The US Is Punishing Cuba to Send a Message to the Whole World

The original goal of the United States blockade against Cuba was to worsen conditions and inspire Cubans to overthrow their government. Regime change hasn’t been forthcoming. Now the US maintains the devastating sanctions as a threat to other nations.

Drivers queue to get fuel near a gas station in Havana on April 24, 2023. (Yamil Lage / AFP via Getty Images)

Last month, I traveled to Cuba as part of a seven-day youth delegation, organized by the International Peoples’ Assembly, to meet Cuban activists and learn about conditions under US sanctions. A common refrain I heard from the young Cubans I met was “No hay un futuro en Cuba.” There’s no future in Cuba.  

Many young Cubans who shared this sentiment with me told me that they hoped to come to the United States as soon as they could figure out how. “Y sin el bloqueo?” I asked. And without the embargo? “Eso es diferente,” they replied. It’s true: without US sanctions, life in Cuba would be very different, and the future much brighter.

The economic effects of the more-than-sixty-years-long embargo on Cuba alone are devastating. By one count, they have cost Cuba more than $130 billion. Not only does Cuba’s neighbor to the north, the largest economy in the world, refuse to do business with Cuba, but the United States also freezes Cuba out of systems of global commerce and trade via its influence in and control over international banking and financial networks.

In 1960, a US official spelled out in a memorandum that the purpose of US policy regarding Cuba was “to weaken the economic life of Cuba . . . [to deny] money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government.” Government overthrow has not been forthcoming, but everything else has been a stunning success. Cuba now serves as an example to the globe of what happens when you refuse to follow Washington’s orders.

If the sanctions weren’t bad enough, add in COVID-19, a disaster at the island’s largest fuel depot in Matanzas, and the redesignation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism (SSoT)) by Donald Trump’s administration on the way out the door — along with the introduction of twenty-two additional restrictive measures, all upheld and continued under Joe Biden — and you’re left with a full-blown crisis on the island. The hurdles Cuba faces in procuring even the simplest humanitarian supplies — such as needles and syringes to vaccinate their population with any of Cuba’s five self-created COVID vaccines — often prove insurmountable in the immediate term. Although Cuba did eventually manage to vaccinate its entire population, many died as a result of the delay, which was caused by the embargo. People also died when Cuba faced issues in procuring more ventilators, eventually having to build their own. By designating Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism amid the COVID pandemic, the US government has further cut off Cuba from the rest of the world, exacerbating the island’s material deprivation.

But the difficulties imposed on Cuba by the US go far beyond medical supplies. People can’t repair their homes because supplies are incredibly difficult to acquire. Tourists can’t use their debit or credit cards on the island, severely limiting the spending of visitors to Cuba. Food can’t be bought by the Cuban government using credit, and thus food is more expensive, more limited in quantity, and far more difficult to procure overall. The blockade makes shoes hard to import, and average Cubans are forced to cough up significant portions of their paychecks to buy a new pair. (Even so, I saw only one person without shoes in Cuba. By contrast, vast numbers of homeless people walk the streets of my hometown of Washington, DC, without footwear.)

The list of hardships caused by the US blockade of Cuba goes on and on. It’s abundantly clear that the goal of the policy is to create as much economic desperation as possible, in order to bend Cuba to America’s will. In the last year, we’ve seen a large wave of Cuban migrants to the United States. Do not be fooled: they are not political refugees. They are economic refugees fleeing circumstances created by American policy.

The goal of the US government has been to asphyxiate the Cuban economy as a means of undermining the Cuban Revolution and bullying Cubans into relinquishing their sovereignty and right to self-determination. In the process of attempting to pull off this strategy, the United States has garnered the resentment and disapproval of the entire world. Thirty times now, the United Nations has voted overwhelmingly in favor of resolutions to condemn the illegal and unilaterally imposed embargo on Cuba — most recently in 2022 with a 185-2 vote, the only two dissenting nations being Israel and the United States.

Despite the inhumanity of the embargo and SSoT designation, Cuba has still managed to accomplish feats considered impossible in much of the capitalist world. Health care, housing, and education are universal rights in Cuba. The country has enacted “some of the most farsighted environmental measures in the world.” Meanwhile, Cuba has developed both a vaccine for lung cancer and a cure for diabetic ulcers — a condition that claims the limbs of hundreds of thousands of Americans every year, limbs that could be saved if the embargo were to end. Each of these has been achieved in spite of the blockade.

Presently, it takes no more than the stroke of a pen from Biden to remove Cuba from the SSoT list (it is similarly as easy to end the embargo). That, however, could soon change. First introduced by Senator Marco Rubio in 2021, and then again by Representative Maria Salazar in 2023 — both right-wing Cuban Americans — the so-called Fighting Oppression until the Reign of Castro Ends (FORCE) Act seeks to formally codify Cuba’s place on the SSoT list, ending the ability of the executive branch to remove Cuba at will.

You may be wondering what Cuba has done to warrant placement on the list in the first place. To hammer home the insanity of the US’s assault on Cuba, the justification is that Cuba provided safe haven to terrorists when it hosted peace talks between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government. Cuba remains on the list not because it poses a terrorist threat, but because its inclusion furthers the United States’ goal of worsening Cuban economic conditions. For the US to accuse Cuba of terrorism is ironic: it is Cuba that has suffered bombings, hijackings, sabotage, an attempted invasion, more than 634 documented attempts on the life of Fidel Castro, jaw-dropping violations of sovereignty, and other attacks that have been funded, orchestrated, and many times directly carried out by the CIA.

The US assault on Cuba began as an attempt to bring the nation to heel, essentially reestablishing Cuba as an unofficial colony of the United States. Unsuccessful in its original aim, the US has continued to punish Cubans for insisting on their sovereignty. While the rest of the world disapproves of the United States’ actions, the message remains clear: Cuba serves as a reminder of the hardship and suffering that await any nation that resists Washington’s dictates.

It is time to insist upon the removal of Cuba from the SSoT list, an end to the embargo, and the normalization of US relations with Cuba. The United States must allow Cubans to live in peace and to determine their own future. The US government has made clear that it will sacrifice the well-being of millions to prove its point and get its way. It will not stop until we rise up and demand an alternative.