One last favour: Australia, Cuba and the US


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 a motion by Cuba at the end of October. In 2006 the motion passed 183 to four (US, 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 2 million tourists every year, but very few are US citizens.

Cuba says the economic blockade has cost it at least US$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) that have cost the lives of more than 3000 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% 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 ANZ 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 that 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 the 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.

South African diplomat Sivu Maqungo, on behalf of the Group of 77 (a coalition of Third World countries), supported the Cuban motion "because this relentless and unilateral action has caused untold suffering to the people of Cuba". The motion was a way to exert pressure on US actions that are "contrary to international law, international humanitarian law, the United Nations Charter and the norms and principles governing peaceful relations among States".

What did the Australian "human rights" amendment have to do with a motion over the US trade blockade of Cuba? Very little. Opposition to the US blockade has steadily grown at the UN, and it was clear the amendment would fail. However the US wanted to save face, and needed "allies" to pretend a little legitimacy.

The major "human rights" accusation the US aims at Cuba concerns political prisoners. Cuba does have several dozen political prisoners, but almost all have been convicted of taking money from US government programs that aim to overthrow the Cuban government and constitution. The US claims that these US-paid agents have special privileges as "independent journalists" or part of "civil society".

The US also pretends that Cuba does not have elections, because the US funded groups are banned from contesting, and because the constitution embeds socialist principles. In fact, Cuban national elections are in October.

After Hill's motion failed, Cuban foreign minister Felipe Perez Roque said that Australia "does not have the moral authority to attempt to refer to the human rights situation in Cuba". Perez Roque called Australia a "lackey" and "accomplice" in US wars of imperialism.

Indeed. Robert Hill personally, as defence minister, directed Australian bombing raids and missile strikes in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He was personally responsible for the slaughter of many thousands of innocent Iraqis. Hill also hid his knowledge of the torture operations at Abu Ghraib for over a year, and backed the closure of Al Jazeera's Baghdad television station. Hill's colleague, foreign minister Alexander Downer, argued for the invasion of Iraq on the basis that support for the US-led war could benefit "Australia's commercial position in Iraq". These are better credentials for war criminals than defenders of human rights.

Nevertheless, Hill feigned innocence at the UN, saying that "the price of speaking up and asking for nothing more than [what] is reasonable is to be abused by the Cuban minister, with false allegations and offensive language".

Stay tuned for the next instalment of the Howard government's spirited defence of "human rights" at the United Nations. The next anti-blockade motion is scheduled for late October. With Howard's defeat looming in the imminent Australian elections, Washington might call on one last favour.