases by colonialism, but they have only a third-or even less-of the doctors we have. In terms of health care, their situation is truly tragic." Castro called for 50 volunteers to go to Algeria, and said he was confident "there will be no lack of volunteers."

"There was indeed no lack of volunteeers," Gleijeses writes. "They were motivated by a spirit of adventure and, above all, by the desire to respond to Fidel’s appeal. ‘When Fidel spoke, we were moved,’ remarked Sara Perelló, who was then a young doctor. ‘My mother told me: ‘We must help this muchacho (my mother called Fidel muchacho) and those people.’"

"With the arrival of this medical mission in Algeria on May 24, Cuba's technical assistance abroad began," Gleijeses writes.

The Cuban medical volunteers in Africa today are following in the footsteps of their compatriots from half a century ago. Cubans have been consistent in their dedication to provide whatever support they can to help people who are suffering.

Meanwhile, since the first Cuban doctors went to Algeria nearly 55 years ago, the United States has embarked on military crusades on nearly every continent, destroying countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Grenada, Nicaragua, Iraq, Panama, Afghanistan, Libya and others with bombs, mines, Agent Orange, napalm, phosphorous and countless other weapons of mass destruction. Throughout this entire period, the U.S. has carried out an economic war against Cuba itself, maintaining a blockade that violates various provisions of international law, including the Geneva Conventions, and can reasonably be said to constitute genocide.

This is what makes Obama's revisionist history so cynical. Instead of looking at the actual consequences of policy decisions on real people, he fetishizes American militarism to claim that the U.S. buildup of soldiers, weapons, tanks, submarines, nuclear missiles, and bases is actually helping to solve the world's problems rather than exacerbating them. In this Orwellian perversion, more militarism leads to more humanitarianism.

While he ignores Cuba's remarkable efforts, Obama goes on pumping hundreds of billions of dollars into the U.S. military-industrial complex while neglecting the obvious need for creating civilian agencies that could do the type of work Cubans are doing. 

If the U.S. truly wants to demonstrate leadership and carry out humanitarian efforts commensurate with its wealth, then U.S. foreign policy needs to be completely reinvented. The military budget of three-quarters of a trillion dollars must be slashed, with military bases overseas closed and the troops sent home. The hundreds of billions of dollars saved must be redirected to create civilian agencies similar to the Henry Reeve Brigade.

Cuba for decades has been showing the United States what it means to act exceptionally. The problem is that the United States has its eyes closed and ears plugged.