Speeding down the highway into Havana, you’re somewhat thrown into the deep end in terms of revolutionary images and slogans. I’m thinking specifically about the first one I saw on arriving in the country: a black billboard on the side of the road that shouted “EL BLOQUEO” (the “blockade”, or the US embargo) in large white letters. The final “O” was represented by a large noose, and the subtitle read, in translation: “The longest genocide in history”.
On Tuesday, the UN General Assembly voted almost unanimously to condemn the embargo. Out of 193 member states, there were 191 yes votes, with only the US and Israel opposing the resolution. In 1992, when it was first drafted, 71 countries abstained from voting. Three did so last year. The shift is a telling sign of overwhelming international opposition to the policy. But will it make a difference to the US Congress?
Full diplomatic ties have now been restored between Cuba and the United States. This summer, embassies were reopened in both countries. Trade and travel restrictions have been eased by the Obama administration. In the eyes of the world’s media, Cold War animosity is all but a thing of the past. Tourists visit the island by the busload and warn others to follow their lead “before the Americans get in!” The coverage of Pope Francis’s recent visit depicted a healthy, happy nation and a promising future for all in its inhabitants, finally released from political isolation and a crippled economy. But for the average Cuban, on a wage of under thirty dollars a month, this remains a distant hope.
The UNGA vote has apparently given us a much-needed reminder that the “blockade” is still very much in operation, held firmly in place by an unshakeable Congress. Last month, Obama said he was ‘confident our Congress will inevitably lift an embargo that should not be in place anymore’. This so-called confidence seems more of a desperate nudge, as Republicans show little inclination for change. The Cuban government has made clear that full normalisation of relations is impossible without the embargo being lifted. As foreign minister Bruno Rodríguez recently suggested, only this would ‘give some meaning’ to the recent thaw – in other words, as it stands, it doesn’t mean all that much.
Speculation that the US might abstain from, rather than opposing the resolution this year was quashed when Ronald Godard, US deputy ambassador to the UN, stated that the language of the motion had not changed sufficiently to reflect the steps taken by the two countries. The ‘expressed will’ of the Obama administration to end the embargo was recognised and the recent changes welcomed, but little else was amended. Abstaining would have intensified pressure on the Congress – hence Godard’s description of the motion as ‘unfortunate’.
Unfortunate is a term perhaps more suited to describe the $121 billion in damage done to the Cuban economy by the embargo over five decades. A report by the American Association for World Health found that food shortages led to a 33% drop in caloric intake between 1989 and 1993, and doctors in the country have access to less than 50% of drugs on the world market. In 2011, Amnesty International reported that treatments for children with bone cancer and HIV/AIDS were not readily available, having been commercialised under US patents. Food, medicine, technology and other necessities have all been in critically short supply. The consequences of the bloqueo, described by Rodríguez as ‘a flagrant, massive and systematic violation of the human rights of all Cubans’, are hard to overstate.
Neither has the embargo achieved its goals. History proves that such sanctions do little more than hurt ordinary people, and fail to touch those sheltered in the high ranks of government. The renowned dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez, ever critical of the Cuban government, underlines such a view on the Huffington Post:
‘The five decade prolongation of the “blockade” has allowed every setback we’ve suffered to be explained as stemming from it, justified by its effects. But its existence has not prevented the luxurious mansions of the nomenklatura from swimming in whiskey, their freezers packed with food while modern cars sit in the garages. To make matters worse, the economic fence has helped to fuel the idea of a place besieged, where dissent comes to be equated with an act of treason. The exterior blockade has strengthened the interior blockade.’
It gives the government a useful scapegoat, she argues; a ‘big bad wolf’ to blame everything on, from the limited Internet access to the harsh violations of the right to freedom of association. If the embargo remains in place to put pressure on Cuba to improve its human rights record and make the transition to democracy, fifty long years have proved its failure.
When we remember that the US turns a blind eye to the human rights records of trading partners Venezuela, China and Vietnam, it becomes clear that this argument doesn’t hold. Double standards turn sinister when the word ‘Guantánamo’ is whispered. Failure to close the notorious detention centre may be the biggest stain on Obama’s presidency, and it leaves any righteousness from Cuba’s northern neighbour without so much as a leg to stand on.
The bloqueo is little more than a relic from a time when Communism was the ultimate bogeyman, the enemy that legitimised any dirty tactic, no matter how high the cost. As one generation grudgingly makes room for another, public opinion shifts in both countries. Young Cubans yearn for the freedom of financial stability over anti-Yankee patriotism. And the influence of anti-Castro lobbyists on the American public is loosening its grip: a report by the Pew Research Center this July found 72% of people in favour of lifting of the embargo.
So how bright is the future? It all depends on the next president of the United States. Hillary Clinton has indicated her commitment to call on Congress to end the embargo. No Republican candidate supports such a move. But for both parties, the issue is likely to take a back seat over the election period. Change is still far off, and it’s about time the news of the world reflected this. Meanwhile, as the bloqueo enters its 55th year – the most enduring trade embargo in modern history – the people of Cuba continue struggling to make ends meet.