Obama opened a door between Cuba and the US. Why is Biden closing it again?

The Guardian | Wednesday, 27 March 2024 | Click here for original article

Cuba's Capitol building

Cuba's Capitol building

n 6 April 1960, the US diplomat Lester D Mallory wrote a memo advocating an embargo “denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government”. Sixty-four years later and the policy that Cubans call el bloqueo (the blockade) is still in force. It hasn’t achieved its stated aim of overturning the Cuban Revolution – but it has fueled years of desperation and justified anger.

Barack Obama came to recognize this by his second term. During a historic 2016 visit to Havana, he said that he had come “to bury the last remnant of the cold war in the Americas” and “to extend the hand of friendship to the Cuban people”. By then his administration had already made tangible steps in that direction.

US restrictions on travel and remittances were eased and the countries’ respective embassies were reopened in Havana and Washington DC. Crucially, Cuba was also removed from the state-sponsors-of-terrorism list and allowed to do business with US banks that are the linchpin of the world financial system. History’s longest standing sanctions regime was not completely dismantled, but the progress was immense, with benefits seen almost immediately by Cuban workers.

The surprise election of Donald Trump changed all of that. Influenced by Cuban-American politicians like Marco Rubio and a vocal lobby in Miami, he restored travel restrictions and banned dealings with state companies that comprise the bulk of Cuba’s economy. But Trump’s most provocative action came just days before he left office in January 2021, when he returned Cuba to the state-sponsors-of-terrorism list. This despite the two countries cooperating extensively on counterterrorism and successful Cuban efforts to encourage Latin American guerrilla groups like Farc to end armed struggle.

On the campaign trail, Joe Biden promised a return to Obama’s approach, but he has delivered little change. Cuba remains isolated from important sources of trade and finance – even from non-US actors – as a result. These difficult conditions led to recent protests against food shortages and electricity outages in Santiago and much more widespread demonstrations throughout the island in July 2021.

Hawks in the US see a state in its weakest position in decades and believe that inflicting even more pressure on the Cuban people will lead to the end of Communist party rule. In reality, the embargo has only slowed down promising reform efforts and allowed the government to credibly blame economic conditions on an outside force.

Actions against Cuba started before Mallory’s memo, immediately following the 1959 victory of Fidel Castro’s revolutionary forces against the hated Fulgencio Batista dictatorship. Ironically, considering the longstanding US designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, actions supported by Washington ranged from small acts of industrial sabotage to attacks on civilians to a full-scale invasion in 1961.

Despite this pressure, the Castro government implemented important measures. A literacy campaign reached more than 700,000 people, mostly in neglected rural areas. These Cubans also benefited from sweeping land reform, rural electrification and the nationwide establishment of free, high-quality healthcare and education. A one-party state was established, but there was widespread support for and participation in these efforts.

Abroad, the work of Cuban doctors and technical specialists continues to be praised across the developing world. Medical brigades have been sent to over 100 countries since the revolution, including after the 2010 Haitian earthquake and the 2014 west African Ebola outbreak. In the last two decades, another effort has cured 3 million patients in developing countries of visual impairments.

The role of Cuban military forces was also instrumental in the defeat of apartheid. At the cost of thousands dead and wounded, Cuba and their Angolan allies beat back the South African army in an effort that Nelson Mandela said “destroyed the myth of the invincibility of the white oppressor” and “served as an inspiration to the struggling people of South Africa”.

Yet the economy underwriting these efforts was built on a shaky foundation. To counteract the impact of US embargo, Cuba became dependent on Soviet bloc support. Comecon countries provided subsidized oil, food and machine parts. They also offered a market for sugar, nickel and other exports at above-market rates. In 1989, 13m tons of fuel were imported from the Soviet Union alone, which also supplied Cuba with 63% of its food imports and 80% of its imported machinery. Meanwhile, most of Cuba’s sugar, citrus and nickel exports were sold to the USSR.

Eastern bloc support managed to mask some of the weaknesses in Cuba’s state-run economy, but the embargo itself predetermined the over-reliance on subsidies that Washington directly pressured Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev to wind up. After the final collapse of European state socialism, the economic situation in Cuba went from strained to catastrophic.

With popular discontent mounting in the early 1990s, Castro declared “a special period in time of peace”. Investment projects were put on hold; electricity consumption was slashed, along with food and clothing rations. Key factories were forced to shutter for absence of imported inputs. A lack of fertilizers and spare parts for tractors led to a freefall in agriculture. Cuban GDP dropped 40% in the early 1990s alone.

In Washington, the crisis was seen as an opportunity to score a final cold war victory. The rightwing Heritage Foundation called Castro not just “an anachronism, but a dangerous one” and pressed for a heightening of the embargo to finally produce “its intended result of destabilizing the island’s communist government”. The Clinton administration followed their script in lockstep. A tightening economic embargo was headlined by the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which expanded the scope of prohibited transactions and increased sanctions on violators, including foreign companies.

For America’s ideologues, questions of property rights were always foregrounded. Helms-Burton allowed US citizens whose wealth was redistributed by the Cuban revolution to sue individuals and companies that “trafficked” in those long-expropriated assets. Despite some Democratic opposition in Congress, Bill Clinton trumpeted the act as a measure that would “encourage the development of a market economy”.

Yet, Cuba adapted during the special period and survived. It opened itself to foreign investment, promoted tourism as a source of hard currency and decentralized some of its economy. The country also found new allies, with the election of a wave of leftwing governments in the region. Venezuela, in particular, provided vital oil and financial aid in return for Cuban medical and teaching assistance.

Reform efforts hastened after Raul Castro succeeded his brother in 2008, with a tripartite model of growth that married the traditional state economy with international investment and private entrepreneurship. Economic performance was mixed, particularly in agricultural and energy sectors, but more open debates about necessary changes and new experiments showed a government on the right track. Obama’s fleeting opening encouraged these positive tendencies.

Trump’s U-turn from his predecessor couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Cuban people. Already suffering from the health effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on international tourism, the Cuban economy sharply contracted in 2020. High fuel and food prices were made worse by the country’s virtual inability to trade in even exempted items with its superpower neighbor. Even banks not headquartered in the US feared processing state-owned companies’ payments to international suppliers, much less financing development efforts. Long insulated from austerity, it was clear that the island’s lauded health and education programs also suffered in this environment.

Cubans were deprived of their material necessities, but Washington wasn’t any closer to its “regime change” ambitions. On the campaign trail, Biden rightly spoke of Trump’s “failed Cuba policy” and signaled a willingness to return to Obama’s approach. In office, however, he has done little to change course.

The embargo has not just stymied Cuban president Miguel Díaz-Canel’s recent reform efforts, it has colored 65 years of his country’s development. By some counts, it has cost more than $140bn in total, far outweighing Soviet support for Cuba, which in any case lasted less than half of the revolution’s history.

Simply, the US owes a debt to the Cuban people for its decades of economic warfare. At the very least, the president should make good on his campaign promises and immediately remove Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. If the US can establish full relations with Vietnam, a one-party state that it engaged in bloody armed conflict against for years, there is no reason why its cold war with Cuba cannot end.

Our message should be simple: let Cubans decide the future of Cuba without coercion. It’s time to overcome the objections of a small lobby of hawks and cease a policy that stands against the interests of ordinary Americans and Cubans alike.

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