The United States is escalating its 60-year war on Cuba. Both Democrats and Republicans are braying about regime change and further US intervention. The Biden administration has applied new sanctions to the country and is threatening that these steps are “just the beginning.” The media has cranked up the anti-Cuba propaganda. This latest belligerence follows thousands of Cubans taking part in dozens of protests critical of the government and hundreds of thousands of Cubans participating in pro-revolution demonstrations.
In reality, the “beginning” of American efforts to destroy the Cuban revolution was in 1960, at the latest. A memo from April of that year that was written by Lester D. Mallory, then the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, lays out the rationale for six decades of economic warfare against the island. The document says that “The only foreseeable means of alienating [the strong] internal support [for Cuba’s revolution] is through disenchantment and disaffection based on economic dissatisfaction and hardship” so “every possible means should be undertaken promptly to weaken the economic life of Cuba.” Such a policy would aim to “den[y] money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government.”
Not only does the blockade prevent Americans from doing business with Cuba, but it is also extraterritorial. When the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba lost support from the eastern bloc, the US sought to take advantage of the strain this put on the Cuban people and finally strangle it into submission. The US government passed the 1992 Torricelli Act and the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which restrict trade and investment between Cuba and third-party countries (specifically, Helms-Burton punishes non-American companies that carry out transactions with Cuba).
A 2018 UN report finds that the first 58 years of the blockade cost Cuba at least $130 billion. According to the document, the blockade threatens Cubans’ access food security and health care by driving up costs in both sectors. It limits Cuba’s access to development credits from international financial institutions, undercuts its internet services, hinders the country’s access to materials needed for post-secondary education and scientific research, and prevents it from being able to properly disseminate its artistic and cultural talents internationally. That’s to say nothing of the many bombings of Cuba traceable to the United States.
Despite this unrelenting assault, the Cuban revolution has registered extraordinary achievements. In the 2018 report, the World Food Program says that Cuba has “largely eradicated hunger and poverty” and that “Cuba was one of the most successful countries in implementing the Millennium Development Goals.” Cuba is the only country in Latin America to meet all of the Education for All (EFA) goals set in the year 2000. It has a lower rate of infant mortality than the US, Canada, or the UK, and provided essential support to victorious liberation movements in southern Africa.
However, the Trump administration reversed the Obama government’s partial easing of aspects of the blockade and intensified the economic war on the country, arguably making it more extreme than it has ever been. The Trump administration restricted remittances and travel to Cuba, launched a campaign against the country’s laudable medical internationalism, sanctioned 35 Venezuelan ships that were transporting oil to Cuba, and put Cuba on the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism—an obscene joke considering the US’s harbouring of Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada Carriles, the men responsible for blowing up a Cuban airliner and killing all 73 passengers.
The recent anti-government protests in Cuba were largely fuelled by shortages in food and medical necessities including those that are needed to address COVID-19, the spread of which was itself was another factor driving the demonstrations. These are directly traceable to the blockade.
Oxfam points out that “US policies have led to insufficient domestic food production (in terms of quantity, variety, quality, and safety), higher prices for imports to cover food needs, and inadequate technology to improve productivity.”
By hampering Cuban access to medical essentials, the blockade hamstrung Cuba’s capacity to handle COVID-19 than would otherwise have been the case. In the early weeks of the pandemic, seven UN human rights experts criticized the US for ignoring repeated calls to waive sanctions that hinder Cuba (and other countries’) ability to respond to COVID-19 and save lives: they said that the export and re-export of goods to Cuba requires a cumbersome and costly licensing process because of the US embargo, which makes it so that Cuban procurement of medicine, medical equipment and technology is inefficient; the issuance of licences or clearance for exemptions [to the blockade] can take several months. The human rights authorities said that:
Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the impact of the comprehensive embargo has imposed additional financial burden, increased cargo travel time due to an inability to procure supplies, reagents, medical equipment and medicines necessary for the diagnosis and treatment of COVID-19 directly from the United States and therefore constrains the effectiveness of the response… It also delays the development of e-health and telemedicine due to difficulties in accessing affordable technology.
Special Rapporteur Alena Douhan points out in a report that, during the pandemic, the blockade has kept Cuba from being able “to pay for foreign medical equipment as the shippers’ banks reject its payments. As for the equipment itself, the purchasing entity MediCuba has been rebuffed by more than 60 American companies that either did not respond or stated that they could not do business with Cuba.” In April 2020, Douhan notes, banks in Switzerland blocked donation transfers to Cuba made by the Swiss organizations MediCuba-Suiza and Asociación Suiza-Cuba to fight the pandemic. Swiss companies IMT Medical and Acutronic Medical Systems could not ship medical equipment to Cuba an American firm acquired them. Chinese billionaire Jack Ma donated equipment to Cuba to help fight COVID-19 but it could not get there because the American company hired to transport the shipment declined at the last minute because US regulations blocked it from fulfilling the contract.
Cuba is not without internal contradictions. As David Austin puts it, Cuba is not utopia but “a revolution in motion.” Many Cubans have criticisms of the government. It is also true, as Alan Macleod shows, the US is doing everything it can to exacerbate social cleavages in Cuba and create new ones. The salient point for anyone living in the imperial core is that the scarcities that gave rise to the anti-government are “a direct result of US sanctions,” in the words of University of Glasgow Cuba scholar Helen Yaffe. “Cubans have genuine concerns about a deteriorating socio-economic reality in their country,” writes Francisco Dominguez, head of the Research Group on Latin America at Middlesex University. These conditions, he says, have been “brought about mainly by the drastic intensification of the US blockade under Donald Trump.”
Mexico and Nicaragua are shipping aid to Cuba. Canada too should undertake measures to openly defy the blockade and to energetically work on getting the US to finally end its assault on the Cuban population. Many organizations in Canada are doing helpful blockade-breaking work but far more people in this country will have to make Cuba solidarity a priority if the small socialist country is to survive and thrive, the latter of which is only possible if it can cut the imperial noose.
Greg Shupak writes fiction and political analysis and teaches Media Studies and English at the University of Guelph-Humber. He’s the author of The Wrong Story: Palestine, Israel and the Media. He writes a monthly column with Canadian Dimension and his work frequently appears in outlets like Electronic Intifada, F.A.I.R, The Guardian, In These Times, Jacobin, and The Nation.