Drinking my way through the embargo

By Calvin Godfrey, TN News

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Cuban leader Fidel Castro visits Vietnamese soldiers at Khe Sanh in the north-central province of Quang Tri in 1973

As the new moon dawned on 2011, America's Embargo against Cuba turned 50.
For half a century, Americans everywhere have been prohibited from engaging in any kind of economic transaction with a Cuban or partially-Cuban entity.
That means anywhere in the world -- even in Vietnam.
But there I was, staring at the brown, bullet-shaped bottle of Havana Club Anejo Reserva on a crowded wholesale in the District 6 Metro Cash & Carry.
It was just days before Tet, and I found myself standing in a crowd of housewives who stood scratching their heads at bottles of Russian Champagne, mysterious mass-market cognacs and something called "Wall Street: a premium blend of Scotch Whiskey and Vietnamese Spirit."
We had all crowded into the German supermarket looking for something special to share with friends and family for the holiday.
And I had found it.
Havana Club Anejo Reserva is not great rum -- I knew that from its US$20 price tag. But, for me, it is forbidden fruit.
For buying the rum, the United States' Office of Foreign Assets Control could slap me with $250,000 in fines and 10 years in prison.
But the only other rums on the shelf were Captain Morgan, Bacardi Gold and Rhum Vieux Hiệp Hog.
So I bought the Havana Club and drank it. After a few moments in the glass, the amber liquid smelled of candied fruit and finished in hot wash of pecan.
Beyond the great taste in my mouth, something struck me as politically delicious about enjoying Cuban rum in Vietnam, where a similar embargo starved the nation for nearly two decades.
In his book Un Gran Secreto: Cubanos en el Camino Ho Chi Minh, Raul Vivo Valdes (a senior Cuban Party official and attaché to the Indochinese Communist Party) wrote that Cuban engineers had assisted Vietnam in maintaining the Ho Chi Minh Trail, beginning in the early 1960s. Valdes also claimed to have maintained a Cuban embassy for the National Liberation Front in the southern jungles.
Following its withdrawal from Vietnam, America's economic policy remained punitive against both nations.
The Vietnam embargo
"[After the war] there was absolutely no goodwill toward the people or government of Vietnam, from the United States side," James Fallow, the national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, told me. "There was no political leeway for US politicians who wanted to have a more 'accommodating' policy."
Fallows contends that the real force behind the embargo was the powerful MIA lobby, which demanded that Vietnam account for and return all US servicemen before any other issue could be discussed.
"It wasn't until the Clinton administration was given cover by some Vietnam veterans and former POWs that Clinton could push for normalization," he said.
But, prior to the shift in policy, many informed Americans were already fed up.
In a lengthy 1991 article in the same magazine Fallows wrote that "the embargo makes existence undeservedly miserable for many millions of people, while doing no visible good for anyone -- except, perhaps, for businessmen in Taiwan, Singapore, Australia, and Japan."
In addition to preventing US citizens from traveling and trading with Vietnam, the embargo also prevented international organizations from assisting its reconstruction, he noted. The Soviet Union, Finland and Sweden were the only nations to provide Vietnam with foreign aid for over a decade.

"The real reason the embargo persists, of course, is that we lost the war," he wrote. "[So] with a kind of unconscious spite we continued a policy that hobbles an entire nation and helps us not at all, mainly because a generation ago we came to grief there."
In 1995, after extensive concessions from Vietnam, the US finally abandoned the policy.
Cuba connection
The Cuban embargo, however, remains a far more hopeless case - a kind of zombie policy that gets repudiated, every year, by unanimous UN vote but persists nonetheless.
The policy is surely spiteful. But rather than being motivated by the recovery of American remains, the economic blockade seems motivated purely by a desire to recover assets lost to the revolution at any cost.
By the time the embargo went into full effect in 1962, Americans owned roughly half of the island's massive sugar industry (and, as a result, rum industry) -- most of which was nationalized.
Many of Cuba's distillers fled to the US, joining an exile community that has continued to lobby heavily to recover their interests.
The embargo has remained in place as "a sop to the fading hard-line group of Cuban-Americans in Florida," according to Wayne Smith, who oversaw the Cuba Desk at the US State Department from 1979 to 1982. In addition to opposing the embargo, Smith is a fan of the rum. "I drink Havana Club Anejo," he told me.
According to his biography, Smith's efforts within the Carter administration to normalize relations with Cuba were chiefly foiled by Zbigniew Brzezinski, the then hard-line chief of the National Security Council who has been largely credited with turning the administration away from a policy of engagement (with both Vietnam and Cuba) in favor of Soviet isolation.
Last April, Smith accompanied Carter to Havana, where the former president called for an immediate end to the economic blockade.
Smith has said he left the state department in 1982, fed up with the Reagan Administration's attitudes toward Cuba. But even Reagan's former secretary of state has called America's Cuba policy "insane."
Nevertheless, it remains in full effect. The Obama Administration levied over $1 billion in fines against American citizens and companies for conducting business in Cuba during his first three years -- more than any other administration.
Havana Club goes global
In many ways, my bottle of Anejo Reserva rum tells the tale of the massive challenges Cuba faces in navigating el bloqueo.
Just as Vietnam was pressing ahead towards normalization, Cuba was struggling like never before.
The Soviet Union purchased large quantities of sugar at vastly inflated prices; following its collapse, Cuba's GDP plummeted. Between 1991 and 1993 Cuba's gross domestic product fell 33 percent.
In addition to its prized cigar plantations, Cuba had a number of famous rum distilleries; Havana Club was the largest. By 1993 some 300,000 cases of Havana Club were being turned out annually. The rum was highly regarded internationally, but most of it went to Russia.
That same year, the French multinational Pernod Ricard entered a joint-venture agreement with the Cuban government that sent sales of the rum skyrocketing. A spokesman for Pernod Ricard wrote that, last year, international sales of the rum hit 3.84 million cases in 120 countries, including Vietnam and excluding, of course, the US, the world's largest rum market.
The French multinational added luxury products to the Havana Club line, sued a US company over naming rights and racked up awards for the state-owned distillery. The company maintains that it sells a million cases in Cuba alone and employs about 500 Cuban nationals.
The downside, of course, is that a once wholly-Cuban product has now become the partial property of a European conglomerate owned by the French -- the same folks who forcibly monopolized Vietnamese rice wine production and turned it into junk.
Vietnam remains a small market for Cuba's rum but has continued to support its old ally by overseeing a decade-long rice cultivation program and selling it more rice than any other country. Last November defense officials welcomed Cuban veterans back to Hanoi to thank them for their service.
I figure that between paying my Vietnamese taxes and drinking the odd Havana Club Cuba Libre, I'm doing my part to thank them too.

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