Historian Peter Kornbluh pens this picture of the U.S. Embargo on Cuba, for Startup Cuba, now in its sixtieth year.
The US Embargo Against Cuba is 60 years old by Peter Kornbluh
Photo: Alejandro Rojas

As the COVID virus descended on the world in 2020, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) found its technical assistance program in Cuba impeded by a number of significant obstacles. Their vehicle supplier, Toyota Gibraltar, would not deliver cars to Cuba for FAO staff to traverse the countryside. Maritime shipping companies cancelled contracts to transport needed inputs to the FAO’s country office; international banks would not process payments to suppliers of goods and services for the program, or handle transactions for UN staff on the island.

These impediments were not the result of the spreading pandemic. Rather, they were generated by the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba which levies severe sanctions and penalties against companies and financial institutions which do business in Cuba. “The most recent embargo measures against Cuba,” the FAO reported to the UN, “have had a negative impact on Cuban trade by drastically reducing the commercial partners that operate in the country. This has had a direct impact on the procurement operations that FAO carries out in Cuba in the framework of its technical cooperation projects.”

Sixty years ago this month, the US “embargo on all trade with Cuba” went into effect, pursuant to an executive order signed by President John F. Kennedy.  Since then the embargo has evolved into what American University professor, William LeoGrande, describes as “a complex patchwork of laws and regulations that comprise the oldest and most comprehensive U.S. economic sanctions against any country in the world.” Over six decades “el bloqueo,” as the Cubans refer to the embargo, has been loosened, tightened, codified, modified, and multi-lateralized. To this day, however, the punitive US sanctions continue to have a substantial impact on the Cuba’s economy and the Cuban people—and on U.S. citizens as well.

The US Embargo Against Cuba is sixty years old by Peter Kornbluh
Photo: Alejandro Rojas

‘An Embargo Upon Trade’

“I, John F. Kennedy…hereby proclaim an embargo upon trade between the United States and Cuba,” reads JFK’s presidential proclamation, “effective 12:01 A.M. Eastern Standard Time, February 7, 1962.” An embargo was “the most effective measure available,” Secretary of State Dean Rusk advised the president, to roll back the Cuban revolution. Growing opposition to Castro’s leadership, Rusk stated, “make it important that we act at once to deny the United States market to Cuban exports and to lend moral support and encouragement to those now engaged in resisting the Castro regime.”

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Kennedy’s executive directive added a ban on Cuban imports to the U.S. to a cutoff of most U.S. exports to Cuba that had already been ordered by his predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower. Less than 18 months after the Cuban revolution, the Eisenhower administration decided that Washington could not co-exist with the fiery young revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro, who was determined to assert Cuban sovereignty over the long-standing U.S. domination of Cuba’s economic and political system. 

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To advance its goal of regime change, the Eisenhower administration confronted a major problem:  the Castro revolution was popular among the masses of Cuban people. The only way to weaken Fidel Castro’s appeal, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Lestor Mallory argued in a confidential April 1960 memo titled “The Decline and Fall of Castro,” was “through disenchantment and disaffection based on economic dissatisfaction and hardship.” Mallory advocated a set of punitive economic actions designed to weaken the economy and deny “money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation, and the overthrow of [the] government.”

Havana architecture
Photo: Alejandro Rojas

As the CIA clandestinely organized a paramilitary resistance movement to Castro, on October 19, 1960, the Eisenhower administration announced it was cutting all U.S. exports to Cuba—exempting food and medicine in order to make the sanctions appear more palatable to U.S. citizens and more humanitarian to the Cuban people. Kennedy’s February 1962 executive order sustained the food and medicine exemption.

But the Johnson administration added food and medicine to the trade embargo after Cuba’s efforts to procure millions of dollars of lard from a U.S. subsidiary in Canada became a political test of Washington’s toughness against the Cuban revolution. The White House toyed with blocking the sale on the grounds that lard had some strategic usage. But, in a memo titled “Uses of Lard,” the National Security Council staff reported that “lard is used almost exclusively for food—either directly as cooking fat or blended with other ingredients to make margarine” and that “it would probably not be credible to take the line that we have decided to stop shipments of lard because it is not solely a food.” 

Indeed, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the embargo not only continued; it expanded.

Instead, the administration added lard, and all other foodstuffs to the list of controlled items that required a special license to export to Cuba, and issued new regulations extending the embargo to cover U.S. subsidiaries abroad; Cuba was forced to look elsewhere for cooking fat.  “The President’s decision looks better and better,” exalted one White House memo written a few weeks later. “The Cubans have had to import an inedible product from the Netherlands and then turn it into an edible product. It is low quality and the Cubans don’t like it.” 

Even more importantly, the Johnson administration managed to multi-lateralize the embargo, coercing other nations into cutting off trade with Cuba. After months of U.S. overt and behind-the-scenes pressure, in late July 1964 the Organization of American States voted 15 to 4 to terminate both economic and diplomatic ties with Cuba. Chile, Uruguay, Bolivia and Mexico voted against the U.S. scripted resolution; but only Mexico (with the tacit approval of U.S. officials who wanted to maintain a friendly intelligence-gathering post in Havana) refused to break relations with Cuba. Castro promptly denounced the regional effort to isolate Cuba and threatened retaliation in the form of support for revolutionary movements “in all those nations which engage in similar intervention in the internal affairs of our country.” 

The Embargo as Bargaining Chip

Washington’s efforts to isolate Cuba resulted in the U.S. isolating itself. The OAS sanctions lasted about a decade before the Latin American and Caribbean nations asserted their independence and began to restore diplomatic and economic ties to Cuba. Starting in 1992, the United Nations initiated a yearly ritual of voting to denounce the sanctions and demand the “necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba.” The 29th annual vote in 2021 was 184 nations condemning the U.S. sanctions policy, to only 2—the U.S. and Israel (which has trade relations with Cuba)—supporting it. 

A car in havana cuba without an engine because of the cuban embargo by Peter Kornbluh
Photo: Karen Vierbuchen

As the OAS formally scheduled a vote in mid-1975 to repeal the multilateral embargo, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger considered how to use the sanctions as a negotiating tool to end what he called “the perpetual antagonism” between the United States and Cuba.  “We have a poor hand to play and should ask for a new deal before we lose our last chip,” as Kissinger’s top deputy on Latin America, Harry Schlaudeman, advised in a secret memo titled “Normalizing Relations with Cuba.”  To set the stage for talks, the Ford Administration loosened restrictions on third country subsidiary trade with Cuba. In a series of secret negotiating sessions between Kissinger and Castro emissaries, the two sides discussed a partial lifting of the embargo in return for settlement of expropriated properties and an end to Cuba’s support for revolutionary movements abroad. The talks ended in 1976 amidst election year politics and Castro’s audacious decision to deploy Cuban troops to Angola to assist the new post-Colonial government of Augostinho Neto against attacks by CIA-supported insurgents.

President Carter, who was dedicated to normalizing relations with Cuba, also sought use the embargo as a bargaining chip.  His administration initiated promising talks with the Castro government, quickly agreeing to a major step toward normal diplomatic relations by opening a U.S. “interest sections” in Havana, and a Cuban “interest section” in Washington, and lifting legal restrains on travel to the island. But when Senator George McGovern floated new legislation to remove restrictions on the trade of food and medicine, the Carter White House refused to endorse it. “I believe we should be neutral on a McGovern bill that lifts restrictions on the sale of U.S. food and medicine to the Cubans, but I believe that any lifting of the embargo on Cuban goods sold to the United States should await negotiations with the Cubans on normalization,” National Security Adviser Zbigniev Brzezinski wrote to the President. “Otherwise, [Secretary of State] Cy Vance will have little or no leverage to achieve some of the concessions that will be necessary to make normalization politically palatable to the US – – e.g., release of Americans from jail, etc.” “I agree,” Carter responded.

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In 1978, the Carter White House sent two secret emissaries to Havana to negotiate with Castro face-to-face. They proposed lifting of the embargo in return for Cuba withdrawing its troops from Africa. But Castro refused to make any concessions to have the trade sanctions removed. “You always have a different pretext for using [the embargo] against us,” Fidel noted. “We will never surrender to it,” he warned. “We are prepared to bear our cross as long as necessary.”

‘A Policy of Proven Failure’

Kissinger and Carter both sought to use the embargo as a carrot; President Reagan returned to its traditional usage as a foreign policy cudgel. The Reagan administration re-introduced restrictions on freedom to travel to Cuba, and levied additional economic sanctions against Cuba by adding it to the State Department “international sponsors of terrorism list” for supporting insurrectionary movements in Central America.

“Sooner or later – and I hope it is sooner – the Administration needs to face the fact that continuing Donald Trump’s policy of punitive sanctions and vitriol has backfired…”

Senator Patrick Leahy

At the time, a SECRET CIA assessment of the embargo concluded that “in our judgement…the economic sanctions, by themselves or in conjunction with other measures, have not met any of their objectives.” But the regimen of sanctions continued–even after the end of the Cold War eliminated its’ original geo-political raison d’être.

Indeed, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the embargo not only remained in place; it expanded. Hard-line politicians, led by the then Congressman from New Jersey, Robert Torricelli, smelled blood in the water.  With the Cuban economy in free-fall after the sudden loss of aid from Russia and its major trading partners in the Eastern Bloc, the politically powerful pro-embargo lobby—led by the Cuban-American National Foundation in Miami—believed that one more push of U.S. pressure would topple, once and for all, the Castro regime. 

a car in havana cuba
Photo: Michael Freas

In 1992, Congress passed the Cuban Democracy Act (CDA), re-imposing restrictions on third country subsidiary trade with Cuba, blocking any foreign ships that transported goods to Cuba from porting in the United States for 180 days, and mandating that the embargo could only be lifted when Cuba held free and fair elections. In 1996, the ultra-conservative Senator from North Carolina, Jesse Helms, and Indiana Congressman, Dan Burton, co-sponsored another embargo bill, the “Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act”—commonly known as “Helms-Burton.” That legislation added to the extra-territorial reach of the embargo by threatening litigation against any company that did business in Cuba if its operations involved expropriated property. Known as Title III, that provision of the bill had a waiver provision; to avoid antagonizing allied nations such as Canada, Germany and England whose companies do business in Cuba, Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama all waived implementation of Title III. As part of his effort to attract the hardline Cuban-American vote in Florida for the 2020 election, President Trump activated Title III, casting a chilling effect on foreign investment in Cuba.  

In the 60-year history of the embargo, the Helms-Burton legislation was a game-changer. That is because the legislation codified the presidential directives on embargo restrictions into law.  President William J. Clinton signed the bill, even though he understood the folly of the embargo. “Anyone with half a brain could see the embargo was counterproductive,” he told a confidante in the Oval Office. Politically, however, he found it expedient to endorse Helms-Burton after the Cuban air force shot down two small Cessna planes flown by a militant exile group, Brothers to the Rescue, that had entered Cuban airspace with an intent to overfly Havana in February 1996. “The shoot-down left the Clinton administration politically naked,” noted Senator Helms’ top aide, Dan Fisk. Emboldened and empowered, the drafters of the Helms-Burton bill codified what had been a series of executive orders into the language of the law; and the president capitulated. 

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On March 12, 1996, Clinton signed the Helms-Burton legislation, essentially surrendering his presidential prerogative to lift the embargo–along with the authority of the presidents who would succeed him. Clinton “felt backed into a policy of proven failure,” as he would later concede. 

The Embargo Today

The Clinton capitulation is the reason that when President Barack Obama dramatically moved to normalize relations with Cuba in December 2014, he no longer had the executive authority to end the embargo himself. Instead, he was forced to call on Congress. The embargo was “long past its expiration date,” Obama declared in his State of the Union address in January 2015. “When what you’re doing doesn’t work for 50 years, it’s time to try something new,” he urged Congress. 

To be sure, Obama used his executive authority to poke major holes in the embargo. He ended all restrictions on Cuban-American travel to Cuba, expanded the categories under which non-Cuban Americans citizens could travel, authorized commercial airline and cruise ship service to the island, approved U.S. companies such as Airbnb, Marriot International Hotels, and Caterpillar Tractors to do business in Cuba, and loosened restrictions on agricultural products that could be sold to the Cuban government under the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act that Congress passed in 2000. As part of Obama’s policy of normalizing relations, his administration lifted the cap on remittances, and provided 5-year visas to facilitate Cubans who wanted to visit the United States, aiding new entrepreneurs who needed to obtain goods and services for their fledgling small businesses. In a fundamental move, the administration authorized U.S. internet companies such as Google to help Cuba modernize their internet grids. “The history of the United States and Cuba encompasses revolution and conflict, struggle and sacrifice; retribution and, now, reconciliation,” Obama declared during his history-making trip to Havana in March 2016. “It is time now for us to leave the past behind.”

Despite the quantifiable positive impact on Cuban daily life and the advance of U.S. interests in the Caribbean, the next president, Donald Trump, systematically rescinded every component of Obama’s policy of engagement, and added additional economic sanctions to the embargo–even as the Cuba descended into a full-blown, Covid-induced, economic crisis. And, despite campaign promises to return to a normalized approach to U.S.-Cuban relations, the Biden administration has sustained the Trump sanctions, in fear of antagonizing the powerful Cuban-American Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), whose vote the president needs to pass his domestic agenda in the evenly divided Senate. 

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As Biden completed his first year in office, a group of 114 Congressional representatives appealed to him to lift the embargo sanctions “that prevent food, medicine, and other humanitarian assistance from reaching the Cuban people,” and to restore the Obama-era approach of positive engagement. “Engagement,” the members advocated, “is more likely to enable the political, economic, and social openings that Cubans may desire, and to ease the hardships that Cubans face today.”

Indeed, the embargo remains the reason that international aid agencies such as the UN’s FAO face so many frustrating obstacles in their efforts to assist Cubans in surviving the humanitarian crisis they currently confront. It is the reason why Cubans cannot purchase basic medical equipment such as masks, syringes, ventilators, and oxygen tanks on the U.S. market to contain the threat of Covid in their homeland. It is the reason why Cuban-Americans cannot wire funds via Western Union to their families on the island so they have money to purchase increasingly scarce foodstuffs.  It is the reason that Cubans, among them entrepreneurs trying to expand the private sector, face restrictions on use of the internet. “Log in to PayPal in Cuba and you’re greeted with this message: ‘Access Denied,’” as NBC News recently described embargo-related internet problems. “On Amazon: ‘Unable to process this order.’ Try downloading an app on the Apple App Store: ‘unavailable in the country or region you are in.’”

“I understand that there are sanctions,” as one Cuban musician told NBC, “but they are supposed to be against the government, not the people.”

The embargo also affects the U.S. public. It is the reason that U.S. citizens cannot easily travel to Cuba, use credit cards and ATM machines when they get there, stay in the hotel of their choice, eat where they want to eat, and bring back Cuban treats–rum and cigars–to share with friends and family at home. Indeed, it is the reason why we can’t simply purchase those goods, among other Cuban specialties, in U.S. stores.

Policy advocates for lifting the embargo and restoring the Obama-era approach to Cuba have used the anniversary to prod the Biden administration to action. “Sooner or later – and I hope it is sooner – the Administration needs to face the fact that continuing Donald Trump’s policy of punitive sanctions and vitriol has backfired,” Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy said in a Senate floor speech on February 7th.  

“On this sixtieth anniversary of a Cold War policy of sanctions and isolation that has failed in every conceivable way,” Senator Leahy concluded, “let us dedicate ourselves to a new way forward that our allies and partners in this hemisphere will support, that the American people will support, that supports the Cuban people, and that is worthy of the United States.”   

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Peter Kornbluh is an investigative historian who directs the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive in Washington D.C. He is the author of a number of articles and books on U.S.-Cuban relations, among them (with William M. LeoGrande) the award-winning book, Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana. He has traveled to Cuba almost 100 times over the last 30 years, including as a member of the White House press corps when President Obama made his historic trip to Havana in March 2016. In collaboration with Fidel Castro's office, he organized the 40th anniversary conferences in Havana on the Bay of Pigs invasion (2001) and the Cuban Missile Crisis (2002).

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