The U.S. embargo against Cuba is 62 years old, a cold war relic older and crueler than the Berlin Wall. But 30 years after the wall fell the US government continues the blockade, a weapon always intended to crush Cuba’s nationalized economy and achieve regime change.
While campaigning for President, Biden promised to undo Trump’s fresh mountain of sanctions while implying that the softer, Obama-era approach would be re-started.
But Biden’s Cuba pledges evaporated like many other campaign promises. Not only has he continued Trump’s warlike approach to Cuba, Biden has taken additional actions that have led to widespread suffering for the average Cuban in a time of social crisis triggered by Covid.
What Biden Inherited from Bush, Obama and Trump
When Bush Jr. delared his ‘war on terror’ Cuba was targeted with a bundle of sanctions while Guantanamo Bay was transformed into a ‘black site’ for torture. Cuba was also placed on the list of ‘state sponsors of terror,’ which means more sanctions while also scaring away companies from engaging in business with the island, since any investment could be suddenly upended by regime change.
Bush’s aggressive approach was reversed by Obama, who removed Cuba from the terror list while pledging to close the US military base that illegally occupies Cuba at Guantanamo Bay.
Fidel once called the US military presence at Guantanamo “a knife directed at the heart of Cuba.” Indeed any US plan to intervene militarily in Cuba would be executed from Guantanamo, for example the US invasion force that assembled there during the Cuban missile crisis.
Obama’s promise to close Guantanamo was ultimately vetoed by the military industrial complex. Later Obama became the first President since Calvin Coolidge to visit the island, knowing that few people under 50 understood why there was a vicious US embargo against Cuba. Obama’s visit raised high hopes on the island, where he was greeted like a godsend by the many Cubans who hoped the painful embargo would soon be over (though the skeletal foundation of the embargo has to be undone by Congress).
Obama did use his executive authority to ease travel restrictions and make remittances easier to send, but much of Obama’s executive actions were undone by Trump’s. Trump implemented 243 new sanctions meant to “starve” Cuba— the term used by Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Indeed the new sanctions targeted the Cuban food and healthcare industries, and the result has led to food shortages that have caused widespread hunger among Cubans. It’s the worst food crisis since the collapse of the USSR that decimated the Cuban economy ( a time the US also responded to a social crisis with a tightening of the embargo). Part of the present food crisis is due to Cuba’s oil shipments being targeted by sanctions, making the gas more expensive that is used in agricultural production and every other part of the economy.
Trump also re-implemented Cuba’s designation as a ‘state sponsor of terror.’ It was presumed that Biden would immediately reverse the terrorism designation. He didn’t, and Cuba thus remains in the crosshairs.
The Rise and Fall of Havana Syndrome
Part of Trump’s regime change strategy was breaking off diplomatic relations with Cuba, including the closure of the US embassy in Havana. The pretext for doing so initially seemed bizarre: when US embassy staff in Cuba became ill Trump blamed “energy beams”, presumably blasted by the Cuban government using a high tech weapon— a theory never aided by evidence or common sense.
The myth of Havana Syndrome was born, and soon became the catch-all explanation for any illness incurred by US embassy staff stationed around the world. Cuba, however, was the only government targeted by the US in this increasingly-bizarre story that the US media reported without criticism.
Though the narrative around Havana Syndrome never passed the smell test, it eventually became putrid enough that the CIA sought to clear the air, by recently half-admitting that Havana Syndrome was more farce than fact.
The Cuban government responded to the CIA’s admission by insisting that Biden normalize relations with Cuba, i.e., take Cuba off the regime change “terror list” and reopen the US embassy in Havana, which has prevented 100k + Visas from being processed.
Fernández de Cossío of the Cuban Foriegn Ministry noted, correctly, that “Cuba is the only country that is being punished because of this [Havana Syndrome]… which proves that this was a [US] government delivered operation to use the excuse of symptoms suffered by diplomats to take action against Cuba.”
How Covid Hit Cuba
Some of Trump’s worst sanctions came after Covid struck the island. The Cuban government closed the nation’s borders to tourism until they could produce and distribute a vaccine; thus the virus was contained and deaths have been limited to about 8,400.
Cuba is now among the most vaccinated nations on earth, while exporting vaccines to the Middle East and Latin America— showcasing the high level of it’s biotech industry (Cuba recently pledged 200 million vaccines to the Global South and agreed to share its vaccine technology).
Cuba’s biotech industry, however, was also targeted by the Trump-Biden sanctions, creating a tremendous loss in revenue for the state— hampering its ability to pay for healthcare and other basic services— while also limiting Cuba’s ability to distribute the vaccine to poorer countries.
When Cuba closed its borders it knowingly committed economic suicide: tourism is a core pillar of the Cuban economy, and the outcome has compounded the issues caused by Trump’s additional sanctions: shortages of basic goods and an overall drop of standard of living for working class Cubans.
Most Latin American countries also have plummeting economies due to the global economic crisis, but Cuba was especially vulnerable because of its reliance on tourism combined with the US embargo: food lines are long, inflation is high and life is harder than it’s been in decades.
It was amid this suffering that Biden attacked, exploiting the misery triggered by Covid. Biden brutally maintained Trump’s sanctions and then tightened the noose, by expanding sanctions and then publicly supporting calls for regime change, using the pretext of “police repression” that occurred when small protests erupted spontaneously in July in response to shortages of basic goods. There was indeed police repression in Cuba, though nowhere near the levels used against Black Lives Matter protests in dozens of cities across the United States.
Biden then used his State Department to help promote a ‘national day of action’ inside Cuba in November. The November action fizzled, badly, in part because it was endorsed by the US government: plenty of Cubans are unhappy with their government but they have a deeper hatred for US imperialism. They also understand that their pain has more to do with Covid and Biden’s sanctions and the embargo than the bureaucratic flaws of their government.
Why Does the Embargo Continue?
Most US citizens don’t know much about the Cuban embargo, nor its reputation globally as a flagrant violation of international law. Every year the UN General Assembly votes overwhelmingly to condemn the embargo— last year 184 nations voted affirmatively, with only the US and Israel voting ‘no.’ Yet the embargo persists for political and historic reasons.
After President Kennedy’s 1961 failed invasion at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs, Fidel Castro said that the US ruling class could not forgive Cuba for making a revolution “under the nose” of the US. This animosity remains fresh for the older generation of the US establishment, including President Biden. The remaining cold warriors have a fanatical belief that an island 90 miles from the US border must return to its pre-revolution status as a US neocolonial possession.
The Bay of Pigs humiliation was the first of many for US imperialism at the hands of Cuba, who fought and beat the US in proxy wars across Africa in the 1970’s, most notably in Ethiopia and Angola. The final battle of the Angolan civil war— where the US teamed up with South Africa to bolster aparthied against Cuba and the USSR— was a decisive victory for the Angolan forces brimming with Cuban soldiers, a battle that led directly to the fall of South African apartheid (Mandela was soon freed from prison and traveled to Cuba to thank the government at a mass rally).
The Embargo Versus Socialism
The embargo also continues because of an economic legacy of the Cold War: the US establishment believed— and continues to believe— that any experiment with socialist policies be isolated, undermined, and destroyed, lest it infect the minds of dozens of the nations that were actively seeking alternatives to capitalism. The Cuban revolution inspired revolutionary movements in virtually every country in Latin America, though most famously in Chile, Nicaragua, Colombia, Grenada, Venezuela and El Salvador.
When Fidel announced in 1961 that Cuba’s revolution would be socialist he spoke to a poor island nation, under-developed by US imperialism. It remains poor today because— in addition to the devastating embargo— the USSR declined to help develop the Cuban economy beyond basic infrastructure.
Since Cuba’s market reforms in the ‘90’s the economy has had a growing private sector, but socialist aspects of the economy continue to inspire people today, especially its stunning outcomes in education and healthcare. The socialist successes of Cuba’s economy are best showcased by its high ranking among Latin American countries on the human development index— thanks to its human-focused (socialist) economy— despite it’s lower rank on the GDP per capita scale.
These social achievements provoke real fear among members of the US establishment, who rule over a country where tens of millions have no access to healthcare. A US visitor to Cuba might also be jealous of the free higher education, or that children have access to a free education that invests deeply in sports, music, dance, etc. A US citizen would also be curious about the lack of homelessness in Cuba, and how such a diverse nation has far superior race relations than the US. These and other achievements continue to set a dangerous example to the US working class that must be eliminated before sanctions and the embargo can be eliminated.
The Wealthy Cuban Exile Lobby
Another reason the embargo continues is Florida’s status as the most important swing state, and the rightwing Cuban exile lobby’s proven ability to swing elections in the key swing state (Cuban exiles were notoriously credited for tipping the scales in the history-shifting Bush-Gore election of 2000).
The Cuban exile lobby modeled themselves after the pro-Israel AIPAC lobby, having only regime change in mind, and with such a zeal that they continue to support the embargo and even demanded an ‘Iraq solution’ to Cuba after they saw Bush obliterate Iraq.
Nowadays the exile community is more diverse, with the younger generation having more familial ties to the island that they’d rather not see killed by the US military or sanctions. But the older exiles still have the fattest wallets and thus more influence in the US government.
Cuba’s Post-Biden Future
Biden hasn’t yet responded to Cuba’s insistence that, post-Havana Syndrome, the US normalize relations— i.e. reopen the US embassy in Havana and stop targeting Cuba for regime change.
Nor has Biden responded to the growing international outcry over his attacks on Cuba during a pandemic. Last month 114 members of the US Congress sent a letter to BIden, asking that he suspend sanctions that prevent medicine, food and other forms of humanitarian assistance from reaching Cuba, while also asking that diplomatic relations be normalized.
Biden didn’t respond to the letter directly, but signaled that his hostility would continue when he recently placed fresh US travel bans on 8 Cuban government officials. Because Biden is already being referred to as a lameduck President it may be unlikely that he takes further aggressive action towards Cuba, leaving the crisis to fester.
The next US president may then re-examine the issue, but by then Cuba may be on a new road. It’s possible that the re-emerging ‘Pink Tide’ of leftwing governments may recreate the conditions that— from about 1999 till 2013— saw Cuba’s fortunes improve with increased trade and support from regional nations who loudly left the US political orbit.
It’s possible that the new leftwing surge may even pause the capitalist course Cuba is on, which has created widening inequality that’s heightened domestic discontent. As a socialist-leaning island nation, Cuba has always been dependent— and vulnerable to— shifting global political trends. No country can develop or achieve socialism on its own, especially one 90 miles from Florida.
Without outside help Cuba will remain increasingly unstable domestically, and thus vulnerable to US intervention. The new covid-triggered global economic (capitalist) crisis will surely make many Cubans second guess their market-oriented path, while the new left-leaning governments across Latin America are certain to be inspired by socialist elements of Cuba’s economy.