A Brief Look at Cuba's Hardship

- by Greg Rosenthal

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. Cuba's economy was completely reliant on the U.S. 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 would nationalize 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 the benefit the Cuban population.

Like the hyperpower had done many times before, 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., 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 monetary and military war, 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. 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, and furthermore, it was not until after the Bay of Pigs invasion 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. tightened the blockade-twice.

And 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. 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 brutal, drawn out history of consistently attempting to undermine the Cuban Revolution through military measures, but possibly less well known about in the United States is the economic sanctions unilaterally imposed on Cuba by the U.S..

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.

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 shortages, production and consumption decreased, blackouts were frequent, disease became more wide spread, and unemployed and underemployment increased.

Seeking to internationalize the embargo, forming a blockade, in 1992, Congress along with President Clinton passed a bill put forth by Democrat Robert Torricelli, called the "Cuban Democracy Act", further tightening the blockade. The act bans foreign-based U.S. subsidiaries from trading with Cuba; allows for the seizure of foreign ships that trade with Cuba if they enter U.S. waters; and prohibits foreign ships that dock at Cuban ports from entering U.S. harbors for 180 days. It has been estimated that 90% of this trade and aid it has cut off has been food and medicine, having obvious deleterious effects on the population.

Cubans have accurately labelled 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. 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 suffer, and bring much hardship 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.

As always, 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 self-determination of Cubans and peoples of the world. As part of a growing global movement for social and economic justice, to demand and work for justice abroad and within our own communities outlining the connections of our common struggle for a just world.

By Greg Rosenthal, Undergraduate student and activist at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wa. Can be reached at rosgre28@evergreen.edu.

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