60 Years of CUBA Embargo
February 07, Cuba marked 60 years under a US economic blockade that has deeply affected the communist nation’s fortunes and shows no signs of being lifted. Originally decreed by US president John F. Kennedy on February 3, 1962, the embargo on all bilateral trade came into effect four days later. However, despite failing to force a change in track from Havana since then, the sanctions remain in place six decades later, and are blamed by Cuban authorities for damage to the country’s economy amounting to some $150 billion. Cuba is experiencing its worst economic crisis in 30 years, with inflation at 70 percent and a severe shortage of food and medicines as the Covid-19 pandemic dealt a hefty blow to the country’s key source of income: tourism.
Here are five things to know about the six-decade old trade ban.
Objective: Regime change
Executive order 3447 signed by John F. Kennedy on February 3, 1962, proclaimed “an embargo upon all trade between the United States and Cuba,” citing the island nation’s “alignment with the communist powers.” On the eve of the embargo’s entry into force on February 7, Kennedy ordered for himself a shipment of 1,200 Cuban cigars — a product since illegal for US citizens. The goal of such embargoes — publicly at least — is “a change in behaviour of the regime.” In recent years, Washington has justified the sanctions by pointing to rights violations by Havana and its support for the government of Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro.
Not only has the justification evolved, but also the types of actions taken against Cuba. For as long as it was bilateral, it was easier for Cuba. In fact, it was a subject barely mentioned (by the Cuban government) in the first three decades of the revolution when Havana had Soviet backing.
But since the Torricelli laws and Helms-Burton laws of 1992 and 1996 that ramped up the punitive measures, companies and foreign banks operating in Cuba have faced harsh penalties for doing business there. With these two laws (the embargo) lost its bilateral character, it became externalized and became a blockade.
The Cuban government, which also uses the term blockade, estimates its economy has been damaged to the extent of some $150 billion. Since 2000, food has been excluded from the sanctions, but Cuba must pay cash.
30 years of UN opprobrium
Every year since 1992, Cuba has presented a motion condemning the sanctions at the UN General Assembly. The first time, 59 countries voted for it, now most are in favour. Only the United States and Israel vote consistently against the motion, except in 2016 under a brief period of diplomatic detente under then-President Barack Obama. The Helms-Burton Act was intended to create an international embargo against Cuba. But the UN’s consistent rejection shows how this has been a resounding failure.
How to lift it?
America’s policy towards Cuba has been dictated by internal politics ever since the end of the Cold War, when Cuba lost strategic value. Traditionally, the electoral weight of Florida – a state that can sway US elections and has a strong presence of Cuban immigrants – has stood in the way of relaxation.
Economically, the American blockade is one of the causes of the situation in Cuba, but not the only one. In Cuba, it is called an internal blockade – the bureaucracy, excessive centralization, the lack of incentives for producers.
Unable to produce what it needs, the island nation imports 80 percent of what it consumes. Steps to liberalize the private sector have come late and have been slow to change the situation on the ground, with much of the economy still in state hands. Internal policies weigh more on the situation of Cuba than the US blockade, because the strengthening of the embargo dates back to the 1990s but the bad policies are historic, they date back to the 1960s.