Living in the past

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 December, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 December, 2001, 12:00am

The Cold War ended more than a decade ago, but its frigid winds still lash relations between the United States and Cuba - and one has to wonder why. How, in the 21st Century with the so-called dangers of communism deemed long ago not to be a threat, can such an anachronism persist?

The first food shipment between the two nations in four decades, which landed in Havana on Sunday, does little more than highlight the absurdity of this embargo. The 500 tonnes of frozen chicken do not breach the US-imposed trade embargo since they were sent as humanitarian aid following Hurricane Michelle, the worst storm to hit the Caribbean island in 50 years. The aid shipment was made possible by legislation passed by Congress last year and will be followed in coming weeks by further shipments of products including wheat and soya beans.

Former US president John F. Kennedy clamped the trade embargo on Fidel Castro's Cuba in 1963 and his legacy has lived on more or less undisturbed. But the days of Joseph McCarthy and anti-communist witch-hunts have long passed and many countries in the world have realised this. In recent years, most other nations have resumed trading with Cuba, among them France, Spain, Italy most worrying for Washington, its northern neighbour Canada.

That Washington has a long memory is one of the truisms of its often unwieldy system of legislation. The war with Vietnam may have ended in 1975, but it was only on December 10 that the final trade restrictions were lifted. Tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats over spying allegations still occur with Russia - despite the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall the following year.

But in the case of Cuba, there is no reason for such outdated thinking to persist. To say Havana is a threat is laughable. Since the fall of the Soviet Union and subsequently its patronage, Havana has become a military and financial shadow of what it once was. Poverty is rife and it is obvious the threat that Dr Castro may once have posed has long passed.

Surely it is time for President George W. Bush's administration - now that foreign policy is firmly at the top of its agenda - to rethink its policy. The benefits would be enormous for American companies and poverty-mired Cubans.

Despite the official downplaying of the significance of the shipments, they are a win-win situation for American grain producers in the midst of record surpluses and Cubans in need of reasonably priced food. Dr Castro has also backed down on refusing the shipments, which surely is a sign that the US should respond by starting to dismantle the embargo.