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UN Agencies - US Cuba Blockade Undermines Work

UN Agencies say US Blockade of Cuba Undermines Their Work

by Julie Webb-Pullman

In a report recently posted on the United Nations website [i] , numerous United Nations agencies condemned the United States blockade of Cuba, saying it impacts on their – and the Cuban Government’s - ability to provide prompt and affordable humanitarian assistance, and “undermines the cooperation activities of all United Nations agencies.” [ii]

Responding to the General Assembly’s request of the UN Secretary-General to prepare a report “in consultation with the appropriate organs and agencies of the United Nations system” on the implementation of the UN resolution affirming the “necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba”, ECLAC [iii] , FAO [iv] , UNICEF [v] , UNDP [vi] , UN-HABITAT [vii] , UNIDO [viii] , UNFPA [ix] , WFP [x] , WHO/PAHO [xi] , and the Office of the Resident Coordinator for Cuba, were unanimous in their assessment that the negative impact of the US blockade was intensified during the 2008 hurricane season, when three hurricanes and two tropical storms slammed the country, causing as many losses in one season ($9.7 billion) as the country had suffered in the previous eight seasons combined ($9.1 billion).

Aside from the direct destruction of agriculture and housing, which left half a million Cubans homeless and 50% of their crops destroyed, the victims of the hurricanes now face substantially longer periods of significantly greater hardship than if the blockade were not in place.

The UN agencies pointed the finger at the need to find non-US suppliers, saying this means they have to source materials essential for humanitarian responses from distant markets such as Europe and Asia. This results in high air-freight charges and slower purchasing processes, delays in delivery, and considerably higher costs for reconstruction materials, family planning equipment, medicines, laboratory materials, and emergency food.

But for the blockade, these necessary resources could be accessed quickly and cheaply from the United States, Cuba’s closest, most competitive and most diversified market.

The impact on victims of the hurricanes is considerable. For instance, the Office of the Resident Co-ordinator noted in relation to the damage and destruction of over 600,000 housing units in 2008, “Given that the capacity of the Cuban economy to build housing units is around 50,000 per year, it will take almost two years to recover the pre-2008 level of housing.” At 4 people per house, which for Cuba is a conservative estimate, that represents some two and a half million people living in damaged homes or temporary shelters for the next two hurricane seasons. If the blockade were lifted, they could be re-housed before the next.

As if the misery of homelessness was not enough, the blockade then rubs salt into the wound by ensuring Cuban citizens cannot access essential medicines and food either, especially Cuban children.

UNICEF reported that some laboratory reagents needed to diagnose genetic diseases are produced exclusively in the United States, meaning Cuba cannot access them One of these is Amniomax, which is used for prenatal diagnosis of chromosomal anomalies such as Down’s syndrome. Other medical supplies unavailable to Cuban children include extension prostheses for carcinoma-affected bones, chromatography paper and Whatman blotting paper to diagnose metabolic diseases in newborns, and an electronic microscope able to diagnose at least 45 prenatal and postnatal skin genetic diseases and other neuro-degenerative diseases.

Speaking about the prevalence of iron-deficiency anaemia in children under three caused by scarcity of iron-rich and fortified foods, UNICEF said “The embargo also decreases the ability to import nutritional products destined for children, women and general consumption (in schools, health facilities and day-care centres), which directly affects the health and nutritional status of the population. The combined effect of the embargo and the current global financial crisis affecting availability and prices of basic foods for children and families has further aggravated the situation and the consequences on children.”

Suffer the little children.....hardly the most ethical foreign policy.

The FAO noted that it is not only children being impacted, but the entire Cuban population. The effects of the natural disasters in 2008 were exacerbated by the increase in food prices, estimated at 25 per cent, and the increase in the price of oil of 7 per cent, which caused food production to decrease and created food shortages and food vulnerability, especially in the zones affected by the hurricanes.

The embargo has very negative implications for Cuba’s balance of trade and foreign exchange earnings, as well as for the country’s volume of production,” they said, noting that the impossibility of taking full advantage of export potential, and the increase in costs for inputs needed for agricultural, fisheries and livestock production have a major negative impact on the country’s ability to provide for its citizens. Particularly important is Cuba’s inability to access external multilateral financing for development programmes in agriculture and rural development, an issue extended by ECLAC.

The persecution of Cuban commercial and financial transactions with third parties has continued, elevating the costs not only for Cuba, but also for citizens and companies from other nations,” they commented.

Other UN agencies, such as IAEA [xii] , ICAO [xiii] , ITU [xiv] , UNCTAD [xv] , UNESCO [xvi] , UNEP [xvii] , WIPO [xviii] , World Tourism Organisation, and the WTO [xix] echoed FAO’s comments on the adverse affects of the blockade on project operations, thus the effectiveness of the utilisation of development resources. Despite his tinkering with a few inconsequential bits around the edges, most have pointed out the Obama has done little of any real consequence to ease the blockade. Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) data suggests that enforcements against trading with Cuba have in fact increased since Obama took power. [xx]

All of these UN agencies continue to have problems obtaining visas for staff to travel to professional meetings/conferences/training courses, they have problems paying or receiving payment for goods and services, they cannot collaborate, co-produce, or co-operate on projects involving US companies, they have restricted technological capacity and access to technical equipment and databases, they have limited collaborative scientific, academic and professional information exchange and research, including access to educational resources – and they all continue to suffer excessive and unnecessary costs.

This should concern every one of us, as apart from the reprehensible persecution of innocent children for political gain that the blockade exemplifies, we are paying for it, through our country’s contribution to the UN system. And apparently it does concern more than a few of us.

Every year for the last 17 years, United Nations resolutions affirming the “necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba” have been supported by the overwhelming majority of member states, growing from 59 for, 3 against, and 71 abstentions in 1992 to 185 to 3 with 2 abstentions in October 2008.

These are United Nations General Assembly resolutions, not a popularity poll. They are supposed to be binding on member states, and the Secretary General reports “...on the implementation of the resolution in the light of the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and international law...” [xxi]

That implies recognition that each and every country’s national interest is best served by each and every one of them obeying international law. That is what is called multilateral co-operation. That is WHY we have the General Assembly – so all countries can come together and make collective decisions, and hopefully control rogue states acting in self, rather than world, interest. It means one country can’t just go off and do what it feels like – or worse still, also make other countries do its bidding. In theory.

The reality is that successive US administrations have done just that, and there is little indication yet that the Obama administration is any different.

Barack Obama was elected in November 2008, just after the last UN vote on Cuba. On September 11 this year he signed up for yet another year of the Trading With the Enemy Act - the basis for the Cuban blockade - saying that it is “in the US national interest” to do so.

How could it possibly be in the US national interest, let alone anyone else’s, for the US to break international law?

How could it possibly be in the US national interest, or of world peace, to increase the pain and privations of children, the most vulnerable – and valuable - sector of any society?

How could it possibly be in the US national interest, world peace - and more importantly, humanity - to impose even more savage and unnecessary suffering on its closest neighbour, a country renowned for their international goodwill and humanitarianism?

How can it possibly be in the world’s best interests for the United States to make the work of the United Nations even more difficult and expensive than it already is, by thumbing their nose at almost two decades of democratically-expressed multilateral decision-making?

As the countries of the UN cast their votes this week on yet another Resolution affirming the “necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba” will they listen not only to the chorus of UN agencies demanding the immediate end to the blockade, but also to their own consciences and those of their citizens?

And will Obama, recent recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, finally deliver on the trust placed in him by his own electors and the Nobel Committee, and bring his country out of the cold - and into line with both international law and the expressed wish of almost every country on earth, by taking immediate and unequivocal measures to END THE BLOCKADE??!!


[i] UNGA document A/64/97
[ii] UNICEF submission, UNGA document A/64/97
[iii] Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean
[iv] Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations
[v] United Nations Children’s Fund
[vi] United Nations Development Programme
[vii] United Nations Human Settlements Programme
[viii] United Nations Industrial Development Organisation
[ix] The United Nations Population Fund
[x] World Food Programme
[xi] World Health Organisation/Pan American Health Organisation
[xii] International Atomic Energy Agency
[xiii] International Civil Aviation Organisation
[xv] United Nations Conference on Trade and Development
[xvi] United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation
[xvii] United Nations Environment Programme
[xviii] World Intellectual Property Organisation
[xix] World Trade Organisation
[xxi] UNGA document A/64/97


Julie Webb-Pullman (click to view previous articles) is a New Zealand based freelance writer who has reported about - and on occasion from - Central America for Scoop since 2003. Send Feedback to

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