The U.S. embargo against Cuba was never about ‘democracy’

“Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date. In this way every prediction made by the Party could be shown by documentary evidence to have been correct; nor was any item of news, or any expression of opinion, which conflicted with the needs of the moment, ever allowed to remain on record.”
                                                                                           -George Orwell, 1984

castro.pngThe progressive blogosphere (or at least what passes for ‘progressive’ these days) are awash lately in discussions about Cuba and the sudden decision of Fidel Castro not to seek the office of President of Cuba in the upcoming election.

Everywhere in quasi-progressive press and blogs, people are finding the courage to ask:  Why is there still an embargo on Cuba?  The problem is not the question — in fact, the question is the correct one.  The problem is that the corporate press — from which the blogosphere generally takes its cues — has managed to cripple the debate by intentionally leaving out an important detail about the long-standing, crushing U.S. embargo against thebush-with-turkey-in-crotch.png tiny island nation.  Namely, the U.S. embargo against Cuba was never about ‘democracy’ or human rights and the U.S. officials at the time that the embargo was enacted, were open and frank about this fact.

But you wouldn’t be able to tell that from the media reports about the recent events in Cuba.

What follows is a small sample of media reports.

The Associated Press [AP] reports that:

Asked by reporters at the State Department if Washington planned to change its Cuba policy now that Castro has stepped down, Negroponte replied: “I can’t imagine that happening anytime soon.”


We would hope that the departure from the scene of Cuba’s long-ruling dictator Fidel Castro would allow for a democratic transition. … We would hope that his departure would begin this transition,” Casey told reporters.

But he added that the United States is troubled by signs that Cuba’s leadership envisions this as a “transfer of authority and power from dictator to dictator light—from Fidel to Raul.”

Still, he said the Bush administration remains willing to help support the Cuban people in a true transition to democracy. [emphasis added]

The New York Times ran a report which, despite standing at 686 words, only mentions the embargo on Cuba once and even then, only in a dismissive context.  The Times reported:

Mr. Castro, whose photograph looks down from billboards across the island, is both revered and reviled by Cubans. In criticizing him in public, Cubans stroke an imaginary beard instead of uttering his name and possibly running afoul of the authorities. Those who praise him most often cite his investments in education and health care, and they agree with him that the country’s economic woes are caused not by neglect from Mr. Castro but by the trade embargo imposed by Washington.

Huffington Post contributor Sarah Stephens wins the Orwellian prize for her piece, on two grounds:

#1) Stephens writes that South Africa’s post-Apartheid democracy was “born with the help of U.S. sanctions”.  This is the height or Orwellianism.  It was precisely the U.S. that supported economically and politically the racist Apartheid South African regime up until the very end when it became politically impossible to continue to do so.  In fact, Ronald Reagan openly called Nelson Mandela a “terrorist” and here in Canada, even as late as 2001, we still had elected Parliamentarians such as Rob Anders calling Mandela a “terrorist”.

#2) If you read through her piece, it is interesting to examine why she believes the embargo should be lifted.  The reasons why Stephens believes the embargo should be lifted are not because of the massive loss of life it has caused in Cuba (more on that below).  Rather, the reasons she believes they should be lifted are:

a) “the Cuba embargo sullies our image around the world”

b) “[the Cuba embargo] undermines the national interest [of America].”

c) “The embargo sacrifices the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens to travel.”

d) “[the Cuba embargo] trade sanctions cost U.S. businesses about $1 billion annually”

e) “[the Cuba embargo] den[ies] U.S. citizens access to vaccines and other medical treatments.”

f) “Enforcing the embargo drains [American] resources from the war on terror.”

Based on the above reporting, one could be forgiven for assuming that the embargo has #1) been reluctantly pursued in the interests of the Cuban people and democracy; #2) that only crazy pro-Castro communists believe that the hardships of the Cuban people are actually caused by the embargo; and #3) that the reasons the Americans should now lift the embargo is because it’s hurting Americans.

There is no need for conspiracy theories to debunk these claims that the embargo was designed to foster democracy.  Had any of the media outlets reported on the actual openly stated reasons for issuing the trade embargo — reasons given by U.S. government officials at the time, the reality would be all to obvious.

A brief history of the events leading up to this is illuminating:

viva-fidel.png1953-1960: Castro, contrary to popular belief now, but openly acknowledged at the time, was anti-Soviet during his revolution against the brutal U.S.-backed Batista regime.  Indeed his reform proposals were initially were pro-democratic and anti-Soviet.  (see, for instance, the work of Jules Benjamin and Noam Chomsky for more on this).

January, 1960:  The United States begins its first attempts to overthrow the popular Castro regime through assassination and, later, by invasion and terrorism, and re-install a client regime.

1960-1962:  The U.S., having now pushed the previously anti-Soviet Castro into the Soviet sphere, now begins to characterize Cuba as a threat to the United States (itself a laughable concept) by arguing it is a ‘proxy’ or ‘base’ of the Soviets 90 miles off the tip of Key West, Florida.  This, of course, ignores the fact that the U.S. was engaged in actions against Cuba as early as 1960 long before any Soviet relations had been established.  Noam Chomsky, in his work Hegemony or Survival writes:

Washington was concerned that Cubans might try to defend themselves. CIA chief Allen Dulles therefore urged Britain not to provide arms to Cuba. His “main reason,” the British ambassador reported to London, “was that this might lead the Cubans to ask for Soviet or Soviet bloc arms,” a move that “would have a tremendous effect,” Dulles pointed out, allowing Washington to portray Cuba as a security threat to the hemisphere, following the script that had worked so well in Guatemala. Dulles was referring to Washington’s successful demolition of Guatemala’s first democratic experiment, a ten-year interlude of hope and progress, greatly feared in Washington because of the enormous popular support reported by US intelligence and the “demonstration effect” of social and economic measures to benefit the large majority. The Soviet threat was routinely invoked, abetted by Guatemala’s appeal to the Soviet bloc for arms after the US had threatened attack and cut off other sources of supply. The result was a half-century of horror, even worse than the US-backed tyranny that came before.

jfk-on-phone.png1962: United States President John F. Kennedy orders a case of Cuban cigars for his own personal use.  Upon hearing that the cigars had reached U.S. territory, Kennedy promptly begins the embargo under the explicit justification that Soviet presence there posed a ‘grave’ threat to the United States.

1962-1990: The U.S. engages in decades of terrorism, bacteriological warfare and biological warfare against Cuba.  This ranges from the poisoning of the domestic Cuban pork and chicken supply, the attempted destruction of the Cuban cash crop: sugar, and the October 1976 bombing of a Cuban civilian airliner by Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada Carriles who currently live in the United States despite their terrorist past.   Cuba, having been denied its traditional markets for sugar export, becomes a ‘favoured export partner’ with the Soviet Union.

1991: The Soviet Union collapses.  Following this collapse, the entire stated justification for the Cuban sanctions are now officially satisfied.  Given the reason stated by the U.S. government for issuing the sanctions — Soviet threat — sanctions should now be lifted as there is no longer any Soviet threat in Cuba.

1992: The George H.W. Bush administration increases the sanctions.  Bill Clinton, running to unseat Bush in the election, also promises harsher sanctions.

1993: Average caloric intake in Cuba plummets by 1/3 in 4 short years.  (see Victoria Brittain, “Children die in agony as U.S. trade ban stifles Cuba.” The Guardian (U.K.), March 7, 1997)

1994: Mortality rates for Cubans over the age of 65 increase 15% over 2 years.

clinton.png1996: U.S. sanctions increased yet again under the Helms-Burton Act which U.S. President Bill Clinton gleefully signs into law.  The new harsher sanctions,  are now justified under the new, post-1990 mantra of ‘democracy’ — the same mantra which, if you read the press reports, you would believe was always the justification for the sanctions.  In fact, as Orwell famously wrote, this history must constantly be ‘brought up to date’ because any detailed look at the original justifications quickly discredits this contention.

1999: Severity of U.S. sanctions increased yet again under U.S. President Bill Clinton’s watchful eye.

2008:  Bloggers uncritically believe media’s insinuation that the embargo has always been about democracy and human rights.  Few liberals bother to research the topic.  Instead, they accept the premise and support ending the sanctions regime because it’s hurting the United States.  Conservatives take the matter further and support continuation of sanctions as a means of collective punishment, then turn around and deny that sanctions have any effect on the Cuban economy, but rather that Castro is to blame for all problems.  Socialist bloggers, anarchists and freethinkers are left staring at each other in disbelief.

See also:

Propaganda in Action (Series)

Che Guevara: Cuban revolutionary or puppy-eating serial murderer?

Kettle calls the teapot black: Bush calls Cuba “criminal”

On intellectual honesty and the Cuba debate

Idiocy doesn’t cease being idiocy because it’s published


17 Responses to “The U.S. embargo against Cuba was never about ‘democracy’”

  1. 1 Chris 21 February, 2008 at 2:08 am

    I have long felt the US attitude to Cuba is entirely equivalent to the Chinese attitude to Taiwan. It is viewed as a renegade province and they are not prepared to be rational on the subject.

  2. 2 codesmithy 21 February, 2008 at 6:12 am

    I’m afraid the sanctions will continue on Cuba, like they did on Iraq after the first Gulf War. Being on the imperial side of it, there is concentrated and fervent anti-Castro base that can stirred up anytime reconciliation is mentioned.

    I mean, look at films like, (dare I call it propaganda?). No mainstream U.S. politician in their right mind would want to touch the issue and risk being accused of being a leftist pink-o commie sympathizer regardless of the embargo’s utter pointlessness and the patently unjust human suffering that it causes. However, I haven’t witnessed a situation like this unwind that hasn’t ended in regime change and/or invasion, even if the original pretext was based on lies and half-truths.

    The only consolation for the Cubans must be their solemn pride to have made so costly a sacrifice in the name of their sovereignty and independence. Although, it is still criminal that the United States sees fit to continue to collectively punish them for their impudence of imperial rule. However, I don’t see the policy changing until well after Raul Castro is also gone. Do you see any way to get a different outcome?

    For perspective, remember 55% of Americans believe “God created humans in present form.”
    So, we need to be realistic here. Well-reasoned arguments and evidence aren’t necessarily going to carry the day, however sad that may be.

  3. 3 ian in hamburg 21 February, 2008 at 8:45 am

    It’s typical, isn’t it? You can’t convince Americans to change their ways unless you point out how doing so would benefit them. Telling them the embargo hurts ordinary Cubans wouldn’t register at all, because they could care less about anything or anyone beyond their borders as long as they’re all right, jack.

  4. 4 paulitics 21 February, 2008 at 9:51 am

    codesmithy – I think your observations are pretty accurate. I too don’t believe the sanctions regime is going to end, because, in the end, it was never about democracy or even Castro.

    I also agree with you that there likely isn’t any way out of this in the near future.

    The one shining ray of hope for Cuba, though, is the ALBA (Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas) trade agreements between Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Dominica. If more South American countries get on board with that, I think Cuba will continue to see some of the great effects in terms of increases in standard of living that they’ve experienced since signing on to ALBA.

  5. 5 martinp 21 February, 2008 at 4:40 pm

    Don’t be so glum, the attitude here only shows what Chomsky has been saying for years, that the american government acts contrary to the desires of its citizens.

    Of course Castro himself is demonized, but an associated press poll in 2007 showed almost 30% of respondents never even HEARD of Castro. That same poll showed that more than double, 62% of ‘americans’ felt that there should be diplomatic relations with Cuba, versus only 30% against (and thats even though Castro was found to be ‘unfavourable’ by 67%). That varies, but it seems the ‘newer’ the poll, the more likely people are to have diplomatic relations. Although in 2000, before 9/11 ‘changed everything’, 54% thought the embargo should be done away with versus 30% who thought it should stay.

    In a FOX poll, which of course is going to be WELL to the right, 44% of respondents felt the embargo should be lifted, compared to 40% who thought it should be maintained, with the rest unsure. That’s not surprising, because most people wouldn’t even know what the embargo entailed. An overwhelming majority, at 70%, felt americans should be able to travel there. An overwhelming majority disagree with US heavy handedness in areas of medicine and necessities being cut off.

    In a question about whether businesses should be allowed to operate there and ‘here’, it was pretty much evenly split, at 44 saying no and 42 saying yes. No doubt lots of those ‘no’ people would be quite happy if US companies could operate there.

    In an insular society where there are big problems about health care, your job, your freedoms, your securities, etc., its not surprising that US citizens don’t rank Cuba high on their list.

    Its obviously not ‘americans’ who are the problem here, if ever. It is that ‘rogue state’. But before we get too smug, let’s do a quick poll here about how many here have been to a native protest or stood up for people whose genocidal treatment at the hands of OUR government is far worse than Cuba’s. It’s easy to see the stick in another’s eye isn’t it?:)

  6. 6 libhomo 23 February, 2008 at 9:36 am

    I think the main motivation of politicians on the sanctions is to try to win support from the large Cuban exile community in the US.

  7. 7 martinp 23 February, 2008 at 11:05 pm

    Here are from the Carribean research institute, which polled only cuban migrants to the US, you’ll notice they aren’t that much different than most americans, in fact a higher percentage SUPPORTS increased diplomatic relataions

    Approximately 65 percent of respondents signal that they would support a dialogue with the Cuban government, up from 55.6 percent in the 2004 Cuba poll. The percentage of survey respondents supporting such a dialogue has risen from approximately 40% in the 1991 poll to the current year’s mark which is the highest in the history of the poll.

    · Although only 23.6% feel that the embargo has worked well, 57.5 percent of the Cuban-American population expressed support for its continuation. The percentage of the respondents supporting the embargo declined from 66 percent in the 2004 poll. In fact, this is the lowest percentage of the population ever expressing support for the embargo.

    · Respondents have specific requirements triggering the lifting of the U.S. embargo. Approximately 29 percent of respondents would like to put and end to the embargo immediately without any preconditions. Another 8 percent would end the embargo upon the death of Fidel. About 11 percent would wait until both Fidel and Raul were gone. Approximately 6 percent would wait until the economic system changes on the island (without any changes to the political system) occurred on the island while 10 percent would wait until democratic changes occurred (without economic changes). Finally, about 35% would wait until both the economic system and political system had changed.

    · When asked about the specific restrictions imposed by the embargo, the respondents’ opinions appear somewhat more moderate than might be anticipated in light of the numbers voicing overall support for the embargo. Approximately 71.7 percent support the sale of medicine to the people on the island and 62 percent would favor the sale of food to Cuba and 34 percent support the expansion of existing agricultural relations with the island. Similarly, 55.2 percent would support allowing unrestricted travel to Cuba .

    · Approximately 64 percent of the respondents would like to return to the 2003 policies governing travel and remittances.

    · 26 percent of the respondents feel that the restrictions put in place after 2003 have had a major impact on their lives. Over 15 percent report having been effected moderately by the new regulations.

    · Approximately 58 percent of the respondents report sending money to relatives on the island.

    · Approximately 57.2 percent would support establishing diplomatic relations with the island.

    · Echoing the results of the previous surveys, the Cuban-American community is willing to lend support to human rights groups working inside Cuba . Over 97 percent of respondents support lending a hand to such groups.

    · Approximately 15.6 percent would be very likely and 13.1% somewhat likely to return to live on the island if the country’s government changed to a democratic form.

  8. 8 stu_jou 27 February, 2008 at 5:05 pm

    The real focus here should be about Congress and their views about lifting or “softening” the embargo. Sen.Clinton, Sen. Obama and Sen. McCain have all voiced their opinions and plans on the U.S.- Cuba relations issue(although driven by maintaining and/or gaining votes from their respective constituencies, but the act of doing away with or easing the embargo is a task for the legislators. And lets be for real, if the embargo IS lifted it:

    #1) will have to benefit the gov’t in some fashion (note I said the government, the U.S. citizens)

    #2) will be one of several OTHER attempts to democratize the island nation (In 2006 $80 million was allocated to the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba by Congress in an attempt to establish a ‘democratic’ Cuba) and

    #3)will (pending the turn around of the Cuban economy)leave Cuba at the mercy of the U.S.

    And where have you seen this before?

  9. 9 Brandon Peed 8 March, 2008 at 9:26 pm

    There was something that sounds just like this that was mentioned in a sociology class that I took in college. Bureaucratic institutions tend to prolong their existences, and will even invent new reasons for their continued operation. For instance, social security and welfare were meant for the Depression era, yet we still have them. My professor added that she had never seen a government institution cease in her life. She was in her 60’s, I believe.

    Anyways… Some great points are made here, and it is impossible to argue with them logically because they’re all historical truth. I’ve long wondered how starving the Cuban people to death is supposed to advance the fight against their oppressors. Also, I don’t believe you mention this, but Cuba actually has effective medical treatments for assorted diseases, including Type I diabetes, that American doctors aren’t allowed to use. I don’t have the time to find a source for it right now. I’ll find that for you.

    But how do you use reason against the general population? In my experience, it’s nearly impossible. I believe you’ve found the same thing, based on how you presented this article. So why is it that you and I continue to argue? We continue to inform… I believe it’s because ultimately we believe some good will come of it someday. It’s all we hold on to, isn’t it? And when we realize the hopelessness of our situation, we inevitably realize that without that hope, we have nothing else. And we continue on. And after that once in a blue moon, we see the fruits of our labor, and we thank God that we kept fighting. That we didn’t give up.

    Sorry, I started musing, and decided to leave it because I thought it might encourage you. We all need it sometimes. Or maybe you just skimmed over it, haha.

  10. 10 Big Guy in TB 10 March, 2008 at 3:13 pm

    A colleague of mine recently returned from vacationing in Cuba. She took the time to freely move around Havana a bit, and to her surprise, she felt that many Cubans, are reasonably happy with their situation. She told me that most Cubans had “a roof over their heads” as she put it, access to good medical care, and ample food. She said that there seemed to be little hostility towards Castro.

    Like others, I feel there the only reason the US will lift the embargo, will be if they see a net benefit to them. I totally agree with the comments in #8.

  11. 11 Free Thinker 16 July, 2008 at 3:05 am

    Our presidents past and present want to turn the people against Castro but what they don’t understand is a new generation is being raised in these conditions and accept it as normal. To put it simply “You can’t miss what you never had”. If it was all about democracy why not put an ebargo on COMMUNIST China? The answer is simple really “Because we want our gadgets and China sells them cheap”. If you really watch the news carefully and don’t let yourself get programmed you’ll notice that Iraq is now a stable government that we handed power off to years ago who are now asking for a timeline for our troops to leave. Our president refuses to set one because Iraq is a nice distraction from his failure (planned failure I might add and I got troops to vouch for that) to catch Osama Bin Laden. Now what most people fail to mention about Bin Laden is he was trained by the U.S. Army, just like most of Saddam’s weapons were given to him by us. Now just like with the embargo we went in to find weapons of mass distruction which was the premiss for war than we find out they’re not there so it becomes all about making Iraq a demococy for the benefit of their people. When you see women that once had a good life working as prostitues to feed their children you tell me if their standard of living has improved or she’s FREE now? The Iraqi government is now able to take care of itself and wants us out yet our president refuses to leave. What we see in the embargo is the same as we’re seeing with Iraq today. The original reason doesn’t fit anymore so our leaders give us a new reason that will keep us happy and quiet. One day Americans will look beyond parties and politics and see the truth and when that day comes they will demand answers and actions from our leaders that will benefit the peoples interests not our leaders interests.

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