As Cuba reforms, less blame for U.S. “blockade”

HAVANA (Reuters) – A touch of self-deprecating humor, along with prosperous allies, is helping Cuba shrug off a U.S. trade embargo it has blamed for decades for its economic woes and brandished as proof of Washington’s “inhumanity.”

Since taking over from his brother Fidel three years ago, President Raul Castro has poked fun at a Cuban tendency to blame all the country’s problems on the American sanctions, while focusing the government more on domestic problems.

“Without denying the negative implications the U.S. blockade has had, and still has, on Cuba’s economy and society, we cannot keep attributing all the country’s problems to it,” said Luis Suarez of Havana’s Higher Institute of International Relations.

He said he believed Castro wanted to keep emphasis on internal solutions that would not be conditioned by whether or not U.S. President Barack Obama lifted or eased the sanctions.

Revolutionary leader Fidel Castro overthrew pro-U.S. dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959 and installed a communist government 90 miles from Florida. Soon after, Washington imposed a trade ban as the bearded guerrilla fighter seized U.S. assets on the Caribbean’s biggest island.

For most of the five decades since, anger at the embargo was a key feature of Fidel Castro’s fierce speeches, and daily fodder in the government-run media. It was used to help explain economic privations on the island, especially after the collapse of long-time benefactor the Soviet Union in 1991.

But there has been a shift since his brother took over in 2008. Paint is fading on billboards that detail the human cost of the ‘bloqueo’ (blockade), as the embargo is known in Cuba. At the annual May Day march, exhortations to work hard and be efficient are now more common than anti-imperialist slogans.

Then, in a speech to parliament in December, President Castro cracked a joke, saying a Vietnamese official had asked a colleague about why traditional coffee-grower Cuba was now buying the beverage from its Asian Communist ally.

“I don’t know what the Cuban replied. I’m sure he said ‘It’s because of the blockade,'” Castro said, to laughter.

The wisecrack echoes a long-standing joke on the island that blames everything on the embargo. Why didn’t you turn up for work? The blockade. Late for school? The blockade.

While the joke was old, it was surprising for many to hear it from the president.

“CAN’T BLAME THE BLOCKADE FOR EVERYTHING”

That is not to say Cuba has dropped its opposition to the embargo, which is condemned every year by almost all nations at the United Nations and mentioned in pro-Cuba campaigns.

But, in a Communist Party strategy document outlining plans for a major overhaul of the Cuban economy, the embargo receives just one perfunctory mention. Instead, attention is piled on domestic problems holding the nation back. For many on the streets of Havana, the change is welcome.

“We can’t blame the blockade for everything, sure it’s important, but there are many other internal problems that we are responsible for,” said Angel, a builder who asked that his last name not be used. He said there were shortages of construction materials because low-paid workers stole concrete and bricks to sell on the black market.

In part, Cuba can afford to direct less blame at the United States now because it has built strong commercial ties with allies such as China, Venezuela and Brazil, who ignore U.S. pressure and do business with the island. A doctors-for-oil deal with Venezuela provides billions of dollars in fuel and cash each year and lessens the need for U.S. trade.

The embargo has cost billions of dollars in lost trade. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last year said the Castros had no interest in ending it because “they would lose all excuses” for the island’s woes.

U.S. President Barack Obama has eased travel restrictions to the island for some U.S. citizens in an apparent response to Raul Castro’s decision to release a group of 52 political prisoners. Most have been freed but 11 are still in jail.

Obama has stopped short of lifting the travel ban for all U.S. citizens and says the embargo is used as leverage by the United States to press for democratic change in Cuba.

But an upsurge of Cuban-Americans visiting relatives on the island since 2009, under relaxed travel regulations, has helped undermine the trade sanctions in a small way.

Flashy smart phones, Ray Ban sunglasses and flat screen TVs all come over on flights from Miami, in some cases to feed a burgeoning black market in consumer goods.

In addition, an authorized exception in the embargo since 2000 allowed the United States to be Cuba’s top food provider for years, although U.S. food sales to the island fell sharply last year as Havana bought more from allies.

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