HAVANA TIMES, Feb 8 — Johana Tablada, the deputy director of the North American Division of the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs, granted us an interview to discuss the US economic embargo against Cuba, which has just marked its 50th year of remaining in place under ten US presidents.

Q: One of the arguments given by the proponents of the embargo is that it’s an excuse used by the Cuban government to explain all of its own mistakes.

A: If it’s an excuse then why not lift the blockade? Why not remove it and let life tell us where the truth lies? They’re not lifting it because it’s a way of putting pressure on us, a way of persecuting us. Then they step back and say, "Look how badly things are going there." That’s how it’s been for 50 years now.

Q: What are the major types of damage caused by the embargo?

A: We could spend the whole day talking about all the harm it does, but to summarize, I’d say the essential harm is that Cuba has been prevented from developing itself to its full potential. The blockade prevents us from having relations with the US and it impedes us from interacting with the rest of the world under normal conditions; this latter is because the embargo has an extra-territorial dimension that places pressure on third countries in order to make the Cuban system collapse.

Q: But don’t you trade with all of the other countries in the world?

A: The truth is that we cannot trade with everyone. No article produced whose components are more than 10 percent Cuban can enter the United States. So, if a Japanese company wants to use our nickel, then it is restricted from exporting its products to the US if they contain that metal from Cuba.
What’s more, they prohibit us from buying anywhere in the world products containing more than 10 percent US components. The blockade prevents it and punishes any company that sells such products to Cuba.

We are also affected in financial transactions. We cannot open accounts in banks if they have operations that take place in a subsidiary bank in the US. Therefore, especially with globalization, it’s very difficult to operate under those controls.
All vessels docking in Cuban ports suffer a penalty that prevents them from re-entering the US for 180 days. Who’s going to accept coming to the Caribbean with a prohibition from landing on our island when they can go to other more important ports in the region?
There are US laws penalizing foreign investment in Cuba. They punish such investors.

Q: Who have they applied this punishment?

A: It can give two examples: it was leveled against executives of the Canadian company Sherritt, who were denied visas to enter the United States after they invested in Cuban nickel; likewise, the Spanish company Sol Melia had to choose between keeping their business in Florida and their investments in Cuba.

Q: All this seems contradictory to the policy of US food trade with Cuba.

A: There is no "policy." It’s only a window in the blockade that was the product of a strong campaign on the part of the agricultural lobby in the US, which acted in alliance with humanitarian organizations that considered it cruel to deny items as essential as food and medicine.
It can’t even be called "trade," because we can’t sell anything to the US in return. It’s very restricted and operates under conditions that are commercially outdated and unprofitable. There’s no credit; instead, cash must be paid by Cuba in advance.

Q: The oil lobby is more powerful than agricultural interest groups. With discoveries of oil in Cuban waters, will this open a larger window?

A: We still don’t know, but there’s increasing consensus among US citizens that travel should be allowed, relations should be restored, and authorization should be given to oil companies to participate in the Cuban oil program. Cuba does not engage in any discrimination against American companies.

Q: Obama authorized travel by Cuban-Americans and eliminated restrictions on sending money. Now US officials are complaining that Cuba didn’t respond with similar gestures?

A: We said publicly that we continue to be open to dialogue without conditions, and in 2009 we presented the US with a draft agenda on seven issues. Within this we included the blockade, but also less sensitive issues of common interest: a proposed immigration accord, the restoration of direct mail, an agreement on the fight against drug trafficking, cooperation in confronting natural disasters and the tightening of relations between our scientific communities. They never responded.

A billboard reading "12 hours of the blockade is equivalent to the annual amount of insulin needed by 64,000 patients in our country," demonstrates how the US embargo affects all sectors of society. Photo: Raquel Perez

Q: Isn’t it asking too much of Obama to lift the embargo if only Congress can do that?

A: The blockade is the scaffolding of very complex set of sanctions, and not everything is codified by Congress. In addition, in almost all of the restrictions there is a section stating that these cannot be applied if they threaten the national interest or if the president stipulates otherwise.

The US president possesses a long list of privileges that allow for greater flexibility on issues like medicine and Cuban children having access to medications, antibiotics, and equipment and devices necessary for some surgical procedures.

Q: One of the reasons given for the embargo is that Cuba didn’t compensate US companies that were nationalized in 1959. Is this true?

A: The Americans were not the only ones. At least 15 other countries — Switzerland, Germany, Spain, for example — had property nationalized. All of others have been compensated and many of these companies are back in Cuba. The US was the only one that refused to accept the compensation agreement. Apparently it was more attractive for them to plan the invasion at Playa Giron (the Bay of Pigs).

Q: What prospects do you see in the future?

A: Most US citizens would like to have good relations with Cuba. For many of them — just as for many Cubans — the idea of "working together for social justice remains more attractive than the idea of " trying to become a part of the now famous 1 percent.

Cuba remains a poor and blockaded country that has showed it is possible to build a society in which all children have a place to sleep and go to school – which would be a miracle for many people in the world. For that reason alone Cuba deserves to see the blockade disappear.

February 9, 2012

An authorized translation by Havana Times (from the Spanish original) published by Cartas Desde Cuba.