By DAMIEN CAVE, New York Times
HAVANA — “If I could just get a lift,” said Francisco López, imagining the addition of a hydraulic elevator as he stood by a rusted Russian sedan in his mechanic’s workshop here. All he needed was an investment from his brother in Miami or from a Cuban friend there who already sneaks in brake pads and other parts for him. The problem: Washington’s 50-year-old trade embargo, which prohibits even the most basic business dealings across the 90 miles separating Cuba from the United States. Indeed, every time Mr. López’s friend in Florida accepts payment for a car part destined for Cuba, he puts himself at risk of a fine of up to $65,000.
With Cuba cautiously introducing free-market changes that have legalized hundreds of thousands of small private businesses over the past two years, new economic bonds between Cuba and the United States have formed, creating new challenges, new possibilities — and a more complicated debate over the embargo. The longstanding logic has been that broad sanctions are necessary to suffocate the totalitarian government of Fidel and Raúl Castro. Now, especially for many Cubans who had previously stayed on the sidelines in the battle over Cuba policy, a new argument against the embargo is gaining currency — that the tentative move toward capitalism by the Cuban government could be sped up with more assistance from Americans.
Even as defenders of the embargo warn against providing the Cuban government with “economic lifelines,” some Cubans and exiles are advocating a fresh approach. The Obama administration already showed an openness to engagement with Cuba in 2009 by removing restrictions on travel and remittances for Cuban Americans. But with Fidel Castro, 86, retired and President Raúl Castro, 81, leading a bureaucracy that is divided on the pace and scope of change, many have begun urging President Obama to go further and update American policy by putting a priority on assistance for Cubans seeking more economic independence from the government.
“Maintaining this embargo, maintaining this hostility, all it does is strengthen and embolden the hard-liners,” said Carlos Saladrigas, a Cuban exile and co-chairman of the Cuba Study Group in Washington, which advocates engagement with Cuba. “What we should be doing is helping the reformers.”