Cuban Government Orders a Reduction in Purchases from the United States / Juan Juan Almeida

Juan Juan Almeida, 7 September 2015 — The reduction in products imported from the United States could be explained as an unspoken attempt by the Cuban government to manipulate an important American commercial sector with the goal of derailing the embargo.

A government strategy? According to statistics published by the US-Cuban Economic and Commercial Council, commercial activity by state import conglomerate, ALIMPORT, has decreased. From 2009 until today, the Cuban government has significantly reduced its purchase of food, drugs and medical equipment from its neighbor to the north, which reached a high of 710,000 million dollars in 2008.

Several experts say the decline is due primarily to financial considerations, specifically those related to the Cuban government, which they liken to an ineffective, bankrupt company. But I find this explanation to be unconvincing. Governmental ineffectiveness is relative and the prospect of bankruptcy is doubtful. If we carefully dig a little past the airtight surface of the opaque Cuban economic system, new statistics begin to appear.

A friend — an official of the Ministry of Economy and Planning, where my mother worked for years — informed me that the decline only pertains to trade with the United States. “A directive came from upstairs and it has nothing to do with money,” he notes. “Since late 2012, Cuba has increased purchases of food and medicines by more than two billion dollars.”

Further investigation led me to a US-based Cuban merchant who has a license to sell American goods to Cuba. He assured me that the decline in purchases of US products by Cuban companies such as  Cubazucar, Transimport, Alimport, Cubametales, Quimimport, Maprinter, Consumimport and Palco is intended to put financial pressure American producers so that they might in turn lobby their senators to lift the “blockade.”

Meanwhile, Justo J. Sanchez, an award-winning journalist and analyst in New York, believes that “if ALIMPORT and other government agencies think that cutting off business dealings with American farmers will put pressure on supporters of the Helms Burton Act, they are politically naive. That idea won’t even get off the ground.”

He adds, “Most observers agree that the farm lobby, led by the American Farm Bureau Federation, has the power to change the policy imposed at the time by President Clinton. The bill that would repeal the Helms Burton it rests on the shoulders of six senators, three from each party. The others will remain cautiously in the shadows until after the next presidential elections.

“The death notice will not appear until sometime after Obama leaves office. The farmers do not have the influence or resources to convince legislators of their point of view, something the banking, tourism and industrial sectors can do more easily. It is a well-known fact that the tourism industry has been lobbying for a diplomatic approach since the George W. Bush administration. If Cuba wants to see Helms-Burton wither and die, it will have to learn to play in the big leagues of American politics.”

Using trade as a tool to exert pressure is not a new tactic and it can seem like an effective strategy. As my grandmother used to say, “better to be here than in the breadline.” Passion often blinds us and looking at the world through a partisan lens often leads us in the wrong direction. But it is easy to understand that the real architects of the new relationship between the US and Cuba were not Barack Obama and Raul Castro; they were the seldom-mentioned representatives of America’s industrial, economic, commercial and corporate interests.

So I decided to investigate and contacted a prosperous, well-connected European businessman based on the island with years of experience. When I asked why Cuban purchases of American products had fallen off, he replied, “It’s not a written policy. It’s more like a verbal order from GAESA (Grupo de Administración Empresarial S.A or Business Administration Group, Inc.), which is common practice among military men. There is concern about hacking and cyber-espionage, and the best protection (for them) is verbal communication. Business is not conducted here in a business-like climate. You’re dealing with lieutenants, captains, colonels and generals.”

“These are the rules of a country at peace which enjoys being at war.” he adds. “And foreign businessmen, the people who make money, have to let them use us as pawns in their game of politics or have to carry out some filthy spying exercise for them. Those are the rules of the game and you have to take it or leave it.”