Cuba wary about Washington's talk of easing embargo
By Lucia Newman
CNN Havana Bureau Chief
This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.
HAVANA (CNN) -- Unprecedented moves are under way in Washington to ease the four-decades-old U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba. Is the Cuban government jumping up and down for joy? Hardly.
The House of Representatives voted last week to end enforcement of U.S. bans on the sale of food and medicine to Cuba, and to four other countries, Iran, Libya, North Korea and Sudan. The House measure also would lift the ban on unauthorized travel by U.S. citizens to Cuba. The Senate passed a similar initiative the same day, and the White House has signaled general support for a shift in U.S. policy toward Havana.
The bills must still overcome major political hurdles before they become law -- for one, the two versions must be reconciled. But analysts here and in the United States see them as signals that it will not be long before the embargo is eased and eventually lifted.
Some opponents to Washington's Cuba policy have hailed the congressional initiatives. In Havana, the most visible response so far was an unprecedented march Wednesday against the embargo that went past the U.S. Interests Section building in the Cuban capital. President Fidel Castro led the procession in which authorities boasted a record 1 million people took part.
Praise and blame: one in the same?
Wednesday -- July 26 -- was a national holiday, the 47th anniversary of the start of the revolution that brought Castro to power in 1959. This year's march was conceived not as a celebration but as a huge protest to demand an end to what Cuba calls "the genocidal blockade" imposed by the United States.
The U.S. embargo has been in place since 1962 and has been tightened in the past decade. Castro says nothing short of its total elimination will be good enough.
"There is no way of easing the blockade without eliminating it completely," Castro said Wednesday at a separate appearance.
Even as Congress moved to break down one of the longest embargoes in history, Cuba's leader announced on state television Tuesday that "the worst and most important part of our struggle is just starting."
An editorial that ran Monday in the Communist Party daily "Granma" and in two other newspapers that speak for the government noted, "We have a duty to appreciate their [Congress's] noble and constructive efforts."
The editorial added, however, that easing of U.S. sanctions "would not resolve anything for Cuba," as set down by the House legislation. The measure would permit food and medicine sales only if Cuba pays for them with cash or with credit from a third country.
Cuba "would not have the resources to buy food and medicine" under such conditions, the editorial said.
And as Castro pointed out, neither congressional measure lifts the ban on general trade. "How can a country buy anything if it cannot sell?" Castro asked.
Over the past week the state-run media have bombarded the public with programs explaining why they should not be optimistic about any changes in Cuba policy that may be taken in Washington.
The government's message is that most if not all of the problems in this country are the fault of U.S. aggression, especially the economic embargo.
People are told the country has been so badly debilitated by the "blockade" that a relaxation of the embargo will not make much of a difference.
Elian and his family shortly after their return to Cuba from the United States
All this comes at a time when the country is witnessing an unprecedented ideological offensive, launched by the government and the Communist Party eight months ago.
It started when Elian Gonzalez was found adrift in the ocean last November. It has evolved into what many Cubans say is the Communist Party's most comprehensive political education campaign since the triumph of the 1959 Cuban revolution.
There are daily television programs to discuss and explain to the people why the United States attacks Cuba's Communist system. The programs go into minute detail about the U.S. economic embargo, the Cuban Adjustment Act (a policy that allows Cubans who reach U.S. soil to remain there), the Helms-Burton Act (a law designed to discourage international investment in Cuba), and even past attempts by the CIA to assassinate Castro.
The campaign also focuses on what officials here explain as the strengths of the revolution, with unity of the people being at the top of the list. And every weekend, there are enormous rallies and marches all over the country to reaffirm loyalty to the revolution and condemn U.S. imperialism.
Does he or doesn't he?
Some Cuba analysts, and some critics of the Cuban government, have maintained for years that Castro does not want the embargo lifted.
The reason, they argue, is that the absence of an embargo would deprive the regime of the justification not only for Cuba's economic shortcomings but also for the country's restrictions on political freedoms.
The Cuban leader says this theory is hogwash.
What is undeniable is that the vast majority of ordinary Cubans do want the embargo abolished and would welcome even a partial easing of sanctions.
Their thinking, and that of many Cuban and American analysts, is that once Congress starts the ball rolling, it will be difficult to stop the embargo from being lifted altogether.
Coming face-to-face with potential change
The possibility that Americans could begin unrestricted travel to Cuba has people in this country especially intrigued.
Cuba's main source of income, both directly and indirectly, is from tourism. The island's natural market -- off limits under the embargo -- is the United States. If Americans could travel here freely to spend money, there undoubtedly would be a boom in tourism.
Many Cubans, however, already worry how the country would be able to cater to a big influx of Americans.
"We don't have enough rental cars in this country," says one hotel worker. "There aren't enough hotels."
Other Cubans express concern that a deluge of Americans could bring in bad influences, such as drugs and a disdain for Cuba's culture and its socialist values.
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Indeed, after so many years of living apart from their American neighbors, who are only 90 miles away across the Florida Straits, some Cubans tell me they are not sure if they are ready yet to handle an overnight normalization of relations with the United States -- if such a change were to take place in the near future.
Whatever the political, economic and cultural implications, the push for a shift in U.S. policy toward Cuba from both Republicans and Democrats, farmers and big business is likely to bring about change. How all this will affect Cuba depends on how much change and how soon.
y: Cuba united against U.S. over Elian, by CNN's Lucia Newman -- January 28, 2000
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