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One last favour: Australia to help out the US over Cuba?

By Tim Anderson - posted Thursday, 4 October 2007

One of the last favours the Howard Government will be asked to perform for the Bush regime will be to attempt to soften the crushing diplomatic defeat the US suffers every year, at the United Nations, over its ongoing economic blockade of Cuba.

A UN vote is expected on Cuba’s motion at the end of October. In 2006 the motion passed 183 to 4 (USA, Israel, the Marshall Islands and Palau) with one abstention. Australia voted for the motion, but not before an unsuccessful attempt at an amendment which sought to criticise Cuba.

In breach of a range of international laws - from telecommunications to trade to the Genocide Convention - the US has blockaded Cuba for nearly half a century, as part of a campaign to overthrow the elected government and the Cuban constitution.


The US blockade, an executive act of President John F. Kennedy (after a failure to agree on compensation terms over the nationalisation of US companies) was set in US law by the 1996 Helms Burton Act.

Under this “trading with the enemy” law, US companies are banned from trading with Cuba and US citizens cannot visit Cuba without US government permission. US citizens are regularly fined for visiting Cuba, or being caught with Cuban cigars. Cuba receives more than two million tourists every year, but very few are US citizens.

Cuba says the economic blockade has cost it at least $89 billion in damages, denied important medical equipment, blocked scientific and cultural exchange, stolen the assets of or intimidated trading companies and constitutes a form of genocide, designed quite simply to recolonise Cuba. The blockade has been accompanied by terrorist actions (including one CIA-backed aircraft bombing) which have cost the lives of more than 3,000 Cubans.

The US says its measures only constitute an “embargo”, that the Cuban Government alone is responsible for any economic problems, and that this “embargo” is a bilateral matter which does not concern any other state.

However US subsidiaries in other countries are also banned from dealing with Cuba and this has widened the net, since the wave of takeovers and mergers during the 1990s and 2000s. Under US law, technology with more than 10 per cent US content cannot be traded with Cuba, regardless of the nationality of ownership. Vessels carrying goods from Cuba cannot enter US ports. And even the families of business people who trade with Cuba may be (and have been) denied US visas.

In 2007, two Australian banks were drawn into this campaign, because of their US shareholdings and operations. In February the ANZ Bank said it was ending all transactions with Cuba, to ensure compliance with US law.


In September the National Australia Bank was fined $100,000 by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the US Treasury, for a number of small transactions which allowed transfers to Cuban interests. One of these was a payment of $452 to a Canadian credit card owned by a Cuban citizen. Banks are generally “apolitical” when it comes to business, but in this case Washington calls the shots.

The Howard Government has consistently voted in favour of anti-blockade motions at the UN. “Free trade”, after all, is a major element of Australian foreign policy, as successive Australian governments have tried to expand their exports of agricultural goods, especially to the US.

However the practice of Australian “free trade” is a much dirtier affair. In November 2006 Australian Ambassador to the UN Robert Hill moved an amendment to the Cuban motion, seeking to add a clause which called on Cuba to “release unconditionally all political prisoners” and to respect human rights treaties. The Australian role only emerged because even the most pro-US Latin American governments would not agree to take up the task. Hill’s amendment was roundly defeated and the Cuban motion was passed overwhelmingly.

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About the Author

Tim Anderson is a Senior Lecturer in Political Economy at the University of Sydney.

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