HAVANA – Cuba's foreign minister said Wednesday that President Barack Obama has missed a golden opportunity to improve relations, lamenting that nearly two years after he offered an olive branch to America's traditional foes, the U.S. leader has "not lived up to expectations."
In a yearly speech on the cost of America's 48-year trade embargo, which Cuba refers to as a "blockade," Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said Obama had actually increased enforcement of the embargo since taking over from President George W. Bush, who had a more outwardly hardline policy toward the island.
"The policy of the blockade under President Obama ... hasn't changed at all, and one could say that in several aspects, enforcement of the blockade ... has gotten even stricter," Rodriguez said.
He pointed to several instances in which the United States has fined international companies for doing business with Cuba in recent months, and said even medical supplies — in theory exempted from the embargo — often don't get through due to excessive red tape.
Washington first imposed economic sanctions in 1961 — shortly after it broke off diplomatic relations in response to Fidel Castro's decision to expropriate U.S. property and embrace more overtly socialist policies. The embargo took its current form in February 1962, and has been continued through 10 U.S. administrations.
Rodriguez said the policy had cost the cash-strapped island some $751 billion since its inception, when taking into account inflation and other factors. U.S. officials scoff at the Cuban figures, and say the island's leaders use it as an excuse for a failed communist economic model that could never stand on its own, and which is plagued by corruption and inefficiency.
Rodriguez's comments were part of a yearly ritual in which Cuba steps up its criticism of U.S. policy ahead of an annual United Nations vote in which the world overwhelmingly condemns the embargo. Last year, the vote was 187-3, with only Israel and the tiny Pacific island of Palau siding with Washington.
Rodriguez noted that Obama said in April 2009 that he sought a "new beginning" with Havana, and accused him of not living up to his words.
"He was elected to change things," Rodriguez said. "There is a vacuum, an abyss, a contradiction, between the speeches the president has made and his actions in relation to Cuba."
Obama has loosened restrictions on travel and remittances by Cuban Americans, has restarted midlevel talks between Cuban and U.S. officials on mail service and immigration, and has made it easier for Cuban artists to get visas to travel to the United States.
Repealing the embargo would take congressional action, but Cuba's top diplomat argued there are many things that Obama could do to alter its enforcement, including rolling back several measures adopted under President Bush that make it harder for students, educators and researchers to come to the island.
"I cannot explain why Obama continues to apply this blockade against Cuba when he has the power to modify it substantially," said Rodriguez. "When he has the opportunity to be the leader of a historic change."
Asked if Cuba's continued detention of American contractor Alan Gross was a stumbling block in ending the embargo, Rodriguez said only that Washington never had a problem finding excuses when it sought to justify its policies. Gross has been in jailed without charge since December. Cuban officials have accused him of spying.
Rodriguez said that even American allies have repeatedly condemned U.S. policy toward Cuba and he noted that American citizens can travel freely to Baghdad and Kabul — but not Havana.
Rodriguez said the policy, enacted during President John F. Kennedy, had not brought America "even one millimeter closer to its objectives" in Cuba.
"It is a Cold War museum piece," Rodriguez said. "It is a policy that has failed for 50 years, and any policy that has failed for 50 years deserves another look."