For the 30th straight year, the United Nations General Assembly (GA) overwhelmingly condemned the United States’ embargo on Cuba and called on Washington to end its wide-ranging punitive sanctions.
Cuba submitted a motion to the GA on November 2, demanding an end to the crippling economic, commercial and financial blockade. The motion was debated over two days before the non-binding resolution was passed.
In the 193-member GA, 185 countries supported the motion. Only two countries — the US and Israel — voted against. Ukraine and Brazil abstained.
In a similar vote held in June last year, Ukraine, Brazil and Colombia all abstained, while the US and Israel voted against. In 2019, Brazil joined the US and Israel in voting no, while Colombia and Ukraine abstained.
Ukraine’s abstention may be explained by its desire not to offend the US. Presumably, Brazil’s representative had their riding instructions before last weekend’s runoff election, in which Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva of the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores) was elected president.
At the opening session of this year’s debate on Cuba’s motion, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) demanded the lifting of the blockade.
Speaking on behalf of CARICOM, Ambassador Stan Smith of the Bahamas described the blockade as a “clear violation of the UN Charter”, and said its extraterritorial effect is contrary to the principles underpinning the UN.
Cuba reported that the total damage of the six-decade-long blockade amounts to more than US$150 billion today.
"The US blockade has caused Cuba losses valued at $3.806 billion between August 2021 and February 2022," Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodríguez told a press conference in Havana.
Rodríguez said Cuba is capable of producing more than 60% of its basic list of medicines, but has been unable to do so due to the impact of the US blockade on the country’s payment capacity and financial transactions.
He told the GA: “We do not blame the blockade for all the difficulties our country faces today. But those who deny its very serious impacts or fail to recognize that it is the main cause of the deprivations, scarcities and hardships suffered by Cuban families would be failing to tell the truth.”
Only once in the past 30 years has Washington not voted against the resolution, abstaining in 2016 as part of Barack Obama’s policy of rapprochement with Cuba.
Background to the blockade
Less than a year after the Cuban revolution overthrew Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship, Washington placed an embargo on exports to Cuba, except for medicine and certain non-subsidised foods, and blacklisted foreign ships trading with the island nation.
At the time it was the most draconian trade embargo ever imposed on any nation, except China.
Two years later, US President John F Kennedy formalised the blockade of Cuba by signing Proclamation 3447, Embargo on All Trade with Cuba. The policy effectively banned all US trade and financial transactions with Cuba.
Kennedy’s proclamation started the longest economic, financial and commercial blockade in the world and signalled the beginning of a hostile policy that his own legal advisors determined “could be regarded by Cuba and other Soviet bloc nations as an act of war”.
In 1963, Kennedy invoked the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917 to extend the embargo to prohibit all transactions with Cuba — trade, travel, and financial — unless licensed by the Secretary of the Treasury.
The Cuban Assets Control Regulations of 1963 (CACR) were designed to stop the flow of hard currency from the US to Cuba, prohibiting transactions involving any property of Cuba or its nationals except transactions undertaken pursuant to a general or specific licensing provision.
Some 33 years later, the US Congress enacted the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (Libertad) Act of 1996 (the “Helms-Burton Act”), strengthening sanctions against Cuba and entrenching the blockade of Cuba in legislation.
The Helms-Burton Act provides that the sanctions against Cuba, with extraterritorial effect, are to remain in force indefinitely until such time as Cuba becomes a multi-party free-market democracy and pays compensation for property nationalised in 1960.
The legislation also creates a private cause of action and provides a path for US nationals with claims to confiscated property in Cuba to file suit in US courts against persons that may be “trafficking” in that property.
The Helms-Burton Act’s demand for compensation is disingenuous, as compensation was paid by the Cuban government to all other nations and accepted by those nations. At the time, compensation was offered to the US government but Washington refused to accept it, due to its opposition to the nationalisation.
The Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 (the “Torricelli Act”) prohibits trade between the subsidiaries of US companies abroad and Cuba (thereby preventing Cuba from purchasing goods from those companies abroad) and prevents ships from travelling to the US for 18 months after docking in Cuba. The Torricelli Act also gives power to the US president to apply economic sanctions against countries having trade relations with Cuba.
Effect on Cuba’s economy
The US blockade of Cuba is the greatest obstacle for the development of Cuba, impacting every area of public life and the private lives of Cuban citizens. Its effects are felt most in the areas of health, education and the overall state of the economy.
Just before leaving office in January 2021, former US president Donald Trump, who had already imposed 243 additional sanctions on Cuba, unjustly placed Cuba on the State Sponsors of Terrorism (SSOT) list.
This was the culmination of Trump's hardline stance towards Cuba. Being listed on the SSOT list subjects Cuba to devastating international financial and commercial restrictions.
US banks are prohibited from processing or facilitating transactions to Cuba and the extraterritorial reach of US legislation on Cuba prevents, for all intents and purposes, banks and financial institutions of other Western countries, including Australia, from processing or facilitating transactions to Cuba.
This continues to have a devastating effect on Cuba’s economy and its citizens.
The blockade, being on the SSSOT and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic mean that Cuba doesn’t have enough foreign currency to pay for imports and service its loans. The nation’s foreign debt is more than A$18.5 billion, resulting in serious shortages of food, medicines, fuel and other necessities.
The US president can grant exemptions to the US embargo against Cuba. It is also theoretically possible for Cuba to import certain foodstuffs and medicine from the US, but Washington’s red tape and licensing requirements make it extremely difficult. There are numerous restrictions, limitations and conditions, including requirements on Cuba to obtain a licence, which can take many months to procure, and pay cash up front.
If just 10% of the value of any product Cuba seeks to import — for example, medical supplies — is made from US parts or technical processes, the US government routinely blocks its importation.
With only one or two brief exceptions, successive US administrations have maintained and tightened the blockade.
Cuban Missile Crisis
The passing of the recent UN resolution also coincides with the 60th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
In October 1962, the US government pushed the world close to nuclear war after it discovered the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba.
In the previous year, Cuban exiles in the US — with the Kennedy’s blessing and the support of the CIA — launched a botched invasion at the Bay of Pigs on the south coast of Cuba.