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26 March 1998 Edition

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Slight easing in Cuban blockade

By Dara MacNeil

Perhaps in some distant, parallel universe it might make sense. The United States announces a minimal ``relaxation'' of the 38 year-old blockade of Cuba and then expects fulsome praise in return.

In truth the `relaxation' of the blockade announced by President Clinton was minimal in the extreme. Direct charter flights between the US and Cuba (suspended in 1996) are to be re-introduced.

In other words, the United States is finally allowing its citizens the basic right to freedom of travel, as laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

However, the flights may only serve certain purposes as outlined by the White House: so called humanitarian aid and family reunions. Thus, the US still insists on prescribing the right of its citizens to freedom of movement.

In addition, the amount of money Cubans in the US can remit to Cuba each year is to be increased to $1200 per annum.

Yet, remarkably it is the US - large corporations and administrations alike - that is most strident in its advocacy of freedom of movement for capital.

Countries who attempt to place restrictions on the movement of capital around the globe are routinely condemned as ``protectionist.'' But of course, that's a completely different issue.

Lastly, the Clinton White House announced the ``streamlining'' of procedures under which food and medicine can be exported to Cuba. At present, the US operates a strict licensing system for all such exports.

In fact, a 1997 report from the American Association of World Health described the licensing system as so severe and deliberately complex that it amounted to a complete, de facto ban on sales of food and medicine.

That ban applies to no other country in the world - not even Iraq - and is in compete violation of every single existing human rights accord. It is also in clear contravention of international law.

In effect, the sum total of the changes amount to a declaration by the US that it is willing to amend (slightly) its criminal behaviour, but not to change it completely. Repentance for 38 years of effective international terrorism and the flouting of international law is not on the cards.

And this was confirmed, not by critics of the Clinton administration, but by the administration itself. In announcing the changes, White House spokesman Mike McCurry was adamant that basic US policy towards Cuba ``remains unchanged.''

Madeleine Albright - who is given to joking publicly at the civilian deaths caused by UN sanctions on Iraq - was even more explicit.

The US Secretary of State insisted that the new measures did not ``reflect a change in the United States policy towards Cuba.''

She was also quick to deny that the measures represented a possible first step in the normalisation of relations between Washington and Havana: ``On the contrary, we are establishing relations with institutions alien to the Cuban government.''

That, by any measure, was a remarkable admission. That it could have been made in the form of a proud boast merely illustrates the degree to which imperial arrogance informs and shapes US policy towards Cuba.

Translated into plain language, Albright's proud boast reads thus: Washington reserves for itself the right to subvert, undermine and possibly destroy the government of any independent, sovereign nation which it dislikes.

Imagine the fury and indignation if a foreign government announced that henceforth it would send aid and support to groups and ``institutions alien to the US government.''

The US would treat such a statement as it was - a threat to their sovereignty and independence, an implicit declaration of war.

Which is exactly what Madeleine Albright's statement amounted to, with the crucial difference that it was merely the restatement of a policy now 38 years old.

The US is at war with Cuba in everything but name. And Madeleine Albright, deprived of her chance to start a war with Iraq, is determined that policy will continue.

However, in a number of crucial respects, the US moves represent a significant step forward. Quite clearly, they show that the US is sensitive to international pressure.

The official US line - that the changes were introduced as a special favour to the Pope, following his recent visit to Cuba, is patent nonsense.

The Pope's condemnation of the US blockade was simply a manifestation of the pressure the US has been feeling in recent years. The Pope's visit was used as an excuse to relieve some of that pressure, without changing basic US policy, and without being seen to be backing down. Imperial arrogance does not allow for an admission of defeat or failure, no matter how small.

Thus, throughout Latin America countries that had severed diplomatic relations with Cuba - under US pressure - are now restoring those relations.

The latest to do so is Guatemala which, while under complete military rule, rebuffed any contact with its near neighbour.

Guatemala today is a country in transition. Peace accords with the insurgent movement have led to the re-emergence of civil society.

Simultaneously, the country has become less and less dependent on the US. As a result, the US has lost a significant degree of power and influence in the region. Its policy towards Cuba has been rejected by virtually every country in Latin America. The US is now increasingly isolated.

The same process has been reproduced at international level. Since 1992, the United Nations General Assembly - comprising all the nations of the world - has voted every year to condemn the US embargo. Each year, the majority vote against the US grows larger. Last year, the vote was 143 to three. There could be no more graphic illustration of the US's present isolation.

And, of course, the attempt to extend the blockade through the introduction of the Helms-Burton law has brought the US into serious conflict with the European Union.

Lastly, opposition has been growing within the US also. Most telling is the example of (retired) General John Sheehan. The former supreme commander of NATO, Sheehan also once commanded the Guantanamo Bay base, the US military base on Cuba.

General Sheehan has publicly voiced his opposition to the blockade and rubbished suggestions that Cuba represents a security threat to the US. His comments caused some uncomfortable moments in the White House.

In truth, this may well be the beginning of the end for the US blockade. But when - not if - that comes about, the US will not be deserving of any congratulations or praise.

Praise and congratulations should go first and foremost to the Cuban people. Secondly, to all those around the globe who have supported their struggle.

As far as the US is concerned, praise should only be forthcoming when they renounce criminal behaviour for good. An apology wouldn't go amiss either.

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