By MICHAEL WEISSENSTEIN
HAVANA – President Barack Obama’s easing of the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba has had virtually no positive effect on the island’s economy, Cuba’s top diplomat asserted Friday.
Presenting Cuba’s annual report ahead of a U.N. vote on condemning the embargo, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said the sanctions cost his country $4.6 billion last year. The total cost of the 55-year-old embargo now stands at $125.9 billion, he added.
The presentation of Cuba’s update on the embargo is an annual ritual driving home to a mostly domestic audience Havana’s message that U.S. sanctions are to blame for most of the country’s problems. The report contains a detailed accounting of both specific damage from the embargo, such as U.S. government fines on Cuba’s business partners, and scenarios in which Cuba faults the U.S. for the loss of hypothetical business. For example the report estimates that Cuba could sell 2.5 million cases of Havana Club rum in the United States each year and factors in that theoretical lost revenue, $105 million, to the total damages in the report. Rodriguez praised Obama for allowing easier U.S. travel to Cuba, permitting commercial flights and attempting to ease financial transactions with Cuba, among other measures.
However, he said, “there’s been no fundamental change in the application of the blockade, and because of that, I can say, there hasn’t been a greater economic impact of the executive actions until now and there won’t be until we see bigger steps.” Rodriguez acknowledged the problems of Cuba’s centrally controlled economy, which is struggling to increase productivity in the face of an outdated and inefficient bureaucracy and low state salaries that lead many employees to steal from their workplaces or accept small bribes in order to get by.
“No one’s ignoring or aims to hide our problems, our limitations, our mistakes,” he said. “But neither can we diminish the impact of the blockade.” The United Nations votes next month on an annual resolution on condemning the embargo that usually passes with overwhelming support. Last year the United States considered abstaining for the first time, before voting against it.
As reporters were leaving Rodriguez’s press conference at the Cuban Foreign Ministry, U.S. Charge d’Affaires Jeffrey DeLaurentis’ car was seen dropping him off. U.S. and Cuban diplomats have begun meeting frequently on a wide array of topics since the declaration of detente on Dec. 17, 2014.