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Cubans of Two Minds About New US Sanctions

CUBA'S Communist leader Fidel Castro Ruz has claimed for years in the face of Western criticism that his is a pluralistic society.

Perhaps he is right.

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Even at a government rally condemning new US legislation signed Tuesday by President Clinton that tightens the 34-year-old economic embargo, Cuban voices were not in harmony.

Ostensibly, most of the 200 participants at the rally approved of the government's stance against the new law. ''We are all here to express the Cuban people's opposition to this law, to defend everything the revolution has accomplished,'' said Mabel Peleas, a researcher at Cuban Radio and Television.

But a different, though more quiet, point of view could also be found among the crowd.

Standing beside a mural caricature of Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, a co-sponsor of the US legislation, with the legend, ''Heil, Helms!,'' another young Cuban sounded a different note.

''I'm here like most everyone else, because I have a government job,'' says Luis, a high school gym teacher who did not want to give his last name. ''But this is all facade. Most of these people really don't care. I'm sure a few are like me and are hoping that this Helms-Burton law really does bring down Fidel and his mafia.''

Luis comes close to the truth. Most Cubans, tired of the country's dismal economic straits and fed up with any ideology, really don't know what to think of the new American law.

The US law was quickly passed after Cuba's downed two small US aircraft Feb. 24. The law's key point is its aim to tighten the trade noose around Cuba by targeting third-country companies that do business in both Cuba and the US.

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Some Cubans are resigned to worse living conditions because the foreign investment in tourism and mining that provided some jobs in 1995 may pause as investors try to sort the law out. But there is little indignation and even less resolve to try to do anything about it.

Most observers say the ''Farewell, Fidel'' legislation will have some effect on Cuba's economy, but few think it will actually lead to Castro's fall. ''This will be a disincentive to foreign investment, and that could create new pressures inside the country, but can [the government] survive that? Sure,'' says one Western diplomat.

Another says foreign investment, which Cuba pegs at about $1 billion in the last four years, was slowing anyway despite legislation Cuba passed last year to protect the interests of foreign investors. ''The fight through Cuba's bureaucracy is not easy, and who invests here is still pretty much up to the man at the top,'' the diplomat says.

Also slowing the rate of investment here is the lack of a strong internal consumer market and the inability of Cuban-made products to gain access to the nearest giant market, the US.

But some observers say the Cuban government would rather blame Helms-Burton than itself for disappointing foreign-investment results. Cuban Foreign Minister Roberto Robaina acknowledged last week on Cuban television that investment is not as strong as anticipated. He blamed the fears the US law was generating even before its signing.

Some observers claim Helms-Burton could actually be a boon to foreign investment here because it could prompt the Cuban government to move faster on economic reforms to calm worried investors.

''What we're hearing from the business community is that they anticipate the Cuban government is going to have to provide some comfort to companies already invested here, and that would only encourage more investment and trade,'' says John Kavulich, president of the US-Cuban Trade and Economic Council in New York.

Cuban officials, however, say the new law will neither accelerate nor slow the country's transition to what they call a more open socialist regime. ''It will have some effect [on the economy] but not a dramatic effect,'' says Carlos Fernandez de Cossio, director of the North America section of the Ministry of Foreign Relations.

Cuba is clearly worried about the new penalties it foresees for countries that buy Cuban sugar then re-export it to the US. Sugar is a make-or-break crop for Cuba. ''We're going to have to find the ways to maneuver around [US anti-Cuban measures] just as we have for 37 years,'' says Mr. Cossio.

Curiously enough, what business dealings US companies have with Cuba may suffer little in the wake of Helms-Burton and may even manage to grow. The value of US business activity in Cuba exceeded $300 million over the last 17 months, Mr. Kavulich claims. And Kavulich predicts that value will rise by a quarter this year.

If the American tourists who do make it to this off-limits island have their way, that business growth just might come true.

''We have no intentions of fleeing because of Helms-Burton, and very likely, we'll be back,'' says Dave Hatcher, a Florida resident from a friend's yacht in Havana's marina. ''Washington talks about Cuba's human rights, but we supported [Philippine President Ferdinand] Marcos for years,'' he adds.

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