For sixty years, the US empire has waged a relentless economic war against the Republic of Cuba. This comes in the form of the imposition of unilateral sanctions, which to date have cost the island nation more than $130 billion.
The US sanctions, or the “blockade,” touch every part of Cuban life. They restrict access to medicine, food, building supplies, and, crucially, materials for vaccine development, including during the COVID-19 pandemic. The sanctions are also designed to smother Cuba’s economy by restricting travel and prohibiting businesses from trading with Cuba if they also wish to trade with America. What justification does the United States give for this inhumane blockade?
In the face of widespread Cuban support for Fidel Castro and the Revolution in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the US State Department admitted that the only way to undermine the regime was to foster internal dissent by imposing economic hardship on the Cuban population. According to a now-infamous internal memo written by Lester D. Mallory, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, in 1960:
The majority of Cubans support Castro . . . . The only foreseeable means of alienating internal support is through disenchantment and disaffection based on economic dissatisfaction and hardship . . . every possible means should be undertaken promptly to weaken the economic life of Cuba . . . a line of action which . . . makes the greatest inroads in denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government.
Today, the United States stands virtually alone in upholding the blockade. In 2021, for the twenty-ninth consecutive year, 184 United Nations member states voted in favor of a resolution demanding an end to the sanctions, with only the United States and Israel voting against. Even among imperialist nations, the global consensus is clear: the illegal, immoral, and deadly US blockade on Cuba must end.
Rather than accept this fact, recent administrations have intensified the situation. Following his ascension it was thought that President Joe Biden would follow in the footsteps of Barack Obama, who had eased some restrictions imposed by the embargo and restored diplomatic relations with Cuba. Biden’s first year in power, however, proved he would instead echo his predecessor Donald Trump, whose administration was responsible for a reversal of the Cuban thaw, imposing over two hundred further sanctions and returning to the 1996 Helms-Burton Act to reclassify the island nation as a “state sponsor of terrorism” — and thereby dashing any hopes of a US détente.
Biden has picked up where Trump left off, leaving the new sanctions in place and adding “targeted” sanctions on Cuban officials. This came amid an unprecedented period of public protest in Cuba due to the pandemic scarcity of necessities like energy, medicine, and food — shortages largely resulting from the ramping-up of sanctions under Trump. While there were legitimate concerns among Cubans suffering the hardships of a global pandemic under blockade, the protests were seized upon by US-backed counterrevolutionaries and the US media, embodied by the transparently astroturfed “#SOSCuba” hashtag.
The attempts of Cuban counterrevolutionaries and the United States to foment unrest amid shortages demonstrate clearly that US strategy regarding the blockade has not deviated since 1960: “to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government.” One of the demands of the “#SOSCuba” campaign was to call for a “humanitarian intervention” to “free Cuba” — a thinly veiled call for imperialist intervention to subvert the Cuban Revolution.
Such efforts were in vain. In response to the counterrevolutionary threat, Cuban president Miguel Díaz-Canel addressed the country in the town of San Antonio de los Baños and called upon Cubans to reclaim the streets and defend the Revolution. Cubans across the island answered this call, turning out in numbers that dwarfed the anti-government rallies. Such was the support for the government that several Western media outlets, including the Guardian, the New York Times, Fox News, and the Financial Times, used pictures of pro-government rallies to illustrate their coverage of anti-government protests, making it appear as if the large crowds supported regime change in Cuba.
The attempted exploitation of the hardship brought on Cubans by the blockade to push for regime change backfired. It was assumed that the Cuban people would flock to the anti-government protests; instead, protests shored up the legitimacy of the government and support for the Revolution. Even in its expressed purpose of facilitating regime change, the blockade has been an abject failure. It has actually had the opposite effect.
Cuba Beyond the Blockade
For sixty years, then, the US empire has tried to starve Cuba into submission, and for sixty years they have failed. So why does the blockade persist?
Put simply, US policymakers fear the developmental potential of a socialist Cuba unshackled from crippling sanctions. In his address to the UN in 2004, former Cuban minister of foreign affairs Felipe Pérez Roque described it best:
[The United States] fears our example. It knows that if the blockade were lifted, Cuba’s economic and social development would be dizzying. It knows that we would demonstrate even more so than now the possibilities of Cuban socialism, all the potential not yet fully deployed of a country without discrimination of any kind, with social justice and human rights for all citizens, and not just for the few.
Critics of the Cuban government claim that it relies on the easy excuse of the embargo to make up for misgovernance and the inevitable failure of socialism. If this is the case, why not lift the embargo and see for yourselves? The United States is well aware of the achievements of the Cuban Revolution and cannot accept the ramifications of a Cuba thriving while remaining independent of its own neocolonialism.
Like all nations, Cuba suffers from a host of problems that anger and frustrate its citizens, and not all of these can be blamed on the embargo. From bureaucracy limiting challenges to power to governmental corruption, it is a less than ideal state of affairs. The pandemic wreaked havoc on the tourism industry, too, a crucial source of income for Cuba, which has compounded the crisis in which the nation finds itself.
In their rousing defense of the Revolution, however, the Cuban people have shown that they do not want regime change. Instead, there is a broad desire to build upon the Revolution and move forward, rather than regressing to the days of brutal exploitation by US gangster capitalism.
Cuba may have seen off a counterrevolution, but the blockade persists, and US subversion continues. As long as Cuban development is stifled by the US empire, it is ordinary Cubans who will suffer the consequences. There is only one way to alleviate the suffering of Cuba in the long term, and the demand is universal: the US blockade must end.