Cuba’s self-imposed embargo is hurting Cubans more than the US embargo
By KATARINA HALL • 3/8/17 8:00 PM
At the end of January, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., introduced the
Agricultural Export Expansion Act aimed at removing restrictions on
United States agricultural exports to Cuba. Following the steps of 16
other states, Virginia also launched its Engage Cuba State Council, an
initiative of the Cuba Engagement Coalition that seeks to promote trade
and travel with Cuba and eventually lift the embargo.
Supporters of these initiatives believe ending the embargo will
alleviate Cuban poverty while helping state economies grow. The
president of Engage Cuba, James Williams, said the Agricultural
Expansion Act would “increase US agricultural exports, create jobs
across the country, and provide the Cuban people with high-quality
American food.” While these efforts are an important step in improving
American relations with the Caribbean country, Cuba also needs to reform
its system of import taxation for trade liberalization to have its
The U.S. embargo against Cuba has been controversial since it was
implemented in the 1960s. Opponents of the embargo argue that
restricting the population’s access to cheap foreign goods makes the
country poorer and gives the government someone to blame for its
widespread poverty. Proponents of the embargo believe that it is the one
thing keeping the Communist Party of Cuba in check, providing justice
for dissidents and keeping money out of the pockets of regime officials.
While they have valid arguments, advocates on both sides are missing an
important factor: whether or not an external embargo exists, most goods
will never reach the Cuban people because of a state-imposed internal
I spent last year doing research on economic remittances in Cuba.
Throughout my time there, I conducted several interviews with Havana
residents. Like many Cuba observers, I went in thinking that the
external embargo was Cuba’s main stumbling block toward development.
Through these conversations I learned that many Cubans think
differently, against the wishes of state propaganda officials.
As one of my interviewees, Jorge, put it: “The embargo that most affects
us is internal. We don’t need the United States; we can buy things from
Mexico, Panama, China.” The problem, he explained, is that import taxes
in Cuba are so high that it makes it impossible for anyone to buy things
from other countries. “Either that,” Jorge continued, “or the customs
officials steal your goods because they can.” One time, Jorge went as
far as to destroy a new microwave he had purchased in St. Martin because
custom officials would not let him keep it. “If they wouldn’t let me
keep my microwave, I wasn’t going to let them have it.”
Even if companies are able to legally pay the taxes, the price of goods
drastically increases well beyond the reach of an average Cuban. My
Havana neighbor, Maria Elena, explained that in Cuba you do see imported
goods like refrigerators from China, anti-electricity antennas from
Spain, even your occasional Nestlé ice cream. “But I can’t afford any of
these with my $20 a month salary,” she said, “a $3 ice cream becomes a
luxury.” A resident from the next-door building, Lismary, said that
sometimes import taxes raise the price of a good by 110 percent. With
these prices, American products entering the Cuban market could only be
sold at stores for foreigners or hotels, not your average Cuban store.
If U.S. companies were to become established in Cuba, they would run
into another problem: it takes ages for customs to process goods.
Manuel, a Havana resident who worked for a Spanish company, told me that
sometimes it took his company six months to a year to get the permits
needed for their products to be released by customs. “That is, 6 months
plus countless bribes,” he said, “and sometimes we get the products too
late, when we don’t need them anymore.” Having products stuck so long in
customs could eventually lead to losses for Cubans importing goods and
American companies in Cuba.
Despite their intentions, efforts like the Senate legislation are
unlikely to help average Cubans. While it is true that these efforts
might help the economic growth of some states, and perhaps the communist
regime, they will not provide cheap foods for the Cuban population. As
noble as the intentions of such campaigns might be, it will not be until
the internal embargo in Cuba is removed that Cuban people will begin to
benefit from trade with the U.S.
Katarina Hall is the director of the Human Rights Center at Universidad
Francisco Marroquin in Guatemala. She is also a Young Voices Advocate.
Source: Cuba’s self-imposed embargo is hurting Cubans more than the US
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