During the week of December 17, US freighters are expected to dock in Cuban ports and begin offloading a historic shipment of foodstuffs. In a deal worth up to $30 million, the Castro government has purchased wheat, corn, soybeans, rice and flour and is currently negotiating with Perdue and Tyson to buy chicken in order to replenish supplies destroyed by Hurricane Michelle. Paid for with cash, the sale marks the first major commercial transaction between the United States and Cuba since the Kennedy Administration imposed the US trade embargo forty years ago.
Few people know that President Kennedy exempted food from the original US trade blockade. The Johnson Administration added foodstuffs to the embargo in February 1964 after the conservative senator from New York, Kenneth Keating, complained that Cuban efforts to purchase $2 million worth of lard–yes, lard–would have "a significant impact upon the foreign policy and international interests of the United States." According to declassified White House documents, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy's office asked the Department of Agriculture to provide an analysis of the "uses of lard" in hopes that some ominous strategic purpose could explain US actions. "Cuba could be expected to use 100 percent of any lard it gets for edible purposes," an aide reported back. "It would probably not be credible to take the line that we have decided to stop shipments of lard because it is not solely a food."
Since the end of the cold war, the embargo has proved a serious embarrassment for Washington. Instituted as part of a broad set of punitive measures designed to isolate the Castro regime, the trade sanctions have succeeded only in isolating the United States. Every year for the past decade the United Nations has voted overwhelmingly to condemn the US blockade; the last vote, on November 27, was a 167-to-3 defeat for the United States, with only the Marshall Islands and Israel supporting Washington and all fifteen members of the European Union voting against the United States. Our Western allies have been antagonized by the Helms-Burton bill, which tightened the embargo by penalizing friendly nations that freely trade with Cuba. Indeed, as Cuba has opened its economy to foreign investment and international trade, US corporations and agricultural interests have watched from the sidelines as competitors from Canada, Europe and Asia have built profitable business and commercial partnerships on the island.
US corporate interests, led by giant food conglomerates and rice, soy and wheat growers, have emerged as the principal lobbyists for lifting, at least partially, trade restrictions against Cuba. Once an executive order, the embargo was codified into law by the Helms-Burton bill. But legislators from agricultural states like Missouri, Iowa and Louisiana have progressively plowed into the political turf of the hard-line anti-Castro representatives from Florida; majorities in the Senate and House are moving closer to dispensing with this ineffective, counterproductive anachronism of the cold war.
Last year, on an amendment sponsored by Republican Representative George Nethercutt of Washington, Congress took the first substantive step to rescind the embargo, voting to lift the ban on commercial transactions with Cuba involving food and medicine. But a last-minute provision, inserted by the Republican leadership at the behest of a handful of Miami legislators, prohibited private financing of Cuban purchases. Angry at the punitive credit restrictions, the Castro government stated that it would "not spend a nickel" in the United States until the law was changed.
Cuba's deft decision to alter its rhetorical position and ask the Bush Administration to expedite this $30 million cold cash transaction in the wake of Hurricane Michelle may well contribute to reconsideration of those financing restrictions and indeed the embargo itself. Already, the Senate Agriculture Committee, chaired by Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, has voted to allow private bank and corporate financing. Analysts predict that US economic interests that want to continue such sales will eventually turn their attention to lifting restrictions on travel to the island, since American tourist dollars could provide Cuba with substantial currency to purchase US goods. "This creates momentum," according to Philip Peters, a Republican economic analyst at the Lexington Institute, who will lead a Congressional delegation to Cuba in January. "This re-energizes people who want to trade with Cuba."
"We have always been rather proud of the fact that 'we weren't trying to starve the Cuban people,'" an aide argued to McGeorge Bundy in an abortive effort to keep food from being added to the embargo. After thirty-seven years of trying, and failing, to do just that, restoring food sales has created the first major crack in the embargo. As the current of commerce begins to flow, that crack is likely to widen until the embargo collapses from its own outdated weight.