Turn words into deeds

Campaign News | Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Rob Miller writes in the Morning Star on the recent Cuba-UK cooperation agreement.

Cuba and the United Kingdom signed, this month a formal declaration to strengthen bilateral co-operation.

The agreement champions "closer dialogue and economic, scientific, technical, educational, cultural and sporting links between the two countries" and highlights key areas for collaboration including environmental issues, biotechnology, trade and investment, regional security, child protection and disaster preparedness.

The move should be welcomed as a positive step, not just by those supporting the Cuban people but also by those looking to expand British trade relations in Latin America.

In order to make tangible change, however, the agreement must be substantiated by positive action, something which has been lacking in previous British policy towards Cuba.

Britain is the sixth largest economy in the world and the third largest economy in the European Union.

It is the seventh largest importer and the eleventh largest exporter in the world.

Yet the level of trade between Britain and Cuba is derisory.

Exports to Cuba totalled an abysmal £8.9 million in 2009 whilst imports came to a tiny £9.8m.

These figures represent a decrease since 2008 of 36 per cent and 12.7 per cent respectively.

Back in September 1958 the UK government exported 25 fighter jets to General Batista's dictatorship.

The equivalent value today of around £40m a plane would equate to an annual UK export to Cuba of around £1 billion.

Some, including the British government, have tried to explain away these derisory trade levels by blaming Cuban bureaucracy and inefficiency.

Indeed, the Department of Trade and Investment's report Doing Business with Cuba states: "Perhaps the greatest hurdle to doing business in Cuba is painfully slow decision making."

Yet this hasn't hindered other European countries, including Spain, Italy, France and the Netherlands.

In 2009 Spain imported around 10 times as much as Britain, the Netherlands 15 times as much.

Germany exported 18 times, Italy 22 times and Spain 52 times as much as Britain exported to Cuba that year.

Looking at the trade figures makes it clear that Britain's trade with Cuba is being stifled by an unwillingness to challenge the ongoing US blockade.

Levels of trade are a direct consequence of policy adopted by consecutive British governments. In particular, the Blair government, as a result of closer ties with the US administrations, took an increasingly aggressive and hard-line stance against the island.

Britain was a keen advocate of the discriminatory EU Common Position, which suppresses trade and exchange with Cuba, while in 2003, Britain was instrumental in blocking Cuba's entry into the Cotonou Agreement which gives trade preferences to former European colonies.

In theory, the Protection of Trade Interests Act (1996) makes it illegal for British companies to comply with extraterritorial US Helms-Burton legislation but, in practice, the government does nothing to protect British companies from direct US interference in trade issues.

Transactions cannot take place in dollars as all international dollar transactions are funnelled via the US and this risks funds being confiscated by the US banking system.

The risk of US sanctions creates uncertainty and banks, businesses and companies can get caught between conflicting legal requirements.

For instance, in August 2010, Barclays Bank was fined $298m (£190m) by US Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) for handling transactions with banks in Cuba.

Lloyds Bank was fined $350 million after admitting breaking US rules on dealing with sponsors of terrorism.

Lloyds now regularly writes to customers who have Cuba connections.

In one recent case the bank blocked a transfer of funds between the National Westminster bank account of a UK charitable trust and a Lloyds bank account of a UK-based travel company which has the word "Cuba" in its company name.

The threat of US sanctions legislation is real and in this case is even blocking transfers between two UK banks.

David Cameron has spent much of his tenure attempting to expand British markets abroad in places such as China, India and the Middle East but Cuba's potential remains untapped.

Cuba's geographical location, as both a Caribbean and Central American nation, represents a strategic advantage whilst the Cuban market offers various long-term benefits.

Cuba has a highly educated and literate population and there is an abundance of experienced and qualified employees.

Brazil has already recognised the business potential of Cuba and has invested heavily to develop the Mariel port outside Havana into the largest shipping container port in the Caribbean.

Britain should be applauded for repeatedly voting against the US blockade at the United Nations but further action is required to normalise relations with Cuba and develop real, discernible trade and co-operation between our countries.

The Cuba Solidarity Campaign and the British trade union movement have worked tirelessly to promote the normalisation of relations and it is clear that real political will does exist.

Early day motion 1171 supporting the strengthening of ties between Britain and Cuba was signed by 248 MPs while over 92 per cent of candidates in the 2010 general election supported better relations.

The examples of various EU countries, including Spain, Italy, France and the Netherlands, demonstrate that the debilitating effects of the EU common position can be circumvented if perceptible political will exists.

It is now crucial that we harness the political will within Britain to turn this "paper" agreement into something more concrete.

For more info visit www.cuba-solidarity.org.uk

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