Will the United Nations hear Cuba cry over the 53-year-old embargo?

Cuba Ambassador to Kenya Raul Rodriguez Ramos speaking during the interview on October 23, 2013. Photo/JENNIFER MUIRURI

What you need to know:

  • On Tuesday, this will be the 22nd time the issue will go to a vote
  • Kenyan students in Cuba cannot receive money from home because the US blockade of the country prohibits it

On Tuesday, Kenya will be voting with 188 member states of the United Nations who want an end to the United States economic embargo on Cuba that has been in place since October 1960.

It will be the 22nd consecutive time the UN General Assembly, meeting in its 69th session, will be tabling Resolution 67/4 titled: “Necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial blockade imposed by the United States of America against Cuba.”

Kenya has a stake in the resolution that makes the lives of its students in the Caribbean island miserable. In a telephone interview, Dr Richard Njooro Karanja of Nyeri Provincial General Hospital said the blockade affects family ties inasmuch as a student cannot get urgent help from home in case of need.

Dr Karanja, a class of 2001 alumnus of the Alliance High School, was in Cuba from 2003 to 2011, and as president of the Cuban Graduates of Kenya Association, he knows firsthand the challenges students face as a result of the embargo.


A student on the government-to-government scholarship gets “everything”, Dr Karanja says. Funding covers tuition, food and accommodation besides a monthly stipend of 100 pesos (about Sh340).

However, “there is always that somebody back home who wants to send something small”— and that is where the problem starts.

Sending money to Cuba in US currency is an issue; you cannot transact through the US dollar, and in emergencies, embassies have to step in and use the diplomatic pouch.

Things we take for granted in Kenya — like having a laptop fixed — are a big issue in Cuba, which is badly constrained for spare parts, he said. You cannot order parts from nearby US, and getting them from home is a long and cumbersome affair involving circuitous routes.

In an interview, Cuban ambassador to Kenya Raúl Rodríguez Ramos told the Sunday Nation how parents who send money to their children in Cuba lost it.

Mr Abdi Yunis, whose son Osman Abdullah is studying in Cuba, lost Sh80,000.

Twenty-four Kenyan students are currently studying in Cuba, with medicine, engineering and pharmacy among the more popular courses. Although those who studied sports have not fared so well — the relevant ministry has not absorbed them — most of the 34 students, who studied in Cuba are back home and gainfully employed.

Part of the mission of the Cuban Graduates of Kenya Association is to assist alumni of Cuban universities to settle.

It is Cuban government policy not to retain them since their intention is for the students to return home and help build Kenya, Mr Ramos said.

He gave some background to the 53-year blockade, saying the economic strangulation is based on a memo by Lester Mallory, a US deputy assistant secretary of state at the time.

A document states that most Cubans support Fidel Castro, and in the absence of an effective opposition, “The only foreseeable means of alienating internal support is through disenchantment and disaffection based on economic dissatisfaction and hardship.”

The document adds that “every possible means should be undertaken promptly to weaken the economic life of Cuba” by denying it money and supplies “to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government”.

Mr Rodriguez lamented that although President Barack Obama had hinted in 2009 that Cuban-US relations could follow a new direction, the tiny island’s neighbour has instead listed Cuba among the countries that support terrorism.

Mr Rodriguez says Cuba sees the blockade as a barrier to its economic and social growth as it bars it from expanding trade ties with the rest of the world.

Cuba, Mr Ramos said, cannot freely export and import goods and services to and from the US, nor use the dollar in its international financial transactions or open a dollar account in third-country banks. Aid from international financiers is also prohibited, he said.

The Office of Foreign Assets Control of the US Treasury Department monitors violations of the blockade that attract hefty fines. Between January 2009 and last September 9, the Obama administration had forced American and foreign entities to pay over $2.4 billion (Sh204 billion) for relating with Cuba and other embargoed countries.

The sanctions can be as petty as the April prevention of Cuba Solidarity Campaign — a British NGO — from buying 100 copies of the book, The Economic War Against Cuba, published by a New York firm, to sensitive areas touching on health. Under US pressure, the Zurich Canton Bank suspended all transfers to Cuba through MediCuba Suisse — an NGO working in Cuba in the fight cancer, paediatric healthcare and HIV/Aids.

The irony, Mr Rodriguez said as he read from a document prepared to back the campaign against the embargo, is that while the US acknowledges that Cuba poses no security threat to the country, it still insists on including it in the infamous list of countries sponsoring terrorism to justify “the fierce persecution of financial transactions and reinforcement of the blockade”.

So what sparked the blockade in the first place?

Following the overthrow of Fulgencio Batista’s pro-American leadership in 1959, Fidel Castro’s revolutionary government made it national policy to nationalise assets owned by foreigners.

More than 100,000 farmers got land in agrarian reforms, Mr Rodriguez said, noting that prime land was in the hands of sugar millers, mostly US companies. The reforms affected telecommunications, electricity and water firms and British owned banks.

The ambassador singled out agricultural land as the most important, adding that compensation was to be made according to international law. The problem with US started when it demanded immediate payment.

“All the other countries accepted [instalment] payment, but America wanted immediate payment,” he said.

The dictatorship (of deposed Batista) was a very good friend of the Americans, who provided it with advice and weapons.

Even as the US demanded full compensation for its assets, Batista had fled the country with most of its money.

The ambassador paused to reflect on the Kenyan situation. Recalling the infamous “choices have consequences” comment ahead of the March 4 elections, Mr Rodriguez noted that America was wont to persecute any country opposed to its policies.