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Harms of US Blockade Against Cuba Compound as Food and Energy Crises Spread

Having survived the US blockade for 62 years, Cuba is enduring its worst economic crisis since the collapse of the USSR.

Laurent Alemany, 4, looks at the small amount of powdered milk her mother receives under Cuba's rationing system — a consequence of the U.S.- backed economic blockade — on April 16, 2022, in Havana, Cuba.

The island of Cuba is going through its worst economic crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. A few weeks ago, the government in Havana officially requested powdered milk for children under the age of 7 from the United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP). By mid-March, as noted by CBS News, “small groups of protesters took to the streets in the eastern city of Santiago” criticizing the “power outages lasting up to eight hours,” as well as the food shortages across the country. In late March, an emergency 715,000 barrels of crude arrived at the port of Matanzas from Russia — the country’s first oil shipment to Cuba in a year — while China has recently agreed to deliver 70 tonnes of rice, the first of six shipments totaling 400 tonnes.

In New York, in an act of solidarity, The People’s Forum (a local NGO) has started a campaign called “Let Cuba Live: Bread for Our Neighbors” with the aim of sending “800 tons of wheat flour to Cuba as legal humanitarian aid.”

Zuldaimis Biart, a 35-year-old accountant who lives in Havana, told Truthout that the current crisis “is directly affecting low-income people, workers, mothers with children and the elderly.” In her personal case, her salary did “not support the minimum needs such as food, medicine, personal hygiene, clothing and basic footwear.”

Biart noted that not everyone has access to the digital convertible currency known as “MLC” (free convertible currency) that was introduced three years ago, as not everyone is receiving remittances from relatives abroad. Arguing that the conditions in education and the public health care system are deteriorating, Biart thinks this is because “all state institutions are suffering from mass emigration and lack of resources.”

Asiel Álvarez, a 34-year-old construction worker from Havana, told Truthout that he is also under stress due to the recent changes in Cuba’s monetary system, explaining that his “salary has no value to buy any products.” According to Álvarez, the power shortages are now constant.

Commenting in the Boston Globe on her recent trip to Cuba, Micho Spring — a communications strategist for the marketing firm Weber Shandwick — noted that much rubbish can be seen around Havana while public transport has significantly diminished its operations. “Outside Havana,” wrote Spring, “I was struck by how thin people appear.”

Three years ago, when protests broke out in cities throughout Cuba against the country’s ongoing power outages and over all declining economic situation, President Miguel Díaz-Canel quickly took to the streets of Havana where the demonstrations originated. In some heated conversations with local residents, which were filmed by Cuban state television, Díaz-Canel presented the government’s perspective of the crisis. “My dear, we’ve had to cut the power out because we don’t have enough fuel!” he told a visibly distressed senior citizen. In a region where presidents rarely show their faces during a crisis, let alone meet with protestors, Díaz’s move displayed political courage. Today though, the crisis continues.

Venezuela’s oil production is at its lowest rate in decades due to harsh U.S. economic sanctions and Washington’s seizure of the country’s oil company CITGO. Cuba, which relies heavily on Venezuelan oil imports, has been impacted by this development for several years, sending it into an energy crisis. Adding to its woes, the island has yet to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic that forced it to shut down its tourism industry (the largest sector of its economy) as it quarantined itself off from the outside world.

By January 2021, in an attempt to stabilize the economy, the government ended more than 25 years of a dual currency circulation and reverted to using the Cuban peso (CUP), which at the time had an exchange rate of 24 for a U.S. dollar. Making matters more complicated, with the Cuban convertible peso (CUC) abolished, the government introduced a new digital currency known as the MLC. With inflation increasing 70 percent by the end of 2021 alone, the government’s move proved widely unpopular among average Cubans and by early February 2024, Economy Minister Alejandro Gil was sacked. Now, according to a statement by the Cuban government, the minister is being investigated as the “leadership of our Party and government has never allowed, nor will it ever allow, the proliferation of corruption, simulation and insensitivity.”

The greatest culprit of Cuba’s economic hardships, however, is the United States government, which has imposed a harsh economic blockade on the island for over 62 years. In April 1960, in a memorandum by the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Lester D. Mallory, the U.S. official noted that the majority of Cubans supported the young revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, whose 26 of July Movement had overthrown the brutal Washington-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in January 1959. Based on his analysis, Mallory wrote:

Every possible means should be undertaken promptly to weaken the economic life of Cuba. If such a policy is adopted, it should be the result of a positive decision which would call forth a line of action which, while as adroit and inconspicuous as possible, 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.

During the Cold War, Cuba managed to lessen the full impact of the U.S. economic blockade by trading with Socialist bloc countries. With the Soviet Union buying Cuban sugar, nickel ores, rum and tobacco at preferential prices, from 1960 to 1985, according to one expert, “the total amount of Soviet sugar subsidies exceeded 22 billion dollars.” In 1992, one year after the collapse of the Soviet Union plunged Cuba’s economy into a major crisis known as the “special period,” U.S. filmmaker Jon Alpert asked Fidel Castro for a comment on the economy. Castro’s reply was simple: “Our problem is the blockade and the end of the Socialist Bloc,” he said, “85 percent of our commerce was with the socialist countries.”

By 1996, with the introduction of the Cuban Democracy Act and the Helms-Burton Act, the economic noose around Cuba tightened. Passed by Congress and enacted by President Bill Clinton, those acts established that any non-U.S. business that deals with Cuba can be subjected to legal actions. In a report for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, commenting on the Helms-Burton Act, Spanish politician Fernando González Laxe noted that the “extraterritorial dimension of the legislation manifests itself in the fact that third country companies can be sued in US courts, and their executives, along with their families, barred from entering the United States.” For González Laxe, “Canadian, European and Latin American companies and citizens would be the most concerned.”

When President Barack Obama visited Cuba in 2016 and eased the blockade, one commentator noted that: “History’s longest standing sanctions regime was not completely dismantled, but the progress was immense, with benefits seen almost immediately by Cuban workers.” The respite for Cubans, though, would be short lived.

Salim Lamrani, author of numerous books on Cuba and a lecturer at the University of La Réunion, told Truthout that under Donald Trump, “Washington returned to the policy of confrontation and imposed 243 new sanctions in four years, more than one sanction per week, targeting vital sectors of the Cuban economy, such as the export of medical services, tourism and remittances.” Among those sanctions, Lamrani noted, “Fifty were imposed in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, depriving the island of vital equipment such as ventilators and severely affecting the health system.”

Worse, in 2021 the Trump administration put Cuba back on the list of states that the U.S. accuses of sponsoring terrorism. Antoni Kapcia, professor emeritus at the University of Nottingham, told Truthout that while this move is “not supported by the European Union, Canada or the United Kingdom,” it has “affected European operations in Cuba, with European banks and insurance companies refusing to process payments to Cuban entities or to give insurance cover for stays in Cuba.” According to Kapcia, placing Cuba on the list of state sponsors of terrorism “made it even more difficult than it already was before 2017 for Cuba to buy and pay for imports (notably oil, medicines and food products), contributing substantially to the deep worsening of the economic situation.”

Asked to comment on why the Biden administration did not revert to Obama’s previous policies toward Cuba, Helen Yaffe, author of We Are Cuba! How a Revolutionary People Have Survived in a Post-Soviet World, told Truthout that, while “initially Biden did not make significant changes to the country’s Cuba policy” after the protests of July 11, 2021, “Biden was clearly advised that the revolutionary state was vulnerable and close to collapse, and he wouldn’t have to do much to take the credit as the U.S. president who finally oversaw the collapse of Cuban socialism.” While, according to Yaffe, the idea that the state was close to collapse is inaccurate, the Biden administration has doubled down by adding some sanctions of its own.

Now, with over 400,000 Cubans leaving the island between 2022 and late 2023, and the United States in an election year, Yaffe notes that Biden has taken some measures to “reduce Cuban immigration to the U.S.,” however, he has not removed the “causes that drive that migration; that is the shortages and hardships largely caused by the U.S. blockade.” According to the United Nations, the six-decade U.S. financial and trade embargo on Cuba had cost the island’s economy $130 billion by 2018.

The despair and anger of Cubans citizens that Truthout spoke to is palpable.

“I don’t see a future for the population,” said Asiel Álvarez, the construction worker from Havana. “And in my case, I don’t see a future.”

A 61-year-old former school teacher, Yolanda Sánchez preferred to speak to Truthout under a pseudonym, since she relies on the Cuban government to renew her licence to run a small bed and breakfast establishment in old Havana.

Sánchez conceded that, “During the presidency of Barack Obama, there was a flourishing in the Cuban economy and there were more opportunities to start businesses in the private sector, as well as the acquisition of basic necessities for the people.” In Sánchez’s view, the COVID-19 pandemic was disastrous, as was the government’s timing shortly afterwards in making the monetary changes it made.

She states that the “whole system collapsed” while the cost of everything increased: “food, medicine, housing, environmental hygiene.” From Sánchez’s perspective, inflation has not stopped while the “state itself has increased the price of basic necessities.”

Carlos Rivera is 40-year-old health care worker at a public hospital in Havana, who also requested to use a pseudonym. For Rivera:

Today there is no end to the crisis, we don’t know where all this is going to end. We see that hospitals are being silenced, when health services are an important source of foreign currency for the country and are not even capable of at least improving the working conditions of those who work in that sector. The oil crisis, on the other hand, is hitting us hard. The issue of transport is very serious.

According to Rivera, people in Havana can spend up to three hours waiting for public transport — time they wish they could use for other purposes.

Communicating with Truthout, Iramís Rosique Cárdenas — a Cuban journalist from the Cuba-based media collective La Tizza — said “right now, there is also a strong problem of supply of the regulated basic basket (a subsidized food bag), for example, the April rice, a staple food, has not arrived.” In his view, “the future of our world is uncertain” as “any opportunity for the future for us depends on Cuba being able to complete its insertion in the world market (with all that this will imply for better and for worse), something that the economic war to which we are subjected prevents.”

For Fulton Armstrong, a senior fellow of the Latin American program at American University in Washington and a former member of the National Intelligence Council (NIC) which reported to the CIA, despite factors like the COVID-19 pandemic, Venezuela’s economic crisis and the Cuban government’s own economic errors and lack of reforms, the number one factor in the island’s current woes remains the U.S. economic blockade. Speaking recently to the German public broadcaster DW, Armstrong noted that while some protests against the Cuban government have been spontaneous expressions of people’s frustrations, others have been carefully planned and supported by external actors thorough the use of social media and bot accounts. The National Endowment for Democracy, according to Armstrong, is one such actor interested in seeing the overthrow of the Cuban government — having spent $600 million over the years on “promoting democracy” (i.e. trying to overthrow the current Cuban political system) on the island.

During the Cold War, the United States promoted similar campaigns against the Cuban revolution. After the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, Washington ignored blatant acts of terrorism committed by elements of the Cuban hard right exile community in Miami, Florida, up through the 1997 Cuba hotel bombings (the last acts of terrorism against the island). In 1971, the CIA and an anti-Castro group were accused of having introduced African swine fever virus into the island, which resulted in the forced slaughter of 500,000 pigs to prevent a full-scale animal epidemic.

In 2017, the Cuban government claimed “a balance of 3,478 deaths and 2,099 disabled persons” due to acts of terrorism against Cuba “for defending its independence, sovereignty and dignity.”

According to Fabián Escalante Font, founder of the Cuban intelligence services and ex-head of the Cuban State Security Department, from the early 1960s to 2000, Cuban authorities also registered 637 assassination plots against Fidel Castro.

Still, throughout this campaign of violence toward the island, brutal economic sanctions have remained the core of U.S. policy towards Cuba. Now, 62 years after the U.S. first imposed the blockade, it appears that some of the more widespread societal breakdown that the U.S. has tried for decades to foment may be at risk of taking hold.

For those familiar with the achievements of the Cuban revolution and the often widespread abysmal economic conditions for most peoples of the Caribbean and Latin America, a collapse of Cuban society would be highly regrettable. For average Cubans, it would be catastrophic.

In 2022, Newsweek noted that the average Cuban was still living three years longer than the average citizen from the United States, whose life expectancy at birth was 76.1 years. In 2016, when Fidel Castro died at the age of 90, another press article noted Cuba’s achievements in the field of medicine, which included being the first country to eliminate HIV transmission from mother to child, lower infant mortality rates and developing a lung cancer vaccine.

In 2000, Cuban educator Leonela Relys Díaz developed the Yo, sí puedo (Yes, I can) literacy program which, by 2014, had helped 6 million people learn how to read and write in 28 different countries — including Aboriginal communities in Australia.

Global corporations and Cuban American hard right lobby groups in Miami, Florida, are all eager to reassert their dominance on the island. Were the Cuban Revolution to collapse, one would struggle to see such achievements survive.