In 2003, I took what was in many ways a pivotal trip. It was not my first time abroad, nor was it even my first trip to Latin America, but it was the first time that my preconceived notions about a place were so forcefully challenged. Cuba has shaped the way I view the world in many ways, and I could easily fill pages about what I learned. But today I would like to focus on one particular aspect of that trip: the US embargo against Cuba.
Cuba has always been presented to the American public as the proverbial Latin American boogeyman, a totalitarian regime bent on spreading communism throughout the region. As an American, I had no real reason to question this; after all, if Red Dawn taught me anything, it’s that the last thing you want in your backyard is Cuban paratroopers. The US embargo, which was gradually implemented beginning in 1960, was part of the US government’s effort to contain this malice and prevent those pesky paratroopers from shooting up American high schools.
Considering I never had to fight a guerrilla war, to my young eyes it appeared to have worked. Beyond a few hiccups in Central America, I had no reason to believe otherwise. After the Cold War, though, Cuba seemed like less a threat. And it was in this environment, with the US at the height of its hegemony and on the cusp of yet another war in Iraq, I decided to skip spring break in Cancun.
While travel restrictions have been lightened in recent years, in 2003, it was essentially prohibited for an American to just get on a plane to Havana. There were ways to visit legally, but it required authorization from the State Department, and frankly, I’ve never been one for red tape. The mere fact that all one has to do to avoid this prohibition is book a flight on the national airline, Cubana, from the Bahamas should have been my first hint that something wasn’t quite right. I wasn’t even the only American on the plane, which included Cuban-Americans, backpackers, and some less savory types looking for a different kind of “cultural exchange.” Not to mention the dozens of Europeans legally traveling to the country on holiday. I began to wonder if the State Department’s travel restrictions were more of a guideline than actual policy.
Although I had sensed that something was wrong, it wasn’t until I had landed in Havana that I was forced to recognize just how pointless the embargo was. The epiphany came in a little red can. I was strolling along the Malecón, Havana’s beautiful (albeit weathered) boardwalk, when I began to feel a bit parched. I walked into a small kiosk looking for some water only to find rows of Coca-Cola in the fridge. What is this, I thought? Is Coca-Cola, that iconic American corporation, actually flaunting the US sanctions?
As it turned out, the truth was not only much less interesting but a central reason why the whole embargo is mostly a myth. This particular Coca-Cola was bottled in Mexico and sold to a Mexican company that imported it legally to Cuba. And the same scheme was being used by dozens of other American companies. It wasn’t that products were unavailable, but that they were out of reach for ordinary Cubans on a government salary.
If US sanctions were simply ineffective, then none of this would really matter. The restrictions would be just one more of the dozens of US policies that lack substance. Unfortunately, US sanctions do have an impact that is felt, not so much in the target country, but on our ability as a nation to conduct meaningful foreign policy.
It didn’t take me long to realize that all Cubans, from the most ardent supporters of Castro to the regime’s harshest critics, blamed the US for the island’s economic woes. When a government program failed, such as the 10 million ton sugar harvest in 1970, US sanctions worked as a crutch for the Castro regime to lean on. While it’s hard to conceptualize the economic consequences of a one-off centrally planned harvest that can affect distribution and land use for years into the future, it’s much easier to grasp how food and consumer goods shortages could be limited by foreign government intervention. One is abstract, the other tangible. And it has proven a highly effective propaganda ploy. Not just in Cuba, but abroad as well where US sanctions against Cuba are often described as a blockade, conjuring up images of US warships patrolling just off the coast à la the Cuban missile crisis. One only has to peruse the latest edition of Cuba’s official government newspaper, Granma, for almost daily references to el bloqueo.
Worst of all, US sanctions have effectively marginalized the worst aspects of communism. The ability of the Cuban government to use US sanctions to explain its own economic failings have severally weakened what should have been the regime’s opponents’ key argument: namely the inability of a centrally planned economy to increase living standards.
Yet, the US continues to use sanctions as one of its primary tools to attempt policy change in foreign governments despite over 50 years of failure in Cuba. In Russia, US and EU sanctions are blamed for a two year recession, instead of a commodities slump and burdensome state regulation; Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro has used targeted sanctions as proof of a US-led economic war against his country; and more than 35 years of sanctions failed to end Iran’s Islamic Republic, which is now competing for dominance in the Middle East.
Sanctions have not brought about change in Cuba, but they have punished the island. Without them, the Castros may have disappeared decades ago. Instead, the world will have to wait for their Cuba Libre.