Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Economic sanctions against Cuba under the Obama administration

The coming to power of President Obama in the United States in 2008 marked a departure in style from the previous Bush administration toward Cuba. However, with the exception of the lifting of some restrictions on travel, economic sanctions continue to apply, including those of an extraterritorial nature. French academic Salim Lamrani gives some recent examples ahead of a nationwide speaking tour this month.

During his election campaign in 2007, then-candidate Barack Obama made a lucid observation on the outdated US policy toward Cuba. Once elected, he declared his willingness to seek "a new beginning with Cuba".

"I think we can take the relationship between the US and Cuba in a new direction and launch a new chapter of engagement that will continue during my tenure, " he said.

Obama had denounced his predecessor's policy toward Cuba, which had severely restricted the travel of the Cuban community in the United States. "This is both a strategic and humanitarian issue. This decision [...] has had a profoundly negative impact on the welfare of the Cuban people. I will grant Cuban Americans unrestricted rights to visit family and send remittances to the island," he pledged.

Obama kept his word. In April 2009, he announced the lifting of some restrictions affecting those Cubans who lived in the United States and who had relatives on the island, which came into force on 3 September 2009. Since then, Cuban-Americans can travel to their home country without any hindrance (instead of for just fourteen days every three years) and send unlimited remittances to their families (instead of USD $100 per month).  

Extraterritorial application of economic sanctions against Cuba

However, Washington has not hesitated to apply economic sanctions, including extraterritorial, seriously violating international law. Indeed, extraterritorial blockade laws provide that national legislation can be offshore, i.e. outside the country applied. Thus, Brazilian law does not apply in Argentina. Similarly, Venezuelan law can not be applied in Colombia. But the US law of economic sanctions against Cuba is applied in all countries of the world.

Indeed, in June 2012, the Dutch bank ING had the largest penalty ever handed down since the beginning of economic siege against Cuba in 1960. The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the Treasury Department sanctioned the financial institution with a fine of 619 million dollars for making dollar transactions made with Cuba through the US financial system between 2002 and 2007.

The Treasury Department also forced the Dutch bank to sever its commercial relations with Cuba and announced that “ING assured the Office of Foreign Assets Control, that it had put an end to practices that led to today's settlement." So, Washington effectively banned a European bank from having any commercial transactions with Cuba.

The Cuban government denounced this new extraterritorial application of economic sanctions, which, besides preventing all trade with the United States (except limited raw food products), constitutes the main obstacle to the development of trade relations between Cuba and the rest of the world.

"The US government unilaterally fined ING bank for handling, in conjunction with its subsidiaries in France, Belgium, Netherlands and Curacao, financial and commercial transactions with Cuban entities, prohibited by the criminal policy of blockade against Cuba," said an official statement.

Szunin Adam, Director of OFAC, used the occasion to warn foreign firms about trade with Cuba. This penalty "should serve as a clear warning to anyone considering taking advantage of evading US sanctions," he said, reaffirming that Washington would continue to implement its extraterritorial measures.

Other foreign firms were also sanctioned for trade relations with Cuba. Thus, the Swedish multinational Ericsson, specialising in the field of telecommunications, had to pay a fine of $1.75 million for repairing, through its subsidiary based in Panama, Cuban equipment worth $320,000 in United States. Three employees involved in the case were also dismissed.

On 10 July 2012, the Treasury Department imposed a fine of $1.35 million on the US firm Great Western Malting Co. for selling barley to Cuba, through its foreign subsidiaries between August 2006 and March 2009. However, international humanitarian law prohibits any embargo on food commodities and drugs, even in wartime. Now, officially, Cuba and the United States have never been in conflict.

In France, Mano Giardini and Valérie Adilly, two directors of the US travel agency Carlson Wagonlit Travel (CWT), were fired for selling tour packages to Cuba. The company runs the risk of receiving a fine of $38,000 per trip sold, angering some employees who could not understand the situation. "Why did Carlson not withdraw the Cuba tours from our reservation system if we had no right to sell them," asked an employee.

CWT directors commented on the matter: "Under these conditions, we must apply the US rule that prohibits journeys to Cuba, even for subsidiaries." Thus, a US subsidiary based in France is required to abide by US law on economic sanctions against Cuba, ridiculing the national legislation in force.  

Google censored and a budget of $20 million for the "digital democracy"

More unusual economic sanctions prohibit Cubans from using some functions of Google search engine, such as Google Analytics (that calculates the number of visits to a website and its origin), Google Earth, Google Desktop Search, Google Toolbar, Google Code Search, Google AdSense and Google AdWords, depriving Cuba of access to these new technologies and many downloadable products. The US company provided an explanation by his representative Christine Chen: "We had it written in our terms and conditions. Google Analytics can not be used in countries subject to embargoes ".

Meanwhile, at the same time that Washington imposes restrictions on the use of Google’s digital services in Cuba and prohibits Havana from connecting to its fibre optic cable for Internet, the State Department announced that it would spend, via the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the sum of $20 million on "human rights activists, independent journalists and independent libraries on the island", for the purpose of disseminating "digital democracy".

The Obama administration, far from adopting "a new beginning with Cuba", continues to impose economic sanctions affecting all categories starting with those most vulnerable, women, children and the elderly. It does not hesitate to punish foreign companies violating international law by applying extraterritorial measures. It also refuses to hear the unanimous demand of the international community, which condemned in 2013 for the twenty-first consecutive year, the imposition of an anachronistic, cruel and ineffective state of siege which is the main obstacle to the development of the nation.

For full details of Salim Lamrani’s speaking tour, please visit the Cuba Solidarity Campaign website.

You can also order Lamrani’s book The Economic War Against Cuba

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