The Cuban Embargo

The UN General Assembly voted  overwhelmingly to end the US Economic, Financial and Commercial Embargo of Cuba. The Cubans claim the embargo cost them over $242 million in 2008 alone. The embargo, Cuba claims, makes foreign capital unavailable because investors face possible sanctions for doing business with Cuba.

Public opinion polls – elite business opinion agrees – show a majority favor dropping the embargo and travel ban. Instead of scrapping it, however, President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton cling to their inheritance, in policy terms equivalent to scientists insisting the world is flat.

Nothing succeeds like failure in imperial Washington. George W. Bush exemplified failure in school and business. As Texas Governor, he presided over more executions than any previous governor. As President, he became a cruel joke – on the world. He praised Chief Michael Brown –“You’re doing a heck of a job Brownie” — after Brownie’s agency failed to respond to – or even know about — Hurricane Katrina. He insisted on nonexistent WMD and links to Al-Qaida that “justified” his invasion of Iraq. He pissed away America’s surplus through neglect and his deregulation policies cost the economy and the world’s environmental struggle dearly. Bush’s disasters lasted for eight years.

Washington’s failed Cuba policy has endured for 49. “Give it time,” say its proponents.

In July 1960, Eisenhower cut Cuba’s sugar quota to punish Cuba for expropriating US companies. The Soviet Union formally entered the US-Cuban dispute to buy Cuban sugar. In October, he imposed a partial embargo that Kennedy completed in February 1962, by which time Cuba had expropriated all US companies.

The words of the embargo are written, however, in invisible blood ink. Responding to Castro’s disobedience in early 1959, Eisenhower had authorized Cuban exiles to launch terrorist attacks on Cuba. He ordered a CIA overthrow of the regime in early 1960, but withheld the order to unleash 1,500 Cuban exiles the CIA had trained to invade the island

In April, after almost three months in office, President Kennedy succumbed to pressure and sent the exiles to their defeat at the Bay of Pigs, staining the young president’s reputation. Instead of trying to clean that dark spot following the fiasco by coming to terms with Cuba, Kennedy sought revenge: assassination attempts and thousands of armed attacks against Cuba. Ironically, before Kennedy signed his tightened embargo order, he ordered an ample supply of his favorite Cuban cigars.

Administration officials knew better than to ask the obvious question: what exactly did Cuba do to the United States to merit terrorism and economic strangulation? The answer then and now: disobedience; lack of respect; refusal to abide by Washington’s interpretation of a 19th Century Doctrine signed by President James Monroe.

In August 1961, Fidel offered an olive branch in response to the armed assaults. Che Guevara met with Richard Goodwin, JFK’s Latin America adviser. If Cuba cut military ties with the Soviets, stopped exporting revolution and compensated expropriated US companies, would Kennedy cease his violence?

Kennedy, puffing on a cigar Che had sent him, responded. “Weakness” he declared. “Turn up the heat.” One month later, Fidel went to his last deterrent. Soviet Premier Khrushchev stationed nuclear missiles on the island. In October 1962 came the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In February 1963, Kennedy authorized a travel ban and in July froze US-based Cuban assets. Kennedy lawyers smiled guiltily when Washington bullied Latin American states to expel Cuba from the Organization of American States (OAS) despite the absence in the OAS Charter of grounds for expelling Cuba. “Kennedy relied on the Monroe Doctrine as the overarching guideline that overcame such trivialities,” Paul Warnke (President Johnson’s Assistant Defense Secretary) winked at me in 1980.

Ford and Carter relaxed the embargo and travel ban. Reagan retightened them. Succeeding presidents (including Obama) responding to various interests – but not the national interest – diddled with the screws as well.

Reagan privatized Cuba policy, transferring it from Washington to the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami. Cuba survived. Cubans needing certain medicine or medical equipment urgently from the United States suffered – as did the Cuban economy and thus all Cubans. In the 1990s, I tried unsuccessfully to convince then Congressman Robert Torricelli to not pursue his “Torricelli Bill.” I said the embargo hurt most Cubans materially. He said Cubans could buy supposedly banned equipment elsewhere, claiming Cuban propaganda promoted “the pain argument.” Logically, if the embargo didn’t hurt Cuba, why maintain it? To punish Fidel – symbolically!

Does Washington define success –like the drug war? — by gloating over decades of consistent failure? Will Obama remain stuck in this incongruous Cuba policy legacy or exhibit some cojones?

SAUL LANDAU won Chile’s Bernardo O’Higgins award for human rights. Counterpunch published his A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD. He is an Institute for Policy Studies fellow whose films on DVD are available. (


SAUL LANDAU’s A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD was published by CounterPunch / AK Press.