US re­stric­tions be­ing felt in dis­tant Ti­maru?


Acou­ple of weeks ago I re­ceived an un­ex­pected phone call from our bank man­ager. I im­me­di­ately be­gan to won­der what could be be­hind such a rel­a­tively high-level call: had we mys­te­ri­ously sud­denly be­come mas­sively over­drawn on our cheque ac­count? Was our credit card be­ing ran­sacked by un­scrupu­lous over­seas hack­ers?

No, we were be­ing asked to sign a let­ter pledg­ing we would never again send money to Cuba.

Let me ex­plain. We are not a char­ity with a spe­cial affin­ity for im­pov­er­ished peo­ple in Cuba and send­ing them much-needed funds, although we do sym­pa­thise with them for the plight caused by a cruel trade em­bargo that has been im­posed by the United States over the past half-cen­tury.

No, as some of you may be aware, my wife takes tour groups over­seas and about a year ago, Jill took a group of New Zealan­ders to Cuba.

As she was us­ing a pri­vate lo­cal guide and us­ing some of the fam­ily bed and break­fast es­tab­lish­ments that have flour­ished since Pres­i­dent Raul Cas­tro re­laxed the Com­mu­nist govern­ment’s con­trols on the econ­omy, Jill needed to send funds to Cuba to pay for th­ese book­ings and other tour costs, such as eat­ing at pri­vate restau­rants.

This we did with­out any prob­lem, us­ing our busi­ness credit card and a Swiss money trans­fer com­pany. We didn’t at­tempt to dis­guise the trans­ac­tion. Why should we?

But, nearly a year later, West­pac ap­pears to have de­cided we are cun­ningly trans­gress­ing some in­ter­na­tional trade sanc­tions im­posed on the poverty-stricken Caribbean is­land.

Jill has, quite rea­son­ably in my opin­ion, re­fused to sign the let­ter with­out more in­for­ma­tion as to why she is be­ing asked to forego the right to send money to con­duct busi­ness with a pop­u­lar hol­i­day des­ti­na­tion.

She has been told the rea­sons for the dra­co­nian im­po­si­tion are’’ drugs and ter­ror­ism’’.

Okay, let’s start with drugs. Ac­cord­ing to the United States’ Na­tional In­sti­tute on Drug Abuse in 2013 – the most re­cent year for sur­vey re­sults – 24.6 mil­lion Amer­i­cans had used an il­licit drug in the past month.

Apart from show­ing the mag­ni­tude of the US drug prob­lem and per­haps ex­plain­ing why Don­ald Trump was elected pres­i­dent, the re­port shows that if Cuba IS a sup­plier of drugs to the US, it’s a minis­cule player com­pared with Bo­livia, Colom­bia and Peru, which sup­ply the bulk of the co­caine used in the US. Twothirds of the mar­i­juana con­sumed in the United States comes from Mex­ico. On web­sites cit­ing the ori­gin of Amer­ica’s drug prob­lem, Cuba doesn’t rate a men­tion.

As for ter­ror­ism, what ex­actly is Cuba guilty of, apart from hav­ing the gall in 1959 to re­move from power the cor­rupt US-backed dic­ta­tor Ful­gen­cia Batista, and clos­ing the casi­nos, broth­els and drug out­lets that, with his con­nivance, were be­ing run by the Amer­i­can Mafia?

The US re­acted in typ­i­cal heavy-handed fash­ion, block­ing nearly all trade between Amer­ica and Cuba and freezing Cuban as­sets in the US. Three years later Pres­i­dent Kennedy im­posed a com­plete trade em­bargo and set re­stric­tions on travel and trade. Ac­cord­ing to Cuban govern­ment es­ti­mates, th­ese ac­tions have cost the na­tion about $US1.126 tril­lion over the en­su­ing five decades.

In 1996, nearly 40 years af­ter the Cuban revo­lu­tion, fur­ther re­stric­tions were added to the is­land’s trade em­bargo and for­eign en­ter­prises were pe­nalised for do­ing busi­ness with Cuba.

The Helms-Bur­ton Act im­ple­ment­ing th­ese changes stated they would only be lifted if the Cas­tro broth­ers were re­moved from power.

In a hu­man­i­tar­ian ges­ture, Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton’s ad­min­is­tra­tion in 1998 eased the con­trol of ship­ments of food and medicine to Cuba. This was fol­lowed nine years later by fur­ther re­lax­ations ini­ti­ated by Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, and in 2014 the two coun­tries agreed to re­store diplo­matic re­la­tions.

The fol­low­ing year the US re­moved Cuba from its list of state spon­sors of ter­ror­ism. Ironic, given the CIA’s much-pub­li­cised ef­forts to as­sas­si­nate Fidel Cas­tro!

In March 2016, Pres­i­dent Obama be­came the first in­cum­bent of the White House to visit Cuba in 88 years, which inevitably meant Obama’s suc­ces­sor, Don­ald Trump, just had to wind back the progress be­ing made by his pre­de­ces­sor.

Last Novem­ber, for no ap­par­ent rea­son other than the per­sis­tent un­do­ing of Obama’s legacy, the Don­ald in­tro­duced new re­stric­tions on trade and travel - say­ing ‘‘we will not be silent in the face of Com­mu­nist op­pres­sion in Cuba’’.

The Com­mu­nist ‘‘op­pres­sion’’ by the way has in­cluded en­shrin­ing free ed­u­ca­tion and free health­care in the Cuban Con­sti­tu­tion. So, while Amer­i­cans are en­gaged in bit­ter ar­gu­ments about the mer­its of the Sec­ond Amend­ment to their con­sti­tu­tion, Cubans are en­joy­ing free health­care their neigh­bours can only dream about.

How­ever, it would seem Trump’s new re­stric­tions have fi­nally fil­tered down to my wife’s small busi­ness in Ti­maru. And, ap­par­ently, if we don’t sign the agree­ment the bank will close our ac­counts, even though US govern­ment of­fi­cials said when in­tro­duc­ing the lat­est curbs that ‘‘the wide­spread prac­tice of rent­ing rooms and eat­ing meals in pri­vate homes in Cuba would con­tinue to be al­lowed’’.

I’ll keep you posted on how our tilt against one of New Zealand’s big­gest banks and, in­di­rectly, the most pow­er­ful na­tion on earth, un­folds.

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