Cuba: Hole in the Embargo
Ever since 1960, the U.S. has been putting an economic squeeze on Communist Cuba with what amounts to an unofficial trade embargo. Free world nations are urged not to do business with Castro, and all vessels in Cuban trade are blacklisted from picking up U.S. Government-financed cargo. So far, 196 vessels are on the forbidden list; free world trade has skidded from $1.3 billion in 1959 to less than $300 million last year, leaving Castro almost totally dependent on his Iron Curtain friends. But last week Great Britain knocked a hole in the embargo big enough to drive a bus through.
In Havana, Britain’s Leyland Motor Co. Ltd. signed up to sell 400 heavy 45-passenger buses for $10 million plus $1,100,000 worth of spare parts. The company gave Castro five years to pay, threw in an option for another 1,000 buses and agreed to train whatever mechanics were needed. To get around the shipping blacklist, Leyland first asked the British government for the loan of an aircraft carrier; when that request was ignored, the company announced that East German freighters would handle the order.
Lack of Parts. The deal came as no surprise to the U.S. Government. For months, Cuban trade officials have been shopping with France, West Germany, Spain and Japan for someone to restore the island’s disintegrating transportation system. Havana bus parks are filled with rusting U.S. buses for which no parts are available. In 1962, Czechoslovakia sent several hundred Skoda buses, but they soon fell victim to Cuba’s tropical weather, its potholed roads and hot-rodding drivers. Of some 1,600 buses operating in Havana in 1961, only about half are still in service, so few that Cubans go to work packed like cattle into trucks.
By itself, the Leyland sale will give Cuba little more than a temporary shot in the arm. Nevertheless, the U.S. was visibly annoyed at the sight of a British company racing to Castro’s rescue. “It certainly does not help in our effort to isolate the Castro regime,” said a State Department official bitterly. But there was little that the U.S. could do about it.
Matter of Surplus. The British seemed to wonder what the U.S. was so upset about. Approved by the government as a straight commercial venture, the sale was treated as if it had no cold war overtones. Leyland had sold hundreds of buses to Cuba before Castro, and was now only resuming relations with an old customer. “I am sorry the U.S. disapproves,” said Leyland’s Managing Director Donald Stokes, “but this is an English company doing a deal with Cuba. I have no knowledge of having to go to America for permission to sell buses.” Besides, if the U.S. expected to sell $300 million worth of wheat to Soviet Russia, it was in no position to complain about a $10 million British sale to Castro. As one Briton dryly put it: “The U.S. has a surplus of wheat – we have a surplus of buses.”