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A Brief Look at Cuba's Hardship
by Greg Rosenthal
September 9, 2004

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The following is adapted from a speech recently given at a teach-in held at Traditions Café in Olympia, Washington. The talk was on July 26, 2004, the 51st anniversary of the attack on the Moncada barracks in Santiago de Cuba, by Cuban revolutionaries including Fidel Castro. The attack on U.S. backed dictator Fulgencio Batista’s army barracks failed, but proved to bring Castro to the front of the movement and inspire further attacks against Batista’s regime. A U.S. imposed blockade, almost as old as Cuba’s revolution, remains one of Cuba’s greatest obstacles to the full realization of self-determination and their revolutionary goals. The 45-year-old blockade has had extremely debilitating effects on the Cuban population. In the most recent aggression against Cuba, the Bush Administration has tightened the blockade, indiscriminately increasing the suffering of an entire population.

Prior to January 1st 1959, which marks the triumph of the radical nationalist Cuban Revolution, Cuba’s economy was completely reliant on the United States. U.S. corporations controlled large land holdings and invested heavily in sugar production, tourism, and mining. In short, the U.S. dominated Cuban markets, trade, and financed their industries. The U.S. military reinforced this relationship of capitalist dependency through direct and indirect violent repression.

This relationship was radically altered after 1959. Revolutionary Cuba under the leadership of Fidel Castro directly challenged U.S. neocolonial and imperial dominance over the island. Cuba nationalized millions of dollars worth of U.S. corporate landholdings, oil, utilities, ranches, mines, and other forms of capital, in an attempt to restructure the economy to benefit the Cuban population. A massive campaign was undertaken to provide universal education and healthcare to all Cubans. In the ensuing years of the revolution, many economic and social experiments were devoted to the likes of housing construction, full employment, and land redistribution to name a few.

Like the hyperpower had done many times before to peoples throughout the Americas, the U.S. would make the Cuban people suffer both monetarily and militarily. This occurred for three reasons: (1) As a response to defiance of U.S. dominance in the region; (2) The loss of profits to U.S. based multi-nationals; (3) and to stem the threat of what Noam Chomsky calls the “demonstration effect”—The idea that Cuba might actually succeed in providing health care, education, and food to its people autonomous of the U.S. economic ‘model’ of capitalism, and encourage other countries to emulate them.

Former president John F. Kennedy’s explained succinctly the detrimental effect the “demonstration effect” has on U.S. policy goals: “the very existence of his regime [Castro’s government]…represented a successful defiance of the U.S., a negation of our whole hemispheric policy of almost half a century”. Moreover, the U.S. has been ruthless in its attempts to put an end to the Cuban Revolution and government. With much unnecessary suffering and death, the Cuban people have resisted for over 45 years of undeclared economic and military warfare, waged by the largest military power the world has ever known.

Cuba’s relationship with the Soviet Union, based on a early model of “fair trade”, was deviously used by the U.S. during the Cold War to justify its aggression against Cuba. In truth, this was nothing more then a front. There are two points of significance here that clarify this position taken by the U.S. First, U.S. military aggression against Cuba began as early as 1959, prior to any Cuban-Soviet ties, and furthermore, it was not until after the U.S. funded invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs and the severing of U.S. diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961, that Cuba began to ally itself with the Soviet Union. Secondly, after the collapse of the Soviet Union (1989-1991), the U.S. persisted in reeking havoc, tightening the embargo not once, but twice.

And to this day the U.S. persists in its obsession with the small island just 90 miles from its shores, with a series of new measures by the current Bush Administration because of the same fears J.F.K. mentioned over thirty years earlier. The new measures, in effect, tighten the 45-year-old blockade, and increase the aggression to subvert and destroy the Cuban government and all those willing to defend their homeland.

The U.S. has a brutal, drawn out history of consistently attempting to undermine the Cuban Revolution through military means; But possibly less well known about in the United States is the economic sanctions unilaterally imposed on Cuba by the U.S. which will be the focus of the remainder of this paper.

The U.S. implemented the first direct economic measures against Cuba in 1960 when then president Dwight D. Eisenhower imposed a partial trade embargo and cut 700,000 tons of sugar from the U.S. quota. In 1961, president Kennedy eliminated the remaining U.S. sugar quota with Cuba.

These measures had a profound effect on the Cuban economy. Sugar was a monoculture in Cuba, and thus its primary means of economic survival, compromising 89% of their total exports. Prior to the draconian measures taken by Eisenhower and Kennedy, U.S. markets were Cuba’s lifeline, representing almost 70% of all Cuba’s trade and over half of their sugar sales. The effects of which were minimal in the U.S. and monumental for Cuba.

Adding insult to injury, diplomatic relations were severed and an imposed ban restricted U.S. travel to Cuba. In June of 1961, a full trade embargo was declared, and a year later Cuba was expelled from the Organization of American States (OAS). Cuba was denied loans from the IMF, U.S. banks, and other banks in the OAS, denying Cuba access to much needed hard currency for internal development. The island was forced to seek out new markets for trade. In the bi-polar atmosphere of the Cold War era, having been isolated from the ‘West’, Cuba turned ‘East’.

Cuba endured the economic sanctions by strengthening its relationship with the Soviet Union and Eastern-bloc through trade agreements based on ‘fair trade’. The trade relationship, Cuba primary means of economic survival lasted up until 1991, marking the collapse of the Soviet-bloc. In effect, Cuba spiraled into a extreme economic crises, dubbed the ‘Special Period’, a misnomer for dire conditions for the Cuban people. Cuban trade with the Soviet Union fell by 89% between 1989 and 1994, causing food, medical, and material shortages. Additionally, Cuba emersion into the competitive global capitalists market prompted Cuba to make structural reforms to the economy. Along with severe shortages, production and consumption decreased, blackouts were frequent, disease became more wide spread, and unemployment and underemployment increased.

During this period of unimaginable despair, U.S. elites had but one goal in mind—to seize the opportunity to push Cuba over the edge. In 1992, Congress along with President Clinton passed a bill put forth by Democrat Robert Torricelli, called the “Cuban Democracy Act”, further tightening the embargo. The act bans foreign-based U.S. subsidiaries from trading with Cuba; prohibits foreign ships that dock at Cuban ports from entering U.S. harbors for 180 days, and allows for the seizure of foreign ships that trade with Cuba if they enter U.S. waters; and. It has been estimated that 90% of this lost trade and aid has been in the form of much needed foodstuffs and medicine, having obvious deleterious effects on the population.

Cubans have accurately named U.S. sanctions a blockade for its all-encompassing effects hampering third countries and institutions from conducting normal relations with Cuba.

The reach of the blockade was strengthened and further internationalized in 1996 by the “Cuban Liberty and Democracy Solidarity Act” better known as the Helms-Burton Law. The Act seeks to deter foreign investment in Cuba by demanding compensation for former U.S. owners of now nationalized land or property, from nationals or states that benefit from this property. Furthermore, the Act reads the U.S. will lift its sanctions on Cuba under the conditions that Fidel and Raul Castro are no longer part of the Cuban government and normalize relations when Cuba pursues “democracy” and a “free” capitalist economy.

The international community at the UN has consistently condemned the U.S. imposed blockade as a human rights catastrophe. The overwhelming agreement of the blockades barbarity has been silenced by U.S. veto power.

On May 6, 2004, George Bush announced the latest set of measures against Cuba, which were officially implemented June 30, 2004. Washington’s latest aggression against Cuba is detailed in an over 400-page document, constructed by the Reagan-era think tank: “Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba”. The report is extremely far-reaching and very detailed. I will highlight a few of the stated measures:

=> Over the next two years, up to $59 million is to be spent promoting ‘democracy’ in Cuba.

* $36 million for “democracy-building” and the support of political opposition groups—meaning well-known terrorist groups based in Miami and Cuba.

* $18 million to fly planes in Cuban airspace to jam Cuban airwaves with Radio and TV Marti—U.S. based radio and TV broadcasting falsifications about Cuba and the Cuban government—a violation of international law.

* $5 million to promote and disseminate anti-Cuban propaganda abroad as well as fund conferences concerning U.S. policies to overthrow the Cuban government.

=> Cubans living in the U.S. have been restricted how often they can visit their families and the amount of money the can send.

* The definition of who is family has been limited to “immediate” family grandparents, parents, siblings, and children—negating Latin American cultural ideals of family. Aunts, Uncles, cousins etc. are restricted from every seeing their families again.

* Family members are only allowed to travel to Cuba once every 3 years, whereas before it was once a year.

* Now only family members can send money to Cuban relatives and are further limited in how much they can send. This money sent into Cuba, called remittances, provides much needed hard currency to supplant the meager Cuban wage. Remittances are the largest flux of capital inflow into the economy after tourism.

* Cubans in Miami are barred from sending money to relatives in the Cuban Communist Party.

=> Educational travel is further limited. Cuba is the only country in the world that the U.S. forbids its citizens to travel to.

* All primary educational travel has been cancelled (high school and below)

* Undergraduate and graduate schools are limited to travel no longer then a semester under the conditions that “the program directly supports U.S. policy goals;” The NYT reported that the college program Semester at Sea has just cancelled all trips to Cuba, and the planned trip to Cuba in the spring has been cancelled by Evergreen faculty.

=> The majority of the 400-page document goes on to layout a post-Castro structure of government and economy, based on “free-markets”, “free-trade”, and “democracy”.

On May 14, in response to Bush’s speech announcing the latest aggression toward Cuba, millions of Cubans took the streets to display their unity and denunciation of the U.S. government’s imperial policies. Fidel along with many other Cubans see these measures as preemptive to invasion as was done in Iraq.

The new measures are intended to and surely will make the Cuban economy scream, and bring much suffering to the Cuban people. The hope of the U.S. government is that the conditions in Cuba will become so intolerable that Cubans detract their support of the Cuban government.

With extreme hardship and anguish ever present, Cuba remains standing having pursued many internal structural reforms with more likely to come. Irregardless of what you believe Cuba has or has not done, is or is not, those of us living in the U.S. have an obligation to oppose the barbaric blockade, all U.S. aggression and funding against Cuba, and demand the normalization of relations and the right to self-determination for Cubans and peoples all over the world. And in our fight for justice abroad, we must always return to our communities and make connections between our common causes and struggles against a power structure that seeks to benefit the few at the expense of many. In this way we are truly in solidarity with the people of Cuba and the world as part of a growing global movement for social and economic justice, working against a common system of oppression and toward emancipation and the full realization of human potential in a truly just world.

Greg Rosenthal is an Undergraduate student and activist at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA. He can be reached at