US embargo blocks constructive policy approach to Cuba

Protests in Cuba have brought the US embargo back into the public debate but really are more about a failed regime and unaccountable political system.

Expert comment Published 19 July 2021 3 minute READ

The rights and wrongs of the US embargo of Cuba have come back to the fore with the latest anti-government protests resulting in President Miguel Diaz Canel laying blame for the country’s long-collapsed, rudimentary economy on perceived US attempts to ‘destroy Cuba’, while embargo supporters herald the protests as some kind of redemption for a failed 60-year-old policy.

The reality is neither of these are true as, once again, the opposite ends of the embargo debate meet in giving it too much credit – whether for the suffering of Cubans or for the myth of redemptive, imminent regime change. The protests are really about a failed regime, a long-suffering people, and a political system which resolutely refuses to be accountable to its own citizens over the preservation of its leaders’ power.

Ultimately, the embargo is a policy which has failed to achieve even a modicum of success in improving human rights on the island, but most Cubans no longer believe the embargo is responsible for their suffering. They know the blame lies with a rigid, ineffective government lacking in ideas for restarting the economy or improving social services.

Exaggerated victimhood

The US embargo is not just a red herring but also an obstacle to sensible, constructive policy for Cubans and the issue of human rights. But that has not stopped leftist leaders in Latin America such as former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador from blaming the US for the so-called ‘blockade’ – a misnomer propagated by the Cuban government to exaggerate its sense of victimhood – and calling for it to be lifted.

The protests are really about a failed regime, a long-suffering people, and a political system which resolutely refuses to be accountable to its own citizens.

However, the full throttle embargo the Trump administration left for President Joe Biden, and that the White House has since kept in place, is not blameless either. Limits on US citizens visiting may not have mattered much since COVID-19 lockdowns, and the sale of medicine and food to the island are not prohibited under the embargo, but restrictions of remittances to the island have cut off a lifeline of more than $3.5 billion for those with friends or family in the US.

As local video uploads reveal, many Cubans taking to the streets are Afro-Cubans, left behind both by the regime and remittances as inequality grows in what is a supposedly post-racial, egalitarian post-revolutionary island.

For the Biden administration, the Trumpian, bluster-infused embargo policies still being in place leaves the US with few points of leverage to punish the Cuban regime for cracking down on its citizens. Recent signs of rare, limited, rhetorical admissions of responsibility by Cuban state officials have been accompanied by proposed changes from Diaz Canel and Prime Minister Manuel Marrero Cruz which are more telling than meaningful.

One recent ‘concession’ by Cuban officials temporarily allows travellers bringing goods to the island to be exempt from state taxes – a reform that is perhaps the most glaring admission by the regime of its own failings to help those left behind in the ‘Castros’ paradise’.

Cuba’s humanitarian crisis has been brewing for a while, but ongoing explosions of popular discontent offer an opportunity for the US and democratic governments in Europe and the Americas to cut a new path.

The Biden administration’s careful statements supporting the rights of Cubans to assemble and express demands free of the macho posturing of regime change are a good start, but the clamour for an international response to Cuban demands is growing. Some on the pro-embargo side argue that citizens taking to the streets demanding food and jobs vindicates the 60-year-old failed policy. Some on the anti-embargo side – not just former and current Latin American presidents – argue lifting the US embargo is now a moral imperative.

Neither is correct. Lifting the embargo now, just as the Cuban government mobilizes its loyalists and security forces to repress peaceful demonstrators, makes no strategic sense because it would be a concession without any return. And embargo supporters cruelly argue that lifting the US boot heel from the neck of the Cuban government gives that government undeserved breathing space, even if would reduce people’s desperation. But isn’t that what the US should be trying to do?

Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the embargo, this is the moment creative multilateral diplomacy could walk the delicate line between embargo opponents and advocates

Admittedly, the current ‘rats’ nest’ of US embargo regulations have been a hindrance for telecommunications companies and concerned citizens in the US struggling to ensure Cuba’s internet remains on, despite Diaz Canel’s efforts to snuff it out. The embargo blocked original plans to integrate wifi and the internet on Cuba and only Obama-era reforms made it possible despite indignant protests of embargo supporters.

Channel criticism into effective action

Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the embargo, this is the moment creative multilateral diplomacy could walk the delicate line between embargo opponents and advocates. A simple call by the Biden administration for an increased humanitarian aid campaign – either through on-the-ground non-governmental networks such as Caritas or multilateral offices such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) – would blunt denunciations of ‘gringo interference’ and channel international criticism of the ‘blockade’ into effective action.

It would also mobilize the US, as well as European and Latin American countries and citizens to put their euros or convertible Cuban pesos where their mouth is, while expressing their defence of the rights of Cuban citizens to complain about government failures.

Promoters of the ‘blockade’ myth will say increased aid does not go far enough, but it is questionable whether they are willing to deny the suffering of Cubans and the intransigence of the regime simply in the name of political posturing. Defenders of the US-embargo will say it is a concession, but it is a concession to help the Cuban people and provide a leverage point for the international community.

Ultimately this is about lives and the quality of political and economic rights but sadly many international leaders and the Cuban government seem to prefer to engage in embargo posturing than admit the delusion of past beliefs or to change course. Despite playing a waiting game in lifting Trump-era regulations, now is the moment for the Biden administration to lead on global assistance for Cuba.