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Cuba faces new challenge as US eases hostilities

For decades, it was Cuba’s first response to criticism.

Poor economic performance? An obvious effect of a US trade embargo that amounted to a blockade of the island nation by a bullying superpower.

Arrests of dissidents? A legitimate act of self-defense against mercenaries working for the world’s richest nation, which backed the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and plots to assassinate revolutionary leader Fidel Castro.

Now, though, with Washington agreeing to restore full diplomatic ties that were cut in the early 1960s, Cuba’s communist government may not be able to blame its old Cold Warnemesis so readily.

 

Cuba has repeatedly sought to dispel the idea that it secretly wanted the embargo in place, saying if the Americans believed that they should challenge Cuba by lifting it.

With that now a greater possibility, however, there are risks.

Cuba estimates the sanctions have cost its economy about $117 billion in lost trade and extra costs, including nearly $4 billion in the most recent annual estimate.

Critics say Cuba exaggerates the costs and has found commercial work-arounds with friendlier nations but the impact of not trading directly with the United States has been huge – from lost sales of sugar and other products to the inability to import cheap medicines.

Obama can significantly weaken the US sanctions with executive authority and the White House has said it hopes the US Congress will formally lift the embargo before Obama leaves office in January 2017.

The United States and Cuba have accused each other of sabotaging previous efforts at closer ties but all signs indicate Cuba would welcome a controlled flow of US investment, especially with its main foreign ally Venezuela suffering from economic disarray.

Castro will almost certainly look to control the pace of economic change rather than allow a surge of US influence into Cuba and opponents say they expect the government to find new reasons to justify tight communist control.

“If they no longer have the excuse of the ferocious wolf, they’ll always find others,” said former Cuban dissident Ohalys Victore, who left the island in 2002 and now sells life insurance in Arizona.

As part of Obama’s policy change, Washington is allowing US telecoms providers to offer services in Cuba – a potential boost to the slowest internet in the Americas but perhaps not immediately welcome in a tightly-controlled society.

“That potentially shifts the onus onto the Cuban government if they can’t expand internet access,” said Antoni Kapcia, a Cuba expert at Nottingham University in England, saying justification for internet under-development would be harder.PIC-FP-MAIN-OBAMA-SHAKES-HANDS-WITH-CUBA

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