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Easing of Restraints in Cuba Renews Debate on U.S. Embargo

The New York Times
A pre-embargo car in Havana. With some new leeway for capitalism, more Cubans are asking that the United States encourage it. More Photos »

HAVANA — “If I could just get a lift,” said Francisco López, imagining the addition of a hydraulic elevator as he stood by a rusted Russian sedan in his mechanic’s workshop here. All he needed was an investment from his brother in Miami or from a Cuban friend there who already sneaks in brake pads and other parts for him.

The problem: Washington’s 50-year-old trade embargo, which prohibits even the most basic business dealings across the 90 miles separating Cuba from the United States. Indeed, every time Mr. López’s friend in Florida accepts payment for a car part destined for Cuba, he puts himself at risk of a fine of up to $65,000.

With Cuba cautiously introducing free-market changes that have legalized hundreds of thousands of small private businesses over the past two years, new economic bonds between Cuba and the United States have formed, creating new challenges, new possibilities — and a more complicated debate over the embargo.

The longstanding logic has been that broad sanctions are necessary to suffocate the totalitarian government of Fidel and Raúl Castro. Now, especially for many Cubans who had previously stayed on the sidelines in the battle over Cuba policy, a new argument against the embargo is gaining currency — that the tentative move toward capitalism by the Cuban government could be sped up with more assistance from Americans.

Even as defenders of the embargo warn against providing the Cuban government with “economic lifelines,” some Cubans and exiles are advocating a fresh approach. The Obama administration already showed an openness to engagement with Cuba in 2009 by removing restrictions on travel and remittances for Cuban Americans. But with Fidel Castro, 86, retired and President Raúl Castro, 81, leading a bureaucracy that is divided on the pace and scope of change, many have begun urging President Obama to go further and update American policy by putting a priority on assistance for Cubans seeking more economic independence from the government.

“Maintaining this embargo, maintaining this hostility, all it does is strengthen and embolden the hard-liners,” said Carlos Saladrigas, a Cuban exile and co-chairman of the Cuba Study Group in Washington, which advocates engagement with Cuba. “What we should be doing is helping the reformers.”

Any easing would be a gamble. Free enterprise may not necessarily lead to the embargo’s goal of free elections, especially because Cuba has said it wants to replicate the paths of Vietnam and China, where the loosening of economic restrictions has not led to political change. Indeed, Cuban officials have become adept at using previous American efforts to soften the embargo to their advantage, taking a cut of dollars converted into pesos and marking up the prices at state-owned stores.

And Cuba has a long history of tossing ice on warming relations. The latest example is the jailing of Alan Gross, a State Department contractor who has spent nearly three years behind bars for distributing satellite telephone equipment to Jewish groups in Havana.

In Washington, Mr. Gross is seen as the main impediment to an easing of the embargo, but there are also limits to what the president could do without Congressional action. The 1992 Cuban Democracy Act conditioned the waiving of sanctions on the introduction of democratic changes inside Cuba. The 1996 Helms-Burton Act also requires that the embargo remain until Cuba has a transitional or democratically elected government. Obama administration officials say they have not given up, and could move if the president decides to act on his own. Officials say that under the Treasury Department’s licensing and regulation-writing authority, there is room for significant modification. Following the legal logic of Mr. Obama’s changes in 2009, further expansions in travel are possible along with new allowances for investment or imports and exports, especially if narrowly applied to Cuban businesses.

Even these adjustments — which could also include travel for all Americans and looser rules for ships engaged in trade with Cuba, according to a legal analysis commissioned by the Cuba Study Group — would probably mean a fierce political fight. The handful of Cuban-Americans in Congress for whom the embargo is sacred oppose looser rules.

When asked about Cuban entrepreneurs who are seeking more American support, Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Florida Republican who is chairwoman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, proposed an even tighter embargo.

“The sanctions on the regime must remain in place and, in fact, should be strengthened, and not be altered,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Responsible nations must not buy into the facade the dictatorship is trying to create by announcing ‘reforms’ while, in reality, it’s tightening its grip on its people.”

Many Cubans agree that their government cares more about control than economic growth. Business owners complain that inspectors pounce when they see signs of success and demand receipts to prove that supplies were not stolen from the government, a common practice here. One restaurant owner in Havana said he received a large fine for failing to produce a receipt for plastic wrap.

Cuban officials say the shortages fueling the black market are caused by the embargo. But mostly they prefer to discuss the policy in familiar terms. They take reporter after reporter to hospitals of frail infants, where American medical exports are allowed under a humanitarian exception. Few companies bother, however, largely because of a rule, unique to Cuba, requiring that the American companies do on-site monitoring to make sure products are not used for weapons.

“The Treasury Department is asking me, in a children’s hospital, if I use, for example, catheters for military uses — chemical, nuclear or biological,” said Dr. Eugenio Selman, director of the William Soler Pediatric Cardiology Center.

As for the embargo’s restriction on investment, Cuban officials have expressed feelings that are more mixed. At a meeting in New York in September with a group called Cuban Americans for Engagement, Cuba’s foreign minister, Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, said business investment was not a priority.

“Today the economic development of Cuba does not demand investments of $100,000, $200,000, $300,000,” he said, according to the group’s account of the meeting. Rather, he called for hundreds of millions of dollars to expand a local port.

Owners of Cuba’s small businesses, mostly one-person operations at this point, say they know that the government would most likely find ways to profit from wider economic relations with the United States. The response to the informal imports that come from Miami in the suitcases of relatives, for instance, has been higher customs duties.

Still, in a country where Cubans “resolve” their way around government restrictions every day (private deals with customs agents are common), many Cubans anticipate real benefits should the United States change course. Mr. López, a meticulous mechanic who wears plastic gloves to avoid dirtying his fingers, said legalizing imports and investment would create a flood of the supplies that businesses needed, overwhelming the government’s controls while lowering prices and creating more work apart from the state.

Other Cubans, including political dissidents, say softening the embargo would increase the pressure for more rapid change by undermining one of the government’s main excuses for failing to provide freedom, economic opportunity or just basic supplies.

“Last month, someone asked me to redo their kitchen, but I told them I couldn’t do it because I didn’t have the materials,” said Pedro José, 49, a licensed carpenter in Havana who did not want his last name published to avoid government pressure.

“Look around — Cuba is destroyed,” he added, waving a hand toward a colonial building blushing with circles of faded pink paint from the 1950s. “There is a lot of work to be done.”

A version of this article appeared in print

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