US Restricts Food Supplies in Dirty War on Cuba

Image Source: Robert M. Chapin – Public Domain

The U.S. economic blockade of Cuba promotes food shortages and puts lives at risk. The U.S. public needs to know about, understand, and reject this blockade, its operation and impact. It’s no small task. The blockade proceeds automatically and quietly; human suffering is hidden.

Economic embargos are a form of war, writes commentator Nicholas Mulder, who adds that “voters in the sanction-imposing country are unlikely to observe or understand the full costs of sanctions on ordinary people abroad.”

Non-combatant victims of U.S. war-making in Gaza – the U.S. government supplies the big weapons – are on full display. Differences in scale and immediacy distinguish their plight from that of Cubans, whose supply of food and other necessities are precarious.

Nevertheless, a common principle governs in both instances: to subject non-combatant populations to potentially lethal danger, under conditions of war, verges on criminal behavior. That’s reason enough to force an end to the U.S. economic blockade of Cuba.

Not by Accident

The blockade promotes food shortages. New Jersey Congressman Robert Torricelli introduced the Cuban Democracy Act in 1992. The Soviet Bloc had collapsed. Cuba lost 80% of its trade and was vulnerable. The U.S. government sought to finish off Cuba’s Revolution.

The law prohibits those exporters abroad who are affiliated with U.S. companies from shipping food and other goods to Cuba. Penalties apply. Torricelli explained that you must “keep your foot on the snake, don’t let up.”

The companies had previously been exporting almost $500 million worth of food to Cuba annually. The legislation, still in effect, prohibits ships from entering U.S. harbors for six months after they visit a Cuban port. The effect has been to raise shipping prices.

U.S legislation in 2000 authorized exports of U.S. farm products to Cuba. Payments are in cash only – no loans. Shipping costs are high because the food products must be carried in U.S. ships, and they return empty.  U.S. food exports to Cuba peaked in 2008 and have fallen since.

The U.S. blockade restricts financial services provided by international banks and lenders. Under U.S. pressure, they don’t lend money to Cuba and don’t handle U.S. dollars in transactions involving Cuba. The legislation that authorized U.S. presidents to designate other nations as sponsors of terrorism incorporated these prohibitions, with penalties.

Cuba, as an alleged – falsely so – terrorist-sponsoring nation, lacks the credit and often the cash to pay for food imports and to develop the island’s agricultural potential. Cuba must spend $4 billion annually to import 80% of the food it consumes.

The U.S. blockade causes shortages that hobble food production. Fuel shortages impede the transport of goods and the operation of machinery. There are shortages of fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides, seeds, spare parts, new equipment, veterinary supplies, irrigation equipment, new breeding stock, and grains used to make animal feed. U.S. limitations on the remittances Cuban-Americans send to their families in Cuba have interfered with food purchases and spending on agricultural projects.

A comparison of agricultural production in Cuba and in the Dominican Republic suggests food shortages are due mostly to the U.S. blockade. The total of food produced in the unblockaded DR in 2021 exceeded Cuba’s “best historical average” yield by 35.7%, even though agricultural acreage in the Dominican Republic is only 25% of Cuba’s total.

Some difficulties affecting agricultural production result from non-blockade causes: mounting inflation; domestic corruption, stealing, and currency speculation; and shortages of foreign currency due to reduced tourism during the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequently. High food prices and climate-change effects are global phenomena bearing on food availability in Cuba.

Cuba’s government has fallen short in converting the island’s idle land into productive farmland. Relatively few Cuban young people are attracted to farming; only 15% of Cubans live in the country.

Empty shelves

Agricultural minister Ydael Jesús Pérez Brito, interviewed recently, notes that the agriculture sector has secured only 40% of the diesel fuel it needs, 4% of required fertilizers, and 20% of feed needed for livestock.

He reports that pork production fell from almost 200,000 tons in 2017 to 16,500 tons in 2022, due in part to only 14% of necessary fuel being available. Rice farmers are producing 10% of recently achieved levels of production. Current production of beans and corn amounts to 9% and 30%, respectively, of yields in 2016.

Manuel Sobrino Martínez, the food industry minister, indicates that food processing generally and milk processing, in particular, is down over three years to 50% of capacity. He describes a 46% drop over one year of milk received for processing to powdered milk, and reports that a ton of milk costs $4508 now, up from $3150 in 2019.

The availability of cooking oil is down 44% in a year; its cost is up from $880 per ton in 2019 to $1606 now. Wheat processing is at half capacity. Fishing activity has fallen by 23% since 2022; 60 boats are not operating because motors are expensive and suppliers refuse to sell, or demand currency. The minister said he must choose between “powdered milk, or wheat, or motors.”

The essence, according to an observer, is that, “owing to low agricultural yields, total food production in 2022 fell to 26% [of food produced] in 2019.”

Cuban President Miguel M. Díaz-Canel told a reporter recently that, “They have put us in a situation of maximum pressure, of economic asphyxiation to provoke the collapse of the Revolution, to fracture the unity between the leadership and the people, to obliterate the work of the Revolution.”

Production is low, he pointed out, and “the country’s fundamental problem is low availability of foreign currency.” Díaz-Canel would “take advantage of the possibilities we have as a socialist state to plan and distribute available resources to prioritize the production that … could give us more possibilities, and also to protect people who may be in a situation of social disadvantage.”

Grim reality, of which food insufficiency is one aspect, demonstrates that now is the time for action and messaging strong enough to finally end the U.S. blockade.  Suffering and distress at U.S. hands provokes revulsion, just as does U.S. complicity with attacks on hospitals in Gaza, and killings of non-combatants.

A key element of Cubans’ distress is a lack of currency and credit. President Biden has only to remove Cuba from the U.S. list of terrorist-sponsoring nations to provide humanitarian relief and restore some freedom of action to Cuba’s government. An easing of current living conditions would surely result in fewer Cuban migrants heading to the United States.

For the U.S. government to be at peace with Cuba would hardly violate baseline presumptions for war-making, which would indeed be the case if the United States opposed Israel’s war in Gaza. Doing so would disturb respect for ally Israel’s historical memory, profiteering by U.S. weapons manufacturers, and backing for Israel as a U.S. beachhead for regional control.

In dropping the blockade, U.S. power-brokers would lose little more than gratification and political reward for fighting communism and opposing Cuba’s efforts to rearrange their U.S. Latin American and Caribbean backyard.

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician and political journalist living in Maine.