Report — From the July 2016 issue

El Bloqueo

The Cuban embargo continues

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In Havana, the past year has been marked by a parade of bold-faced names from the north — John Kerry reopening the United States Embassy; Andrew Cuomo bringing a delegation of American business leaders; celebrities ranging from Joe Torre, traveling on behalf of Major League Baseball to oversee an exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team, to Jimmy Buffett, said to be considering opening one of his Margaritaville restaurants there. All this culminated with a three-day trip in March by Barack Obama, the first American president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. But to those who know the city well, perhaps nothing said as much about the transformation of political relations between the United States and Cuba that began in December 2014 as a concert in the Tribuna Antiimperialista.

The arena, which sits next door to the U.S. Embassy, was long the venue for strident anti-American demonstrations. After the revolution, the embassy building was formally taken over by the Swiss, who hosted the U.S. Interests Section of the Embassy of Switzerland — the de facto U.S. embassy before the reestablishment of diplomatic relations. The area around the Tribuna and the Interests Section became the site where the U.S. and Cuban governments were most openly derisive toward each other. In 2004, the Interests Section posted a ten-foot sign emblazoned with 75, the number of political dissidents who had been arrested by the Cuban government the previous year. Cuba responded by putting billboards around the Interests Section with graphic images of U.S. human-rights violations at Abu Ghraib. The Interests Section later mounted a digital ticker along the fifth floor of its building, with five-foot-tall LED letters visible to everyone driving along the Malecón, the seaside highway that runs along much of Havana. The ticker streamed messages about freedom and democracy, rising up against slavery and overthrowing oppression — a less-than-subtle encouragement of antigovernment activity. Cuba then installed 138 posts flying immense black flags in front of the building. The number was said to represent the Cuban deaths attributed to the U.S. government — ranging from Bay of Pigs casualties to the victims of terrorists such as Luis Posada Carriles, a Cuban exile convicted in the bombing of Cubana flight 455, which killed seventy-three people.

Photographs from Havana by Rose Marie Cromwell

Photographs from Havana by Rose Marie Cromwell

After President Obama took office, the billboards started coming down and the ticker quietly went dark. And two weeks before Obama’s arrival, in one of the most telling expressions of optimism and hospitality, the Tribuna Antiimperialista — against the backdrop of the newly reopened embassy — hosted a free concert by the electronic-music trio Major Lazer. Some 400,000 Cubans filled the Malecón to see three Americans play exuberant dancehall music.

When I spoke to friends and colleagues in Havana at the time, the hope and excitement was palpable. But there was also considerable anxiety about Cuba’s future. Most Cubans have seen little improvement in their economic opportunities since the thawing of relations began. Food prices rose dramatically last year, and there has been limited improvement in the availability, or the affordability, of consumer goods. Amid the festivities and the flood of celebrities, it would be easy for Americans to miss that the central plank of the long-standing cold war against Cuba — the economic embargo — remains very much alive and well.

In the American imagination, the embargo serves mostly to deny us access to Cohibas and Havana Club rum, but its damage to the Cuban people has been, and continues to be, pervasive and profound. It affects their access to everything from electricity to video games to shoes. It has prevented Cubans from buying medical supplies from American companies, from buying pesticides and fertilizer, from purchasing Microsoft Word or downloading Adobe Acrobat. It has restricted how much money Cuban Americans can send to their families on the island. Americans have been prosecuted for selling water-treatment supplies to Cuba and threatened with prosecution for donating musical instruments. Unlike federal regulations, which can be changed by executive decree, the embargo’s most severe and far-reaching provisions are based on a patchwork of legislation that only Congress can repeal, something it has given no sign that it plans to do.

The embargo — which Cubans call el bloqueo (“the blockade”) — has been in place since 1960. It was initially imposed because of Cuba’s ties to the Soviet Union. After the Soviet Union’s fall, it was rationalized as a punishment for Cuba’s support for revolutionary movements elsewhere in Latin America. But that support ended years ago. Since then, the embargo has mostly been framed as a response to human-rights violations by the Cuban government.

Outside the United States, however, the embargo itself is widely seen as flouting international norms. Every year, Cuba introduces a resolution to the U.N. General Assembly, maintaining that the embargo contradicts the U.N. Charter. In 1992, fifty-nine countries supported the resolution, while the United States, Israel, and Romania opposed it, and the rest of the member states abstained. Support has grown steadily each year since. Last fall, the vote was 191 to 2 — that is, apart from the United States and Israel, every country in the United Nations believes that the embargo is illegal and has joined with Cuba in denouncing it.

Most Americans have views along the same lines: according to the Pew Research Center, nearly three quarters of Americans support lifting the embargo. This includes such Cuban-American hardliners as the sugar magnate Andres Fanjul, billionaire Mike Fernandez, and Carlos Gutierrez, the secretary of commerce under President George W. Bush. Even many of the most prominent anti-Castro dissidents, such as Vladimiro Roca, a human-rights activist, and Juan Carlos Cremata, a filmmaker, have called for an end to the embargo — ironically, in interviews with Radio Martí, a broadcast funded by the U.S. government.

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is the Ignacio Ellacuria, S.J., Chair in Social Ethics in the philosophy department at Loyola University Chicago.

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