29/10/2013 11:28 GMT | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

US Should End Its Cold War Stance on Cuba

When the UN votes on the US blockade of Cuba this week, the US is likely to face opposition from nearly every other government in the world. But, if past experience is any guide, the US will simply ignore this. It will continue exacting unnecessary suffering on the Cuban people through a cruel and counter-productive policy.

The US blockade is a cold war relic. Imposed in the 1960s, the blockade was a reaction to the Cuban Revolution and a strident attempt to overthrow it. This economic noose was further tightened in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union when Neo-Cons hoped to finally strangle Cuba into submission.

Today the blockade is the longest and toughest system of sanctions ever applied against any country in modern history. Cuba is still prevented from freely exporting or importing from the United States or with any subsidiaries of US companies in third countries. US sanctions are also imposed on other countries trading with Cuba and even financial aid is restricted.

As with the Bay of Pigs military invasion before it, the US blockade has failed in its aim of overthrowing the Revolution. But the most enduring blockade in history has caused widespread damage with Cuba estimating the cost at $1000bn over the past 50 years.

This collective punishment restricts Cubans' access to food, educational and medical equipment. One Cuban doctor recently told Reuters that US restrictions on certain medical equipment "impede the acquisition of products that literally signify the difference between life and death."

This indiscriminate cruelty is why Amnesty International called for the blockade against Cuba to be lifted, labelling it as 'highly detrimental to Cubans' enjoyment of a range of economic, social and cultural rights, such as food, health and sanitation - particularly affecting the weakest and most vulnerable members of the population...(and) highly detrimental to Cubans' enjoyment of human rights'.

Initial hope that President Obama would de-construct the blockade as part of a new approach to Latin America soon faded. His "new beginning with Cuba" has amounted to not much more than lifting a travel ban for Cuban-Americans and facilitating the sending of remittances. Mainly, the Cold War mentality prevails in the White House: UN Ambassador Susan Rice has said that the embargo will continue until Cuba is "free".

Thankfully elsewhere in the US, there are increasing calls for the lifting of the blockade. Polls show a majority of Americans want it to end. Business too is supportive fearing that rival trading nations are stealing a march in a market where the US should have comparative advantage. Estimates of the sanctions' annual cost to the U.S. economy are as high as $3.6bn, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. High profile political supporters of ending the blockade include Chuck Hagel (at least before his promotion to Defence Secretary) and Richard Lugar, until recently the highest ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. This first Member of Congress from Florida, with its sizeable Cuban American community, earlier this year called for an end to the embargo.

Yet, in some ways, under President Obama the policy is being enacted more thoroughly than ever. Since 2009, fines against embargo violators, both domestic and foreign, have dramatically increased totalling $2.5 billion. Far from the most serious, but an illustrative example of the blockade's effects on third countries is that of UK online store York Coffee Emporium, which sold a type of Cuban coffee. PayPal froze the company's account claiming that it is against its terms and conditions to sell Cuban goods in line with the US trade embargo. The business only sells the coffee within the UK and not to the US.

This is a tiny example of the extra territorial nature of the blockade. More seriously, the Swiss bank ZKB earlier this year halted all transfers to Cuba to avoid the US "freezing their holdings". Consequently a medical NGO MediCuba-Suisse was unable to provide hundreds of thousands of Swiss francs to aid the fight against cancer, paediatrics and HIV-AIDS. Whilst in 2011 the US confiscated $4.2 million awarded to Cuba from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Sadly, there are many more examples.

The U.S. has no legal right to make laws that have to be obeyed by the rest of the world. This threat to other nation's trade freedoms and sovereignty has helped stoke exceptionally strong international opposition to the blockade. In the eyes of the world this is a thoroughly unpopular and discredited policy.

There is simply no other policy on which the US has been so unable for so long to win over allies. Every UN vote over the past 20 years has overwhelmingly rejected it. Last year 188 nations voted for its lifting including normally close US allies such as the UK. Just two nations supported the US' stance: Israel and Palau - a tiny nation whose defence, funding, and social services are provided by the United States.

Politically, the blockade has isolated the US not Cuba. Yet this cruel demonstration of bullying from the world's largest economic and military power against a nation of just 11m people looks set to continue. With it, we have the most inhumane reminder of the failure of President Obama to move on from the US' long approach of treating Latin America as the US backyard.