For more than 60 years, a US economic embargo has hit Cuba and several UN resolutions have not been enough to put an end to these sanctions. The issue is also very topical because thanks to the numerous solidarity missions Cuba has undertaken around the world, more and more countries are calling on Washington to change its policy.
Mr. Danilo Alonso Mederos, Cuban Ambassador in Prague, former Vice-Minister of Science, Technology and Environment, gave us this interview.
Mr. Ambassador, can you give us a brief history of this embargo?
In a few words, I can try to summarise the long history of the blockade against Cuba.
From the very triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the US administrations hoped that the revolutionary process would be over in a matter of months. As they implemented decisions that were popular and beneficial to the entire population, which in turn ratified national independence, the harassment began.
On 3 January 1961, the US president decided to break off diplomatic relations with Cuba. In March of that year, he took measures limiting the export of food and medicine to Cuba. On 6 February 1962, he banned the import of all goods of Cuban origin into US territory. In essence, goods could not be imported from the US to Cuba, nor could Cuba export anything to that country.
To better understand what the blockade means, it is necessary to know that before 1959, more than 64.5% of Cuba’s exports and 73.5% of its imports depended on the US market. Practically all existing equipment, technology, raw materials, fuel and foodstuffs came from the US.
Cuba was a country that sold practically all its sugar to the US through a quota system they had established. We also exported other products to that market, such as nickel, tobacco, coffee and rum.
Suddenly, the country ran out of raw materials, fuel and the possibility of selling its sugar and export products. All trade, investment, everything was suppressed!
The blockade imposed on Cuba was intended to collapse Cuba’s dependent economy.
Thanks to international solidarity and the selfless support of the Soviet Union and the countries that were part of the socialist camp, Cuba was able to realise its productions and start a fairer type of trade, but to do so it had to reorient its entire economy, its equipment and its technology.
In the 1990s, when the socialist camp collapsed and the economic trade and cooperation relations created over nearly 30 years were lost, we had to start again from scratch, rebuild the economy and reorient its supply markets. It was undoubtedly a tough period in which the will of the Cuban people was once again put to the test.
The US government perhaps thought that Cuba would have no alternative but to follow the course taken by the socialist countries.
However, when this did not happen as they had hoped, and when they realised that even in these circumstances, the population continued to support their Revolution and its social conquests, they adopted new measures that intensified the blockade.
In 1992, the Torricelli Act made the blockade an extraterritorial matter by preventing US subsidiaries in third countries from trading goods with Cuba.
The Helms-Burton Act in 1996 further intensified and entrenched the hostile policy against the Cuban people. The Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000 prevents US citizens from travelling to Cuba as tourists. It is the only country in the world where Americans cannot travel freely. The Act also prevents financing for US agricultural products to be sold to the island.
The arrival of Trump to the US presidency meant the tightening of the blockade. Numerous new measures were adopted to stifle the country’s access to sources of financial resources, prevent all types of commercial transactions and prevent Cuba from acquiring the fuels that guarantee the country’s vitality.
What exactly does the embargo consist of?
First of all, I would like to point out that in Spanish there are etymological differences between embargo and blockade. Embargo is the prohibition of trade and transport decreed by a government, while blockade is equivalent to siege, obstruction and encirclement.
The word embargo is intended to disguise reality and pretend that this is a matter of two nations, but the laws and actions of the US government are extraterritorial. They exert pressure, they threaten governments, businessmen and banks, they apply economic and political sanctions; they condition aid and access to financial sources to nations just for the fact of establishing some business or commercial relationship with our country. That is why we always speak of a blockade.
The declared objective of the blockade of Cuba is: to economically asphyxiate the Caribbean nation and starve the Cuban people. To close, block, impede, harass the country. That was the goal and it is still the goal today.
What are the reasons that led the United States to this decision?
The United States, as an imperial country, has always wanted to possess Cuba, for geostrategic and political reasons. I remind you that Cuba is also known geographically as the key to the Gulf. The US government considers Latin America as its backyard and acts as such.
In fact, before the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, the Americans had plans to turn Havana into a tax haven and a place for gambling and prostitution. They planned to build hotels and casinos all along the Malecon.
1 January 1959 marked the end of these plans. At first, they thought that the revolution was a matter of days and that the leaders would give in to their aims of demanding social justice and equal opportunities for all Cubans. The first social and nationalist measures were not to their liking and they began to “tighten the screws”.
The blockade was the most “peaceful” measure, but they have also organised, encouraged and executed numerous aggressive actions, terrorist attacks, the introduction of mercenaries, biological warfare, disinformation warfare and cyber hostility. In 1961 there was the invasion of Playa Giron, defeated in less than 72 hours, which was intended to take over part of the national territory in order to declare a transitional government in that area and start what could become a civil war.
The various US presidents in more than 60 years have been unrelenting in their attempts to bring the Cubans to their knees. The cost has been high for both sides, but for Cubans, dignity, independence and sovereignty are non-negotiable.
There were times when it seemed that the United States wanted to lift the embargo. What prevented this decision?
The blockade of Cuba has a complicated legal framework that makes it difficult for the presidency of that country, to take such a decision.
There are also many interests that hinder any such decision. There is a sector of people of Cuban origin who have built their history and their political and economic positions on this confrontation. Lifting the blockade would mean losing important benefits, not only economic but also in terms of the image they have built up.
For the military industrial complex and those who wield economic power in the US, lifting the embargo would mean admitting that Goliath could not defeat David. That would hurt the pride of those who claim to be the masters of the world and those who impose their decisions in accordance with their own interests.
Personally, I do not believe that at any time there was any serious intention on the part of the United States to lift the blockade. There was some “make-up” effect, but if there really had been such an intention, even with all the legal obstacles that have been built up over 60 years, many more things could have been done.
What consequences does it have on people’s lives in Cuba?
Undoubtedly, the economic, financial and commercial blockade imposed on Cuba by one of the world’s major powers has important consequences on people’s lives. The blockade policies constitute a flagrant violation of the human rights of Cubans.
The blockade imposes shortages and difficulties in accessing all kinds of resources. Imports of raw materials and technology are made more expensive and exports of Cuban products and services are made more difficult.
Banking transactions are made more difficult; many banks refuse to make transfers to Cuba for fear of reprisals and monetary sanctions from the United States.
Businessmen and traders interested in the Cuban market or making investments in the country are under significant pressure. If they trade or invest in Cuba, they can lose their business in the US or, in the best-case scenario, they and their families cannot travel to Cuba.
Cuba is then considered a risky country in which to sell, invest or buy products and therefore interest rates are increased.
As you can understand, all this affects the Cuban population and makes life more difficult for them. Products, raw materials and fuel are in short supply.
Even in the present circumstances, nobody in Cuba is left to his or her own devices. People know the advantages of the Cuban social system and what the Revolution has brought them for their human development. In Cuba there is social justice, citizen security, equal opportunities, guaranteed education and health for all.
How have the Cuban people interpreted the embargo and how are they reacting?
The Cuban people have resisted 60 years of an unjust and cruel blockade and have had to face it with courage and dignity. The US blockade is undoubtedly an aggression against a country whose only crime is not to submit to the designs and interests of the empire.
Our people are very dignified and fond of their freedom, of their sovereignty. The Cuban Revolution is autochthonous, nobody made it or imposed it from outside. It was the result of the nation’s own historical development.
Our own educational preparation and level of knowledge has allowed us to face these challenges with intelligence and the capacity to adapt to the worst circumstances. We are a resilient people capable of rising like a phoenix from the difficulties we have faced.
I am convinced that if the US blockade had not existed, the life of Cubans and the economic and social development of the country would be much better.
How did Cuba, despite the worsening economic crisis due to the pandemic, invest in education and health?
Education and health are fundamental rights of all Cuban citizens residing in our country. These rights are enshrined in the Constitution and are free for all regardless of race, sex, religion or way of thinking. In Cuba, there is nothing more important than each and every one of its inhabitants.
Education and health have been the first priority of the Cuban State since the Triumph of the Revolution and therefore no effort or resources are spared to ensure them. This has been the case for more than 60 years and has been the case during the pandemic.
It is precisely because of these policies that the country was better prepared than many others to face the pandemic.
Thanks to the high systematic training of human resources and the educational levels achieved, the country has enough doctors and health personnel, not only to face the pandemic in Cuba, but also to provide it to other countries in need. Thanks to these policies and the development achieved, the country is able to develop its own vaccines, drugs and other technologies to defeat COVID.
This is possible because of the way resources are distributed in our society in accordance with the social regime we have embraced.
I imagine that the recovery of the tourism industry is important for Cuba, what is being done in this field?
That’s right. Tourism is an important source of resources for Cuba. Starting in the 1990s, the country began to prepare for this sector of the economy. The volume of annual tourists has been increasing year by year and in 2018 we received a little more than 5 million tourists. The country is prepared for the number of tourists to continue to grow.
During this period of extreme contraction of tourism due to the pandemic, what we have been doing is preparing the facilities to ensure safer and more consolidated tourism in the new normality. No time has been lost and new conditions have been created in the facilities. Protocols for the care of tourists have also been revised and updated.
What prospects do you see for the future?
The world necessarily has to change. As the leader of the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro Ruz, once said: “A better world is possible”.
For that to be true, many things have to change. The world needs peace, it needs more social justice, it needs less selfishness and more solidarity, it needs a fairer distribution of resources. If these things are not achieved, our common home will not survive and develop in peace and harmony.
The US blockade of Cuba will fail and sooner rather than later it will have to be lifted by the US government. Then the Cuban people will be able to deploy all their knowledge, all their wisdom and all their energies to achieve harmonious and sustainable development.
How can a state, an association or an individual help the Cuban people?
The greatest help that can be given is to deploy all international solidarity and to denounce in all existing scenarios the need to put an end to the policies of blockades and sanctions.
International pressure on the US government must be multiplied in every possible way and the blockade on Cuba must be made unsustainable.