Hemispheric gangsterism: The US embargo against Cuba turns 60

February 8, 2022
A protest during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, in Hyde Park, London. Photo: Don O'Brien/Wikimedia Commons

It all seems very outdated, but United States President Joe Biden is keen to ensure that old, and lingering, mistakes retain their flavour. 

It is now 60 years since President John F Kennedy’s Presidential Proclamation 3447 imposed an embargo on all trade with Cuba. 

The proclamation was packed with Cold War righteousness and much sanctimony. Cuba under the revolutionary Fidel Castro, fresh from overthrowing Washington favourite and blood-smeared thug Fulgencio Batista, was “incompatible with the principles and objectives of the Inter-American system”. 

The US was “prepared to take all necessary actions to promote national and hemispheric security by isolating the present Government of Cuba and thereby reducing the threat posed by its alignment with communist powers".

A year later, Kennedy invoked the Trading with the Enemy Act, with the purpose of expanding the scope of the embargo to cover trade, travel and financial transactions, except those licensed by the Secretary of the Treasury, as directed by the president.

The embargo began a series of justifications and rationales for a venal system that has proven to be bankrupt and, in large measure, ineffective. Cuba has been the hemisphere’s villain so designated by the biggest of them all. At various points it has been condemned for its relationship with the Soviet Union, its socialism, its human rights abuses, and its lending of support to revolutions in Africa and Latin America. 

Even before Kennedy came to power, the administration of Dwight D Eisenhower had concluded that the Castro government could only be deprived of its support “through disenchantment and disaffection based on economic dissatisfaction and hardship".

The April 1960 memorandum from Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Lestor D Mallory, seeking to justify an unlawful interference in the affairs of a sovereign state, suggested that such policies be adopted in an “adroit and inconspicuous” way to make “the greatest inroads in denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation, and overthrow government”. This, in the argot of international relations, was the language of war.

The sanctions regime has, for the most part, been in place for six decades. There have been brief spells of tinkering. For instance, the embargo on trade between Cuba and the companies of US subsidiaries working in third countries was lifted in 1975. Two years later, under the Jimmy Carter administration, the complete travel ban was lifted and remittances to family members based on the island permitted. 

But more typical were the apoplectic responses such as that of President Ronald Reagan, who re-imposed the travel ban and placed Cuba on the US State Department’s list of State Sponsors of International Terrorism. Presidents George HW Bush and Bill Clinton pushed the democratic fetish with some aggression, including the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 and the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996. This was hemispheric gangsterism in plain sight.

Despite admitting the sanctions had initially done significant damage to “Cuba’s growth and general development”, a Central Intelligence Agency case study in 1982 conceded that the embargo had not met its objectives. Cuba’s capital base had diversified, making use of Soviet, East and Western European, and Japanese machinery and equipment. Havana had guilefully resorted to front companies “to obtain various types of US products, particularly consumer goods".

While falling short of admitting it had been a crude failure, the same study remarked that Castro’s position remained unchanged. “Sanctions implied a grave external threat, which Castro exploited to carry out the radicalisation of all Cuban political, economic, and social institutions.”

In 2012, at the five-decade point of US-Cuba sanctions, the Barack Obama administration made some modest concessions, allowing US businesses to establish themselves in Cuba. This policy shift had its own Trojan Horse element to it. “By further easing these sanctions,” US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew reasoned at the time, “the United States is helping to support the Cuban people in their effort to achieve the political and economic freedom necessary to build a democratic, prosperous and stable Cuba".

Obama announced on December 17, 2014, he would be “ending an outdated policy that had failed to advance US interests and support reform and a better life for the Cuban people on the island over several decades". The new normalisation policy would increase engagements between Washington and Havana in “areas of mutual interest, and increase travel to, commerce with, and the free flow of information to Cuba". Rabid opponents insisted that no measure should aid the Communist state.

The Donald Trump administration proceeded to reverse what adjustments had been made. Individual travel by US citizens to Cuba for educational and cultural exchanges was prohibited. Most functions of the US embassy in Havana were suspended. Trump even went as far as to deem Cuba a state sponsor of international terrorism under the Export Administration Act of 1979.

Biden has shown a complete lack of interest in challenging the sanctions regime. When it has acted, it has kept the system in place, going so far as to impose specific sanctions on Cuban security and interior ministry officials. 

Responding to claims of Cuban government brutality in suppressing protests, Biden declared in July last year that the “United States will continue to sanction individuals responsible for oppression of the Cuban people".

Some members of Congress are urging a trimming of sanctions, though their views remain modest and calculating in the name of benevolent self-interest. In mid-December, 114 members of Congress sent a letter to the president calling for “humanitarian actions” to lift economic sanctions on food, medicine and other forms of humanitarian assistance. “Engagement is more likely to enable the political, economic and social openings that Cubans may desire, and to ease the hardships that Cubans face today.” 

Whichever group in Congress is consulted, from the vociferous Cuban American lobby in Florida to the claimed progressives in the metropolitan centres, all agree with one objective, however achieved: regime change. The hemispheric gangster is simply biding its time.

[Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University. Email bkampmark@gmail.com.]

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