22 December 2006

George W Bush ruined my vacation plans

I want to go to Cuba.
Forget the politics for a moment. Cuba is a beautiful Caribbean island that is untouched by McDonalds, Starbucks and WalMart. It has a rich history and character. Have you had Cuban food? Fantastic. Great music. Bermuda, Jamaica and the Bahamas are nice. But I'll take Cuba.
And now back to the politics. Since February 2, 1962, the US has had an embargo against Cuba, including travel. Technically, it isn't illegal for Americans to go to Cuba. It's just illegal to make financial transactions or receive gifts either on the island or to cover travel to and from the island. The government does issue licenses to academics, journalists or for humanitarian efforts, but I'm not likely to qualify for those exceptions. Does blogging qualify as journalism? I suppose it's worth a shot.
Over the years, the travel ban has not been consistently enforced. Jimmy Carter lifted the travel ban entirely, but it was reinstated under Reagan and has been in place ever since, although travel to Cuba was frequently overlooked. Which brings us to Bush. Under his leadership, the travel ban has been strictly enforced and the Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) actively prosecutes Americans who violate the ban, sometimes levying fines up to $65,000. This is the same office that tracks financial support for terrorism. Some numbers to ponder:
Agents tracking Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein money: 4
Agents working full time on the financial embargo of Cuba: 21

Investigations opened from 1990 to 2003 related to terrorism: 93
Investigations opened from 1990 to 2003 related to violations of the economic embargo against Cuba: 10,683

Total fines collected since 1994 for terrorism financing violations: $9,425
Total fines collected since 1994 for violations of the economic embargo against Cuba: more than $8 million

There is a lot of talk about the War on Terror. According to the numbers, however, the US is waging a War on Vacation and Humanitarian Aid.
By the way, the embargo has been condemned by the United Nations every year since 1991, most recently on November 8, 2006 by a vote of 183-4. Only the US, Israel, Palau and the Marshall Islands voted against. You know it's questionable policy when even Australia doesn't follow America's lead. The rest of the world opposes the embargo on the grounds of human rights and the Geneva Convention--economic embargoes rarely include an outright ban on the sale of food and life-saving medicines. It has been said in this space before: shouldn't America be a leader in championing human rights, not an instrument in denying them? Religious leaders around the world, including the Pope and leaders in America, also call for an end to the embargo. Interestingly, much of the political activity concerning the embargo happens during election years. Most recently, in 1992, 1996 and 2004, major legislation has been passed in an effort to swing Cuban-American voters in Florida, who are viewed as an important voting bloc in an often vital and tightly contested state.
What is the theoretical purpose of the embargo? I suppose it is intended to weaken Castro's communist regime.
What is the actual effect of the embargo? Certainly Castro is not suffering himself. If anything, it provides him with an excuse for the economic failings in Cuba. He can blame the hardship suffered by the people on the lack of trade with his powerful neighbor and their bullying restrictions on other countries. If the embargo were to be lifted, he would have no one to blame but himself. For years, the economic embargo actually forced Cuba to rely on the Soviet Union for support, strengthening communism on the island rather than weakening it.
The embargo does, however, hurt the Cuban people: the farmers, taxi drivers, store owners, musicians, etc. Americans are hurt as well. Before the embargo, Cuba was an important destination for American exports, from both the factories and the farms. At the very least, Americans have lost a prime travel destination, hence this post. A third group suffering is the rest of the world. America effectively forces foreign countries and corporations to choose between the Cuban market and the lucrative American market through shipping and cargo restrictions concerning the US and Cuba. The Helms-Burton Act (1996) penalises foreign companies that do business in Cuba by preventing them from doing business in the US. It is one thing for the US government to pass questionable legislation governing Americans. It is quite another for it to pass legislation to govern foreign entities. In a comic show of rejection, the European Parliament in 1996 passed a primarily symbolic law making it illegal for EU citizens to obey the Helms-Burton act.
The bottom line is that Cuba is the least of our security worries. In 1998 the US Defense Intelligence Agency stated that 'Cuba does not pose a significant military threat to the U.S. or to other countries in the region.' They aren't the Soviet Union's little buddy anymore. For that matter, Americans always had the freedom to travel to the Soviet Union, but not Cuba. Today, I could go to North Korea, China, Iraq, Iran, or Libya, but not Cuba. The irony of the situation is that in a way, I don't want the embargo lifted. I don't want Cuba to be McDonaldified. But I also can't afford to pay a $65,000 fine on my vacations.
What can we do? As with most things political, you can write your congressman. For several years now, Congress has favoured ending the embargo (yes, even the Republican-dominated Congresses prior to the recent mid-term elections), but has always backed down when Bush said he would veto any such legislation. Let your congressman know that you oppose the embargo on any or all of the grounds itemised here.
What else can we do? Go anyway. They can't catch all of us. But the bigger issue here is not my vacation. Quite simply, we are promoting a policy that does not achieve its purpose, but instead severely restricts humanitarian effort to innocent people.

For further reading on this topic:
Wikipedia: United States embargo against Cuba
What Has the US Government's Embargo on Cuba Accomplished?
Denial of Food and Medicine: The Impact Of The U.S. Embargo On The Health And Nutrition In Cuba
Dorgan says Treasury Department's OFAC is supposed to be fighting terrorism, not chasing retired American bicyclists who travel in Cuba
More Agents Track Castro Than Bin Laden
Cuba OFAC Extortion/Shakedown

18 December 2006

Ashes reclaimed

Australia has won the third test by 206 runs, taking an insurmountable 3-0 lead in the Ashes Series. Heather is actually disappointed--she was hoping they would clinch it when we are at the test in Melbourne next week. You can read more about the test in Perth here. Plus, espn.com has had news from the Series under their Spotlight the past few days. It's a link to cricinfo.com, but still, it's something. This photo (notice the tiny little replica urn in the middle) was taken from the Cricket Australia website--take a look at the complete slideshow. It includes some great shots from the WACA. Five points if you can tell me what that stands for.

14 December 2006

Ashes update

Two of the Ashes Test Series are complete with Australia up 2-0. Australia won the first test by 277 runs in a blowout. They struggled the first four days of the second test as a draw appeared imminent but had an historic fifth day to win by six wickets. You can read about the exciting fifth day in this Sydney Morning Herald article.
The third test began today, but Perth is proving to be a bowler's pitch. Australia batted first and is already all out for 244 runs. England was 2/51 at the close of play today. Test two looked like it wouldn't be completed on time until the stunning ending, but the third test is looking like it might wrap up early. But who will finish on top?


This is Post #100. Just thought you should know.

07 December 2006

Why America needs more social programs and a decent minimum wage

Read 'I hate my job' on dallasnews.com.
This is the type of situation I was referring to a few weeks ago in WWJV and Republican 'values'. It is the real-life story of a woman who is struggling to make it. Yes, she has made mistakes in her past, but she has also gotten no favors from America. She has goals, she works hard, but odds are she will continue to struggle to get by for the rest of her life.
This article points out other problems with society, of course. The fast food industry. Drugs. Immigration issues. Simple human decency. These are tough problems--there are no easy answers. But just looking at Gloria's life, as well as that of her husband and two kids--doesn't she deserve better from America?

02 December 2006

Your 2006 NSW state champions

The Sydney Uni Lions played UTS Gridiron in the Waratah Bowl tonight and emerged victorious, 34-26. This is the fourth straight state title for the Lions. It was a hard fought game, but the final score does not reflect how it really played out. With six minutes to go, we were up 34-20 with the ball on the three yard line and a first down, but the offense was unable to punch it in to seal the game. UTS took over but stalled at midfield. We got the ball back and tried to run out the clock, but were forced to punt with 1:20 to go. A UTS player fielded the ball in the endzone and was chased out the back of the endzone, which should have been a safety. Instead, for some reason, UTS was given the ball at the 15 (the field was only 80 yards long). Not sure how that one worked. On their first play, they went over the top for the long TD, pulling within eight. After a missed extra point and a failed onside kick, we ran out the clock.
I've enjoyed playing this season. I've met some great guys, had some fun and collected a medal. Takes some of the sting off my fantasy football season. But next year, I think I'll give cricket a try. More to come on that later.