If the United States really cared about freedom in Cuba, it would end its punitive sanctions
Critics often dismiss Cuba as a failed state, but without accepting how crippled the country is by the US blockade, writes Helene Yaffé (University of Glasgow).
• nb republished with kind permission of The Guardian; Creative Commons does not apply
The violent protests that erupted in Cuba in early July were the first serious social upheaval since the 1994 “Maleconazo” 27 years ago. These two periods were characterized by deep economic crises. I lived in Havana in the mid-90s and witnessed the conditions that sparked the uprising: empty food markets, shops and drugstore shelves; regular power cuts; production and transport have stopped. These were the consequences of the collapse of the socialist bloc, which accounted for around 90% of the island’s trade.
Betting on the collapse of Cuban socialism, the United States approved the Torricelli Law of 1992 and the Helms-Burton Law of 1996 to hamper the island’s trade and financial relations with the rest of the world. Meanwhile, more sophisticated and multifaceted “regime change” programs have been developed, from the people-to-people programs of Clinton to the Bush Commission for a Free Cuba. From the mid-1990s to 2015, the US Congress allocated some $ 284 million to promote (capitalist) democracy.
The story of how, against all odds, the Cuban revolution survived the past three decades is central to my book. In some areas, like biotechnology and medical internationalism, it has flourished. Since 2019, however, conditions reminiscent of the “special period” have returned to Cuba, a direct consequence of US sanctions. The Trump administration has implemented 243 new coercive measures against Cuba, blocking its access to international trade, finance and investment at a time when foreign capital has been given a central role in the island’s development strategy . The inevitable and intended result has been shortages of food, fuel, basic commodities and medical supplies. So while Cuba has COVID-19 vaccines, they cannot buy enough syringes to administer them, nor medical ventilators for their intensive care units.
Strict health restrictions, imposed by Cuban authorities in response to the pandemic, have hampered Cubans’ ability to “Resolver” (solve problems through alternative channels) and socialize. COVID cases continue to rise, generating anxiety among Cubans, although infection and death rates remain low compared to the region. In each Cuban household, people take turns getting up at dawn to join the queues for basic items. No one should be surprised that there is frustration and annoyance.
Critics of Cuba blame the government for the daily hardships Cubans face, dismissing US sanctions as an excuse. It’s like reproaching a person for not swimming well when they are chained to the ground. The American blockade of Cuba is real. It is the longest and most extensive system of unilateral sanctions applied against a country in modern history. It affects all aspects of Cuban life.
At the United Nations General Assembly on June 23, a total of 184 countries supported Cuba’s motion to end the US blockade. It was the 29th year that Cuba’s vote won. US Representative Rodney Hunter said sanctions were “a legitimate means of achieving foreign policy, national security and other domestic and international objectives.” He also described them as “a set of tools in our larger effort towards Cuba”.
Another key tool in recent years has been social media. In 2018, Trump set up an Internet task force to promote “the free and unregulated flow of information” to Cuba, just as the country expanded facilities for Cubans to access the Internet through their phones. Over the summer, the social media campaign, which sees Miami-based influencers and YouTubers encouraging Cubans on the island to take to the streets, has been stepped up. As spontaneous and genuine as it may sound, behind it lies American funding and coordination.
On July 11, I was in Havana, watching the Euro final in a Cuban house, when the show was interrupted by an announcement from President Miguel Díaz-Canel. He had traveled to San Antonio de los Baños, on the outskirts of the capital, where a demonstration turned into a riot, with shops looted, police cars overturned and stone throwing. Simultaneous protests had taken place in dozens of locations around the island. In Matanzas, where COVID-19 cases have skyrocketed, there has been extensive destruction. Díaz-Canel ended the show by calling on revolutionaries to take to the streets. Thousands of Cubans responded to his call.
Meanwhile, the mayor of Miami asked Biden to consider airstrikes on Cuba, when there were half-baked plans for a Florida naval flotilla. The international media have portrayed mass opposition to an incompetent government, peaceful protests violently suppressed, and a regime in crisis. This story has counted on exaggerations and manipulations. Images have been shared in the press and social media purporting to show anti-government protests which have, in fact, been the opposite. Photos of protests in Egypt and sporting celebrations in Argentina have been attributed to the Cuban protests on July 11.
From the United States, where violent protests and police killings occur with tragic regularity, and where a right-wing insurgency has attempted to overturn the 2020 election result, new President Joe Biden has described Cuba as ” State in bankruptcy ”. On July 30, he had already imposed new sanctions, despite campaign promises to reverse those sanctions.
Since the July 11 protests, I have traveled through Havana for my work. The only major demonstrations I saw in the capital were those in support of the government, including a rally of 200,000 people in Havana on July 17th. The Cubans I speak to reject American violence and interference. They are convinced that Cubans can swim, but they need to break the chains of the American blockade.
• The views expressed here are those of the authors rather than the Center or LSE
• Republished courtesy of The Guardian; Creative Commons does not apply
• This article is based on the author’s book We Are Cuba! How a revolutionary people survived in a post-Soviet world (Yale University Press, 2020)
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