CSF: You've just published a new book under the title État de siège. What exactly do you cover in it?
SL: As the book's subtitle suggests, it covers the unilateral economic sanctions that the United States first imposed upon Cuba at the height of the Cold War. The goal of these sanctions has been the overthrow of the revolutionary government of Fidel Castro, the social and economic reforms of which did not sit well with the Eisenhower administration of the period. More than a half century later the Soviet Union has disappeared and the Cold War is only a fading memory; still the United States persists in maintaining an economic state of siege that is suffocating for all levels of the Cuban population, although it primarily affects the most vulnerable sectors: women, the elderly and children.
It is important to note that the diplomatic rhetoric used by the United States to justify its hostility towards Cuba has changed from period to period. Early on, it focused on nationalizations and their compensation. Later, Washington invoked the alliance with the Soviet Union as the principal obstacle to the normalization of relations between the two countries. Then, during the 1970s and 1980s, it cited Cuban intervention in Africa — more precisely in Angola and Namibia. Those interventions, designed to aid the national liberation movements fighting to obtain independence and to support the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, were cited as justification for the maintenance of economic sanctions. Finally, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Washington brandished democracy and human rights as an argument for maintaining its stranglehold on the Cuban nation.
CSF: What exactly is the impact of these sanctions on the Cuban population?
SL: The economic sanctions against Cuba constitute the principal obstacle to the development of the country and all sectors of the society are affected by it. It is important to note that the United States, for evident historical and geographic reasons, has always been Cuba's natural market. The distance separating the two countries is less than 150 km. In 1959, 73% of all Cuban exports were destined for the U.S. market and 70% of its imports came from the States. There was, therefore, a significant dependence upon Cuba's northern neighbor. Between 1960 and 1991, relations with the USSR had softened the sanctions, but this is no longer the case.
Thus practically, Cuba is unable to sell anything to the United States, which remains the world's primary market. Nor can it buy anything from it other than, and since 2000 only, a few primary agricultural products that it is forced to purchase under severe restrictions. For example, Cuba is required to pay in advance in a currency other than the U.S. dollar — something that forces Cuba to shoulder the additional costs engendered by the exchange rates — all of this without the possibility of contracting a loan. This limits enormously the island's commercial possibilities, forcing it to pay a much higher price to a third country.
CSF: You also emphasize the effects of the extraterritorial economic sanctions.
SL: Indeed, since 1992 and the adoption of the Torricelli Act, these sanctions apply equally to third countries that might wish to trade with Cuba. This constitutes a serious violation of international law which prohibits any national legislation from being extraterritorial, that is to say, from being applied outside of national boundaries. For example, French law cannot be applied in Spain and Italian law cannot be applied in France. Nonetheless, United States economic sanctions remain applicable to all countries that trade with Cuba.
Thus, any foreign ship that docks in a Cuban port finds itself forbidden to enter U.S. ports for a period of six months. Cuba, being an island, is heavily dependent upon maritime transport. Of the commercial fleets that operate in the Florida Straits, most conduct the bulk of their activities with a clear understanding of the importance of this market and do not run the risk of transporting merchandise to Cuba. When they do, however, they demand a higher tariff than that applied to neighboring countries, such as Haiti or the Dominican Republic, this in order to make up for the shortfall that results from being banned from U.S. ports for having done so. Therefore, if the standard price for transporting merchandise to the Dominican Republic is 100, this figure that can rise to 600 or 700 for Cuba.
CSF: You also comment on the retroactive nature of the economic sanctions.
SL: Since the adoption of the Helms-Burton Act in 1996, all foreign enterprises that wish to invest in Cuban property that had been nationalized in 1959 risk prosecution in the United States and seeing its U.S. investments frozen. This law is a judicial aberration because it is both extraterritorial and retroactive — in other words, it applies to events that occurred before the law was adopted, something that is contrary to international law. Take the case of the anti-tobacco law in France. This law was promulgated on January 1, 2008. But if you smoked in a restaurant on December 31, 2007, you would not be prosecuted, because the law cannot be applied retroactively. The Helms-Burton Act applies to events that occurred during the 1960s, something that is clearly illegal.
CSF: The United States maintains that the economic sanctions are a simple bilateral question that does not concern the rest of the world.
SL: The example that I have already cited demonstrate the exact opposite. I'll give you another. In order to sell on the U.S. market, a German, Korean, or Japanese automobile manufacturer — in reality the nationality matters little — is obliged to demonstrate to the U.S. Treasury Department that its products do not contain a single gram of Cuban nickel. It is the same for all of the agribusiness enterprises that wish to invest in the U.S. market. Danone, for example, must demonstrate that its products contain absolutely no Cuban raw materials. Cuba cannot sell its natural resources and its products to the United States, but in these exact cases, neither can it sell them to Germany, Korea, or Japan. These measures deprive the Cuban economy of much needed capital and Cuban exports of many markets around the world.
CSF: The economic sanctions have also had an impact on healthcare.
SL: Indeed, nearly 80% of all patents applied for in the medical sector belong to U.S.-based multinational pharmaceutical companies and their subsidiaries, which puts them in the position of being a quasi-monopoly. It should be noted that international humanitarian law forbids all restrictions on the freedom of movement of foodstuffs and medicines, even during wartime. And officially, the United States is not at war with Cuba.
Here is a clear example: Cuban children could benefit from the Amplatzer septal occluder, a cardiac plug manufactured in the United States that allows one to bypass open heart surgery. Dozens of children are waiting for this operation. In 2010 alone, four were added to this list: Maria Fernanda Vidal, five years old; Cyntia Soto Aponte, three years old; Mayuli Pérez Ulboa, eight years old; and Lianet D. Alvarez, five years old.
Are these children responsible for the differences that exist between Havana and Washington? No! But they are paying the price.
CSF: In your book, you also talk about the irrational nature of certain restrictions.
SL: Indeed, it should be noted that since 2004 and the strict application of the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) rules, any American tourist that smoked a Cuban cigar or consumed a glass of Havana Club rum during a trip abroad risks a fine of a million dollars and ten in years in prison. Another example: a Cuban living in France theoretically cannot eat a hamburger at a McDonald's. Of course, these measures are irrational because they are unenforceable. The United States does not have the material and human resources to put a U.S. agent on the trail of each tourist. Nonetheless, it illustrates the United States' obsessive desire to economically strangle the Cubans.
CSF: Your book contains a prolog by Wayne S. Smith and a preface by Paul Estrade, both well known Cuban specialists, but no doubt without a large audience. Remind us of who they are.
SL: Wayne S. Smith is a former U.S. diplomat and currently a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Washington DC. He was the last American diplomat with the rank of ambassador to be posted in Cuba, this between 1979 and 1982. Under the government of Jimmy Carter, he distinguished himself through his politics of dialog and rapprochement with Havana. He is a partisan of normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States and his preface takes stock of the anachronistic, cruel, and ineffectual nature of these economic sanctions.
As for Paul Estrade, he is a professor emeritus at the University of Paris VIII and, without a doubt, the best Cuban specialist in France. His works on Cuban issues are standard references in the academic world. In his preface, he points to the way in which the state of siege against Cuba is voluntarily obscured by the media when they report on the economic difficulties of this country.
Salim Lamrani is a professor at Paris Descartes University and Paris-Est Marne-la-Vallée University and journalist specializing in relations between Cuba and the US. For more information about Cuba Si France, visit www.lesamisdecuba.com. Translation by Larry R. Oberg, Québec City, Québec.