Monday, February 12, 2007

Hilton's Fawlty Towers - do mention the Cold War

ONE thing I've noticed in arguments about boycott tactics is how more effective the other side - governments and big companies -are, compared with us amateurs. I mean they don't have to worry about having resolutions adopted by union conferences (and then rescinded by recall conferences), nor about union members incurring penalties under anti-union legislation such as Britain's Labour government has inherited and kept unchanged from Tory times.

As for pickets, fair play to those who protested outside Carmel Agrexco's UK depot at the weekend, but it's not like having an army checkpoint blocking the road all week. Even if they arouse more outrage.

Still, to help get a bigger picture, I'm turning away from Israel's conflict with the Palestinians to look at another battlefront. One that's seldom in headlines here, but has been part of the political landscape for almost half a century. That's how long the plucky little United States has been standing up to the might of Cuba, by waging an economic blockade as well as backing right-wing terrorists.

In 1992, the year the former Soviet Union was standing down its ICBMs and losing some of its republics, Yugoslavia was breaking up, and white South Africans voted to end Apartheid, the US congress and George Bush brought in the Torricelli law, strengthening its blockade by making it illegal for US-owned subsidiaries in other countries to trade with Cuba. In 1996 this was followed by the Helms Burton Act which made foreign companies that invested in Cuba liable to prosecution in the United States. I wonder how many legislatures apart from the US are so confident laying down the law to people and companies in other lands?

Writing in the Morning Star (Monday, February 12) Rob Miller draws attention to some of the ways this has worked out. Under questioning from journalists the Hilton Hotel Group announced last week that due to US laws, Cuban nationals would be barred from its hotels. In March last year there was a row in Mexico over the Sheraton Maria Isabel hotel in Mexico expelling 16 Cuban guests. The hotel was fined £60,000 by the Mexican authorities, under a law passed soon after the Helms Burton Act, to protect trade and investment from external interference.

Miller says the European Union and Britain also have such "antidote" legislation. But it has not been invoked.

Last month a Cuban trade delegation coming to Oslo for a trade fair found its booking at a Hilton-owned hotel refused. "In response, the Norwegian Union of Municipal and General Employees is boycotting Scandic hotels. Union leader Anne Grethe Skaardal declared:
'For us, it is unacceptable for the US to dictate to to the whole world. In addition, we strongly oppose the US boycott of Cuba'.
(Blockading Cuba: How the US is attempting to crush its socialist neighbour).

Besides the union campaign, Oslo's Anti-Racist centre has filed a complaint against Scandic and a Hilton managing director under anti-racism laws which prohibit denying anyone access to facilities on account of their citizenship or ethnic origin. But it seems that while the United States confidently legislates for people in other countries, some governments - Norway perhaps among them, though Britain is probably another - hesitate to apply their laws to US companies operating on their soil.

Still, since the Hilton Group announced it was barring Cubans from its hotels around the world for fear of being prosecuted under US law, some 54 British MPs, including Tories and Liberals, have signed Early Day Motion 828 stating that such a ban "would violate domestic UK anti-discrimination laws and EU safeguards against the use of extra-territorial legislation and would be tantamount to a breach of UK sovereignty as well as being an act of racial discrimination".

The Scottish Affairs committee cancelled a booking at a Hilton hotel in Dundee. Questions were asked of Tony Blair in the House, and the Commission for Racial Equality has written reminding Hilton of its obligations under the Race Relations Act, which prohibits discrimination in the provision of goods and services. Hilton has pointed out that it is only following a similar policy to the Sheraton and Marriott chains owned by US conglomerate Starwood.

Rob Miller, who is director of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, says EU countries have maintained diplomatic relations with Cuba, and increasingly not gone along with the US blockade. At the UN last year Britain was among 183 member states voting against the US position, which was only supported by Israel, the Marshall Islands (still recovering from US bomb tests but still hosting US missiles) and Palau (former US Pacific colony and holiday resort). However, Miller is concerned that Cuba will face "a new onslaught" within the EU this year, led by newer members like the Czech Republic, Poland, Lithuania etc.

In this new Cold War crusade are they still celebrating and trying to complete "the defeat of communism", or just acknowledging that their "freedom" has amounted to a change of master? Has the EU's expansion helped dilute its aspirations to independence from the US super-power?

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