Sanctioning Lives: US Embargoes on Cuba

Credit: David Maiolo, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

On June 23, 2021, the United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly in favor of the resolution calling for an end to the US embargoes against Cuba. The General Assembly of 193 member states voted on the resolution out of which 184 countries voted in support, three countries, namely Brazil, Ukraine and Colombia, abstained and two countries, US and Israel voted against the resolution. This was the 29th year this resolution was brought for discussion and supported overwhelmingly. 

This resolution has been an annual affair since 1992 when it was first discussed in the UN. Although Cuba has suffered a lot, in past years, from the sanctions placed on it, this time the refusal from the US to remove the sanctions comes as a much bigger threat to its people. 

Cuba has recently recorded the highest number of Covid-19 cases in a day, with the infection rate growing steadily. Although Cuba has been successful despite all the odds in containing the ravages of the Pandemic, the lack of medical equipment at this crucial stage is nullifying its efforts.

History of the Sanctions

In order to understand the situation, it is necessary to first look at the history of these sanctions. The United States placed sanctions on Cuba after Fidel Castro led the Cuban revolution, deposing the US backed fascist dictator Fulgencio Batista and establishing a communist state in the year 1959. A communist state so close to it in times of the Cold War, made the US apprehensive of the island nation. The US became hostile to the agrarian reforms and the nationalization of industries that was implemented in Cuba stating that it was against the ‘private interests of the United States.’ Hence, the United States of America, in order to check the influence of Cuba in the region, placed several sanctions on it, these sanctions were related to restrictions on trade between the United States and Cuba. The sanctions are enforced mainly through six statutes: the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917, the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, the Cuban Assets Control Regulations of 1963, the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992, the Helms–Burton Act of 1996, and the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000. 

The US also tried several measures from terrorist attacks like the numerous attacks planned in Operation Mongoose to several attempts at Fidel Castro’s life like the Bay of Pigs invasion. These references showcase the behavior of different US governments against the Cuban state.

Coming back to the recent discussion in the UNGA, the Cuban Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla stated that the blockade was a “massive, flagrant and unacceptable violation of the human rights of the Cuban people.” He further stated that the embargo is about “an economic war of extraterritorial scope against a small country already affected in the recent period by the economic crisis derived from the pandemic.” It is estimated that the Cuban economy has seen a decline of 11% due to the pandemic and the continuing US sanctions. These losses, as estimated by the Foreign Minister, stand at $9.1 million. 

The United States, on the other hand, stated that the sanctions are a legitimate tool of foreign policy and are put in place to further the idea of democracy. Political Coordinator for the US mission, Rodney Hunter, speaking on the occasion said that the US recognizes the challenges that are faced by the Cuban people and hence, has been supplying them with humanitarian goods. He further stated that the Cuban people, as all people, deserve the right to freedom of expression, assembly, and culture and that no government should silence its critics through violations of their human rights. He closed his address by stating that the United States encourages the assembly to support the Cuban people in their quest to determine their own future.

The Situation in Cuba

Cuba has recorded the highest number of daily Covid-19 cases with a steady increase in the last two weeks. As of June 24, 2021, Cuba has fully vaccinated around 8.4% of its population while 22.5% have received at least one dose of the vaccine. Earlier, Cuba defied all expectations when it announced that it had developed a homegrown vaccine which had an efficacy of 92.28%, making it one of the most effective vaccines in the world. Cuba is said to be developing another vaccine which is in its second phase of trial. Even after tremendous success, the Cuban vaccination drive received a setback when it faced a shortage of syringes required to give these doses. The Cuban vaccines require three doses which means that Cuba needs more syringes per capita than other nations. Although the production capabilities have increased a lot, they are of no use to Cuba as it cannot procure them because of the blockade. The lack of syringes has increased the hardships of the Cuban people who, already swamped by the recession, now have to face the question of life and death. Aid organisations in the United States and Europe have come to the fore to help Cuba in this tough time. Global Health Partners have started a campaign to collect donations, buy syringes and ship them to Cuba in order to reduce the huge deficit of about 25 million syringes. 

Mr Hunter is not wrong when he states that sanctioning is a legitimate tool, arm twisting of this manner is a tool which is not illegitimate and certainly not restricted to just the United States, however, it is the morality and the ground of justification that can be questioned here. The US has taken the stance of forcing Cuba to give in to liberal democracy via employing sanctions which it claims work in the benefit of the Cuban people, however, refusing medical equipment which is required to save lives, is also an act of human rights violation. Ideological supremacy and diplomatic arm twisting must not be an impediment to human lives. Developed countries like the United States of America need to understand that by placing and adhering to sanctions in these tough times, they are not upholding democracy but are going against the liberal values that they cherish. In fact, no democracy in its true sense, considering all its principles and values, will ever stoop so low as to place blockades on a country already suffering from the ravages of a raging pandemic.

Gagan Hitkari is a postgraduate student of Conflict Analysis and Peacebuilding at Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi, India. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.