Cuba's Coke and Hollywood among embargo's paradoxes

Havana (AFP) - Despite Cuba's reputation as an island cut off from all things American, it is possible to drink Coca-Cola and watch Hollywood movies here, one of the paradoxes of the five-decade embargo.

Cuba's postcard image of pre-embargo American cars rolling down Havana streets that are so close yet so far from Miami belies the fact that the United States is currently the communist island's ninth-largest trade partner.

That is because the US Congress approved food exports to Cuba in 2000 under pressure from the domestic agricultural industry.

Cuba at first rebuffed the offer, but relented after Hurricane Michelle swept the island the following year, and now imports much of its food from the US -- $348 million in agricultural products last year, mainly frozen chicken.

Cuban restaurants, hotels and supermarkets also carry Coca-Cola, one of the most iconic products of American companies' global reach.

But they import their Coke mainly from other Latin American countries, not the United States.

A can costs $1.20 -- double the price of the local competition, "Tukola" and "Tropicola," whose affordability makes them more popular with Cubans.

Despite the island's reputation for hostility toward its northern neighbour, state television is also known to broadcast Hollywood movies, even while they are still on the big screen in the United States.

In March, for example, state TV showed "12 Years a Slave" five days after it won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

The embargo bans US film studios from selling movie rights to Cuba, and the island's TV networks do not release details on where they get the films.

However, it is impossible to pay with American credit cards on the island or find US pharmaceutical products.

Across the Florida Straits, the Cuban consulate in Washington has had trouble maintaining day-to-day operations because no bank would accept it as a client under the embargo's ban on financial transactions.

- Eying post-embargo future -

The embargo began as a partial export ban in 1960 and was expanded to a full injunction on trade by president John F. Kennedy in 1962, in the aftermath of the disastrous US-backed Bay of Pigs invasion.

"These 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked," President Barack Obama said Wednesday as he announced a historic rapprochement.

But it would take an act of Congress, which comes under the full control of Obama's Republican opponents in January, to repeal the embargo.

Cuba says the embargo it calls a "blockade" has cost it $100 billion.

But even while the embargo remains in place, the new detente will have beneficial economic effects for the island, said Cuban economist Pavel Vidal.

"American companies can't invest, but others will, trying to position themselves ahead of a future lifting of the embargo," he told AFP.

Already, some 400 flights per month connect the US and Cuba, though legally they can only transport Cuban-Americans to see their families or US citizens on educational, artistic, humanitarian or other approved trips.

For his part, Cuban President Raul Castro allowed Cubans to travel without special permits in 2013.

Cubans with relatives in the US can currently receive money from them, but that exception hinges on the goodwill of whoever occupies the White House at a given moment.

On Wednesday, Obama again lifted the amount of remittances that can be sent back to Cuba, from $500 to $2,000 every three months.

"Among the most immediate effects we're going to see is the increase in money sent to families," a Latin American diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity.