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Harm and Inefficacy: the U.S. sanctions on Cuba

Over a span of 43 years and across 8 American presidencies, the CIA came up with or executed plans to assassinate former Cuban leader Fidel Castro about 638 times. These plans ranged from spiking Castro’s cigars with a botulinum toxin that would explode when used, to contaminating Castro’s diving suits with deadly fungi, to “character assassination attempts” that involved spraying his broadcasting studio with LSD-like drugs. Although these plans failed one after the other, the U.S. government remained undeterred and would continue assassination attempts until the end of the Clinton Administration.

Ever since the founding of Cuba and their almost immediate alignment with the Eastern Bloc and against American imperialism, the U.S. has taken an aggressively hostile approach towards the nation, trying to stage a coup through the Bay of Pigs invasion, sending spies to infiltrate the Cuban government, and hatching schemes to assassinate Castro. Though all of these plots have either completely failed or seen very limited success, the U.S. has, in fact, implemented one thing that saw tremendous success, not in terms of its purported aims but rather in hurting the Cuban people: sanctions. 

U.S. sanctions against Cuba not only hurt both Cuban and American citizens but also serve none of their intended political ends for the United States. Although they are aimed at pressuring Cuba to liberalize and democratize, such results have failed to materialize. Instead, sanctions have become a source of both economic and humanitarian damages for both Cubans and Americans. The sanctions were first implemented in October of 1960 and banned the trade of all goods except food and humanitarian supplies. After overthrowing the previously US-backed Batista dictatorship, Castro sought to establish friendly relations between Cuba and the U.S. and made overtures to the neighboring nation, all of which were rebuffed by a distrustful Eisenhower Administration. In the following months, the U.S. government viewed Cuba with increasing suspicion and hostility as Cuba established growing ties with the Soviet Union. This tension culminated in Eisenhower’s decision to ban all U.S. oil exports to Cuba. Cuba had no choice but to turn to the Soviet Union for oil, but when the oil arrived in Cuba Eisenhower also forbade the US-owned companies in Cuba from refining it. Castro was essentially forced to nationalize the U.S. oil firms, and it is this action that directly prompted the embargo against Cuba. The embargo has not been lifted since; Barack Obama, to his credit, tried to lift it but was blocked by Congress.

The economic cost of these sanctions is steep. According to the United Nations, the embargo has cost Cuba roughly $130 billion in economic value over 6 decades. Although this number may seem negligible, it is in fact about one and a half times Cuba’s annual GDP of $87 billion. At the same time, the US International Trade Commission estimates that if the US lifts the embargo, the U.S. export of select agricultural sectors and all manufactured products to Cuba would increase by about $1.8 billion annually. During Cuba’s economic crisis last year, Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel blamed Trump’s tightening sanctions, which he claimed severely limited their economic growth.

More importantly, the embargo has a sizable human toll. Studies have shown that the embargo “contributes to increasing health threats and the decline of some health indicators,” along with making the “supply of essential goods more costly, more difficult, and more time consuming to procure and maintain.” Additionally, medical restrictions as a result of the embargo have been linked with historic increases in tuberculosis deaths, diarrheal cases, and contaminated water. A nation-wide pandemic of optic and peripheral neuropathy was linked with food shortages caused by the embargo, and more recently the Cuban government has argued that the embargo is a massive obstacle in receiving coronavirus-related supplies.

Although the United States is a far larger country, its people have also suffered health-related damages as a result of these sanctions. For example, Cuba developed a vaccine for lung cancer, CIMAvax-EGF, that Americans currently do not have access to because of the embargo. Additionally, because Trump increased travel restrictions to Cuba, it has become increasingly difficult for US citizens to physically go to Cuba to receive treatment. These sanctions have cost countless lives and damaged both countries’ economic output, and for what?

Though proponents of the US sanctions argue that they are an effective means of pressuring the Caribbean Island to become more democratic and establishing greater protections for what they call “civil liberties,” this argument is extremely inconsistent and disingenuous given our government’s thriving relationships with nations complicit in human rights abuses. Arbitrarily murdering civilians and journalists is not unheard of within many of America’s allies, yet the U.S. continues to have thriving weapons contracts with many of these countries and gives some of them tens of billions in foreign aid. 

As of mid-2020, only four nations continue to be sanctioned by the United States: Iran primarily for trying to become a nuclear power, North Korea for the same offense, Syria for their human rights abuses, and, of course, Cuba. Among these states, Cuba stands out in being, by far, the smallest threat to the US and the country that has done the least damage to any peoples. This is an understanding pervasive throughout the international community: every year since 1992, the UN General Assembly has voted overwhelmingly to pass a non-binding resolution criticizing the embargo. The US and Israel are the only countries that consistently vote against the resolution, though Brazil joined them in 2019, making it 187 votes against 3 in favor of the resolution. All the nations of the world, excepting a few of America’s closest political allies, understand the harm caused by the embargo; Egypt argued in the U.N. that the embargo “makes it very difficult for people to access food, education and state of the art technology,” while Bolivia claimed that it “violates the human rights of the Cuban people” and Iran said the embargo is particularly “hurting women and children, refugees and other vulnerable people.”

Furthermore, there is no evidence in Cuba’s case that the sanctions have been working. Castro’s government stands strong, even if he is no longer at its helm, and press freedom remains the most restrictive in the Western Hemisphere. Critics of these sanctions claim that these sanctions only undermine America’s international power by pushing Cuba into the arms of Russia and China. If anything, the tightening of sanctions are ironically hurting Cuba’s burgeoning private sector, much of which is built around US tourism.

Historically, sanctions have only been useful under very particular conditions. US-imposed sanctions against South Africa during apartheid in the form of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 were largely seen as critical to the dismantling of apartheid. The main difference between the effectiveness of sanctions against South Africa and that against Cuba is in the strength of complementary political mobilization within the target country. There was an extremely powerful and effective anti-apartheid movement of which Nelson Mandela played a significant role. The sanctions also focused attention from the international community onto the oppressive system, effectively isolating South Africa. Cuba, on the other hand, has no internal movement for the sanctions to strengthen and supplement, and the international community is effectively on Cuba’s side on this matter.

It is high time that America join the rest of the world in establishing free trade with Cuba and end the ineffective sanctions that have cost lives and economic growth for both nations. The U.S. government must realize that, if our goal is to push for a more democratic, more liberalized Cuba, what has not worked for 60 years will not work now or in the future. The U.S. must seek a more humane, diplomatic means of pursuing American values and interests.

Image via Flickr