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CUBA-US: Mixed Messages

HAVANA, Oct 12 2009 (IPS) - While the Cuban government has intensified its protests against the U.S. embargo, typically hostile signals between the two nations have been mixed with hints of a more relaxed tone since U.S. President Barack Obama took office.

According to Havana, in spite of the less hostile climate, Washington is still strictly implementing the nearly half-century old embargo and has not taken any action whatsoever to dismantle its complex web of laws and regulations.

But at the same time, the government of Cuban President Raúl Castro has described the conversations held in New York in July on migration issues, and on Sept. 17 in the Cuban capital on the eventual reinstatement of direct postal services, as respectful and useful.

The meeting in Havana was attended by U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Bisa Williams, who then stayed on for several days, met with Cuban Deputy Foreign Minister Dagoberto Rodríguez and went to the Sept. 20 Peace Without Borders concert organised by Colombian pop star Juanes.

Williams, the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Cuba in decades, also toured an area of Pinar del Río province, 160 km west of Havana, which was heavily damaged by the 2008 hurricanes, and met with several Cuban dissidents.

On the same day that the U.S. State Department broke its silence about the scope of Williams’ visit, the U.S. Interests Section in Havana hosted a reception to introduce the new head of the public affairs section at the diplomatic mission, Gloria Berbena, and her deputy, Molly Koscina.

Cuba and the United States do not have formal diplomatic relations or embassies in each other’s country, but maintain interests sections in their respective capitals for the purposes of diplomatic representation.

At the reception there were crowds of cultural figures on good terms with the Cuban government, but dissidents were notably absent – an unprecedented situation in recent times. The U.S. Interests Section has often been accused by Havana of promoting “subversion” because of its support for dissidents, who have consistently been invited to its events over the past decade.

According to some analysts, this was another sign of the Obama administration feeling its way toward easing tensions. The administration has also expanded financial and travel facilities for Cubans resident in the United States who want to keep in regular touch with their relatives on the island.

But other experts on bilateral relations reacted with scepticism and an absence of enthusiasm. “I would say that there is more form, or style, than content in all this. Besides, I don’t think the political and economic conditions Obama is facing will let him go any further,” a source who wished to remain anonymous told IPS.

For instance, restrictions on academic exchanges are still in place, with constant denials of travel visas for scientists in both directions. “The refusals are based on U.S. law – in other words, the embargo,” the source said.

In the field of culture, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra was forced to suspend a visit to Cuba planned for the end of October, because the U.S. Treasury Department refused travel permits for some 150 sponsors who wanted to accompany the tour, orchestra spokesman Eric Latzky said in a communiqué.

The Cuban authorities estimate the direct and indirect costs of the U.S. blockade in effect since 1962 at a total of 96 billion dollars.

Havana has once again brought a motion before the United Nations General Assembly demanding that the sanctions be lifted. Last year the Cuban motion was supported by 185 states, with only three countries voting against it. To secure a vote equal to or better than this on Oct. 28, Cuban diplomacy is going all out to denounce the costs of the embargo, as well as its negative effects on third countries.

Not even sports are safe from its impact. According to the report presented to the U.N., the embargo has prevented U.S. companies and their subsidiaries in other countries from selling Cuba equipment and materials needed for its anti-doping laboratory. Losses due to equipment being out of service because of the lack of spare parts amount to 781,000 dollars.

In early October, agriculture, transport, science, technology, environment and sugar industry authorities reported separately to the foreign press on their losses owing to lack of access to the U.S. market, financial limitations and various kinds of prohibitions.

The farming sector experienced losses of 149 million dollars between April 2008 and March 2009, according to deputy agriculture minister Alcides López. The worst-hit sectors are tobacco, with losses of 93 million dollars, pig farming, which lost 28 million dollars, and poultry farming, with 24 million dollars in losses.

Legislation adopted in Washington in 2000 allowed U.S. producers to sell food to Cuba, but the Cuban authorities complain in their report to the U.N. that regulations and red tape on these transactions drove up costs by nearly 155 million dollars in 2008. Cash-strapped Cuba could have used those funds to buy, in the U.S. market itself, 339,000 tonnes of wheat, 615,000 tonnes of maize, or 126,760 tonnes of chicken, says the report.

The sugar industry, for its part, estimates that during the same period it lost more than 127 million dollars. The reasons include being forced to buy inputs in much more distant markets, and the extra cost arising from not being able to use U.S. dollars for its transactions, nor any banks or firms associated with the United States.

The lifting of the embargo will be the first item on Cuba’s agenda for eventual talks aimed at improving relations with the United States, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez told the U.N. on Sept. 28. In the meanwhile, diplomats are working for another condemnation of the embargo at the General Assembly.

It will be the 18th time that the government of this Caribbean island nation submits a draft resolution to the U.N. on the need to end the blockade, which Rodríguez described as “a failed and obsolete policy” and “ethically unacceptable.”

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