The protests that erupted in Cuba on July 11 highlighted the trade and economic embargo that the United States imposed on the island six decades ago and which continues today.
The head of the Cuban dictatorship, Miguel Díaz-Canel, underlined the speech according to which the country’s problems stem from the blockade, condemned several times by international organizations. For opponents of the communist regime, the embargo serves as a pretext to hide the ineffectiveness of the state and justify repression.
Here are the main points of this problem:
What is the embargo? A tangle of legislation, some initiated by the US Congress, others by the Executive, which began to be implemented in the 1960s as a form of political retaliation for the changes implemented by the Cuban Revolution – the main one being the expropriation of land, much of which belonged to the Americans, for the purposes of land reform.
In February 1962, then President John Kennedy gave a legal framework to the embargo: he banned all imports of products of Cuban origin and those made throughout the Caribbean country.
In the 1990s, two more laws were added to the list. Known as Torricelli and Helms Burton, they extended the jurisdiction of U.S. courts beyond territorial borders: they sanctioned U.S. subsidiaries abroad that do business with Cuba and tightened the import ban that contains, in whole or in part, Cuban raw materials, regardless of which country they were made.
“This extraterritoriality conferred by American law creates a climate of legal insecurity for companies in other countries”, explains Pedro Feliú, professor of international relations at USP (University of São Paulo). Although many countries have established their own rules that overturn U.S. law, some institutions are barred from doing business with Cuba for fear of being sued in U.S. courts.
Why does it exist? The embargo is maintained today by the domestic lobby of Latinos in Florida, in particular Cuban-Americans exiled from the island. The state, which sometimes supports the Republicans, sometimes the Democrats, is perceived as a good thermometer of American politics, explains Carlos Gustavo Poggio, professor at the FAAP and specialist in American politics.
In 2017, for example, then-President Donald Trump chose Miami, a Cuban stronghold, as the stage to announce that he would reverse the loosening of the blockade initiated by his predecessor, Barack Obama.
“It’s a minority group, but with the ability to influence foreign policy,” adds USP Feliú. Cohesive, with legislative seats, economic power and influence in the media, the group has become the main explanatory factor for the embargo. An estimated 2.3 million Cubans live in the United States, of which 66% are in Florida.
What are the reviews? The Cuban regime attributes to the embargo the main engine of the country’s financial asphyxiation and an obstacle to national development. The expression “abajo al bloqueo” (below the blockade) has become the slogan of the Communist Party of Cuba and is a constant in the speeches of the public authorities.
The UN (United Nations) repeatedly condemns the blockade – there have already been 29 demonstrations of the type approved by most countries. The main argument is that unilateral sanctions violate international law and multilateralism.
Plus, say experts in the field, the embargo ends up having the opposite effect as expected. “Sanctions tend to increase the survival of authoritarian regimes, and empirical analysis confirms this,” explains Feliú.
What does the person defending the embargo say? The United States justifies that the sanctions are a means of exerting pressure on the Cuban regime towards democratic opening, an argument which was reinforced in the legislation promulgated in the years 1990. The Helms Burton law definitively binds the possibility of putting end to economic restrictions on the implementation of a democratic transitional regime on the island.
What are the impacts? Cuba publishes periodic reports with the figures allegedly lost as a result of the blockade. The latest document indicates that the economic damage accumulated over the years reaches 148 billion US dollars (772.5 billion reais, at the current price). From April to December 2020 alone, it would have been 3.6 billion US dollars (18.8 billion reais).
The embargo is affecting the productivity of the Cuban economy, says Joana Salem, USP doctor of economic history and author of books on the island’s history. “She is responsible for the structural part of the crisis,” he adds. More intensely at first, the blockade affected the technological matrix of Cuban industry, largely dependent on American parts, which were left without replacement. The sanctions also impact the consumer goods sector, which is more difficult to acquire on the foreign market, and the biomedicine sector.
In 2018, according to a report by the Cuban Foreign Ministry, Medicuba SA, the state-owned company for importing and exporting medical supplies, was denied an order for the antibiotic levofloxacin – for bacterial infections – by the one of India’s leading pharmaceutical companies. The rationale was that the company’s operating bank refused to receive payments from a US embargoed country.
What do you need to finish? The US Congress is the authority that can end the blockade, by dissolving the legislative tangle that sustains it. The White House can also act, but in the sense of mitigating it. This is what Barack Obama did in 2011, when he facilitated, by a decree (equivalent to a decree), the trips of religious, students, academics and journalists to Cuba, in addition to sending discounts to Cuba. ‘silver.
Trump, his successor, reversed the measures, although more “in the realm of rhetoric than in practice,” says Poggio of Faap. On the eve of leaving the presidency, the Republican put the island back on the American list of countries sponsoring terrorism, for example.
Biden has been more discreet in international relations and it is still too early to project the Democrat’s intentions vis-à-vis Cuba, observes the professor. This Tuesday (20), the US State Department announced that it was considering increasing the number of its embassy on the island and revising the policy for sending money transfers. The sign came just over a week after protests took place in several provinces of Cuba.
What is the real weight of the embargo in the acts of July 11? The basket of postmen that brought Cubans to the streets of the capital, Havana and other provinces is diverse. The pandemic carries weight. In 2020, the cessation of tourism, the main ingredient of the Cuban economy, caused the country’s GDP to fall by 11%, which is expected to be repeated this year.
Pedro Feliú, of the USP, explains that the protests can be understood, in part, as a reflection of the flexibility and rapprochement initiated with Obama. “An opening gap already makes the demand for opening much larger.”
Joana Salem says that in addition to the capital flight caused by the embargo, three other factors must be considered: the domino effect of the economic crisis in Venezuela, an important partner of Cuba, especially in oil; the loss of purchasing power triggered by the Cuban currency reunification plan; and the loss of the capacity for dialogue of the institutions created by the Cuban CP with certain sectors, such as the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution in the neighborhoods, the Federation of Cuban Women and the unions.