Report — From the July 2016 issue

El Bloqueo

The Cuban embargo continues

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Although in many ways Cuba is a highly developed country — there is nearly 100 percent literacy, and the infant-mortality rate is comparable to that of the United States — it is also very poor. Housing is perennially scarce, and consumer goods are difficult to obtain. In Havana, a city of 2 million people, there is an astonishingly small number of stores, and their goods are often limited in selection, cheaply made, and very expensive. On any given day, you could scavenge every store in Havana looking for Scotch tape, dental floss, or lightbulbs, and simply find none, anywhere.

Much Cuban conversation involves the word “resolver” — to find a workaround when every solution is expensive, circuitous, or illegal. For most Cubans, daily life for the past quarter-century has been consumed by resolviendo the continual problems of educating children in the absence of paper and pencils; repairing a roof or a toilet without tools or materials; or looking for a distributor cap and spark plugs for one’s 1985 Lada, a Fiat manufactured in the Soviet Union, when there was a Soviet Union.

Photographs from Havana by Rose Marie CromwellDuring the Cold War, the effects of el bloqueo were quite limited. Cuba traded with the Soviet bloc on generous terms, benefiting from oil subsidies and exchanging sugar for everything from tractors to canned goods, which largely compensated for the lack of access to U.S. markets. Cubans remember the Eighties as a period of economic security, if not quite prosperity. The libreta — the ration book — provided beans, rice, cooking oil, eggs, laundry detergent, soap, even gasoline and cigarettes, at highly subsidized prices. Schools and medical clinics had enough supplies to meet the needs of students and patients. At the same time, there was a parallel market where Cubans could easily afford to buy bread or milk, as well as the occasional leg of lamb.

That abruptly came to an end with the fall of the Soviet Union, when 85 percent of Cuba’s trade evaporated overnight. The government responded to this crisis by rapidly restructuring the economy and reaching out to new trading partners. It rejuvenated Cuba’s tourism industry with investment from the Spanish hotel chain Meliá; developed nickel mining in partnership with the Canadian resource company Sherritt; and built on the country’s strength in biomedical sciences, ramping up development of biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

Two years into this recovery effort, the U.S. Congress passed the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992, introduced by Robert Torricelli, a congressman from New Jersey, and signed into law by President George H. W. Bush. Among other things, the act extended the reach of the embargo by applying it to foreign-based subsidiaries of American companies, entities that international law views as nationals of the countries in which they are incorporated. The law effectively imposed American control over foreign companies doing business with foreign countries, an act of “extraterritoriality” that was harshly criticized by the international community.

In 1996, Congress added the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, sponsored by Senator Jesse Helms and Congressman Dan Burton. This tacked on further extraterritorial provisions, such as exposing foreign companies to lawsuits in U.S. courts for using any property in Cuba that had once belonged to Cuban landowners who were now U.S. citizens. In response, Canada and other U.S. allies passed retaliatory “clawback” legislation, and the European Union brought action against the United States before the World Trade Organization.

As Cuba developed new initiatives to revive its economy, the embargo targeted each in turn. This included Cuba’s leading exports: nickel and sugar. Nickel is used in the manufacture of stainless steel, and Cuba is among the world’s largest producers. The Helms–Burton law makes it illegal to export any metal object to the United States if it contains even trace amounts of Cuban nickel. The same is true of sugar — any company that sells candy in the United States may not include even tiny amounts of Cuban sugar in its products. In effect, the embargo means that any company that wants to do business in the United States has to boycott Cuba, or lose access to American markets themselves.

In the late 1980s, Cuba invested heavily in biotechnology, establishing more than fifty research centers in areas ranging from biopesticides for agriculture to medical and pharmaceutical products addressing diseases found in the developing world. The burgeoning industry was viewed with great pride in Cuba, and was becoming increasingly important to the economy. So the Cuban Democracy Act specifically prohibited U.S. companies from exporting to Cuba any equipment or materials that could be used in marketing or developing Cuba’s biotech products.

This double blockade — the end of Soviet patronage combined with the tightening of the U.S. embargo — was devastating. Cuba had few funds available to buy fuel, inputs for agriculture and industry, or equipment to maintain infrastructure. Without gasoline or repair parts, tractors were replaced by oxen. City buses disappeared, and thousands of Flying Pigeon bicycles were imported from China to provide public transportation. Cuba struggled to increase crop yields without the pesticides and fertilizers that were now unaffordable. For the first time in many years, there were serious food shortages. Potatoes, vegetables, and pasta were taken off the libreta; soon after, even such basic staples as beans and rice were not always available. Some of Cuba’s economic problems were rooted in the sluggishness of its bureaucracy and the state’s ambivalence about implementing economic reforms. But the embargo also had a huge impact.

The worst years of the economic crisis, from 1990 to 1995, were a time of profound desperation. Young women with university degrees turned to prostitution. A colleague told me that she had traded a pair of shoes on the black market for a piece of chicken for her elderly mother. At the home of a friend, a five-pound bag of tomatoes was the only food for a family of three adults, for two days. There were rolling blackouts throughout Havana. Families could go without electricity for days at a time; they might wait until midnight for the cooking gas to come on or wait most of a week for water to run through the pipes. Living in a twenty-five-story building became a nightmare when there was no power to run the elevators.

The hardship became a source of dark humor. “Did you hear about Luis?” a friend asked me. “He had arranged to swap apartments with a neighbor, when the neighbor’s elderly father passed away. The father died during a blackout, and Luis had to help the neighbor move the body. They couldn’t use the elevator, so Luis and the neighbor had to carry the father’s body down fourteen flights of stairs, in the dark, trying not to drop it.”

The worst of the crisis ended in 1995, but the embargo undermined Cuba’s efforts to develop new markets, find partners for joint ventures, and establish new trade links. Meanwhile, infrastructure continued to deteriorate. In 2004, there were fewer buses in Havana than there had been a decade earlier. Gasoline was unaffordable for most people; no one could get spare parts or do any sort of decent repairs on trucks or cars. On annual research trips to Havana, I saw motorcycles with sidecars being used as delivery vans; two men loading a washing machine onto a bicycle taxi; and ancient, enormous Chevys from the Fifties, called boteros, driving up and down the main streets, offering rides to Cubans for ten pesos each. Tourists would take pictures, chuckling and marveling at Cuban ingenuity. In reality, these were desperate attempts to compensate for an urban transportation system’s near-complete collapse.

Partly in response to international criticism of the humanitarian impact of the embargo, Congress passed the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act in 2000, which permitted U.S. companies to sell food to Cuba. But the T.S.R.A. permitted even those sales only on adverse terms. When Cuba buys food from American companies, it must pay in cash, and in advance — punitive terms for a cash-strapped country. This means that buying food effectively worsens Cuba’s debt crisis.

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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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