We recently returned from a trip to Cuba with the Venceremos Brigade, which for 51 years has sent people-to-people delegations from the US to the island. Our delegation of 80 people visited the eastern part of the island. The Oriente has a very large Afro-Cuban community, rooted in Cuba’s history of being a sugar colony with a workforce of enslaved Africans. This region is known as the cradle of the Cuban revolution of 1959.
In many ways, Cuba seemed like a different world, so much healthier than ours in the US. As we visited the cities of Santiago and Camaguey, we saw zero homeless people, and no commercial billboards or sexist advertising.
The humanism of Cuban society was evident everywhere we went. On the other hand, we also saw many serious repercussions of the U.S. blockade on the Cuban economy. Everywhere we went, we heard about the harsh impact of the 60-year-old web of laws and regulations which bar Cuba from doing business with US companies and their subsidiaries, an embargo that keeps Cuba from using much of the world’s financial system.
The teeth of the blockade is at the Treasury Department, which imposes multi-million dollar fines on banks or companies that trade with Cuba. The blockade has meant that Cuba could not purchase syringes to run its Covid vaccination campaign; it has meant the US blocked shipments of respirators during the height of the pandemic.
Donald Trump issued executive orders to tighten the blockade with more than 240 new restrictions on the Cuban economy. A week before Trump left office, he topped off the damage by having Cuba listed as a “state sponsor of terrorism,” a designation that many called a reward for Trump’s supporters in Miami. The “SSOT List” is issued by the State Department with no international input, yet placement on the list roughly doubles the prices Cuba must pay for products on the world market.
We visited a pharmaceutical production lab and learned that Cuba produces the lion’s share of its own medications, which are distributed free as part of a human right to health care. We learned about the Cuban health system that places a doctor and a nurse every few blocks, living above their (free) neighborhood clinics so that they know local conditions well.
Vicki became ill with the flu and experienced the health system personally. A doctor and nurse came to care for her morning and evening, and during her illness she met a total of eight doctors, nurses, and health students, all Afro-Cubans. A nurse explained, “The best medicine is love…and the other best medicine is prevention.”
The Cuban bio-pharma industry has developed five highly effective Covid vaccines and the island has a vaccination rate of over 90 percent, so that on average there are only 30 new cases each day—compared to a low estimate of 6,700 per day in the Bay Area currently, with a roughly equivalent-sized population. Cuba also stands out for its profound commitment to global health. Cuba has sent more than 4,900 medical professionals, organized in 57 medical brigades, to 40 countries and territories affected by Covid.
Our delegation was also treated to real cultural brilliance, seeing a children’s after-school dance troupe, a young adult performing arts program, and an Afro-Cuban big band, all supported with public funding committed to “the arts for everyone.” For teachers in our group who have watched the elimination of arts programs in the US, the contrast was painful.
Despite these social advances, Cuba is suffering mightily from shortages of all kinds, periodic power blackouts, and a depressed employment horizon. The major industry of tourism ground to a halt with the one-two punch of the pandemic and the tightening of the blockade.
Each time strangulation by the US has been made harsher, a wave of migration has meant thousands of Cubans leave their homeland. The current wave of some 220,000 emigrants in 2022 is the biggest exit yet.
Conditions are trying and nerves are frayed. We saw long lines of people waiting to get groceries, and store shelves were very sparse. We visited the Agramonte Pediatric Teaching Hospital, where the director told us that they were unable to import the specialized medications to treat children with cancer. We also learned of the premier trauma hospital in Havana, which had 22 operating rooms but only two functioning anesthesia machines for lack of spare parts, leading to serious delays in treatment.
We also met with Erica, an organizer from Cuba’s transgender community, who praised the fact that gender transitions are considered a human right in the Cuban health system, and marriages between same-sex partners have recently been enshrined in the Cuban constitution with the passage of a new Families Code. However, Erica bemoaned the fact that hormone treatments are in short supply because of the blockade.
The reasons the Trump administration gave for putting Cuba on the so-called “terrorist list” are in our view completely unjustified. Trump’s secretary of state Mike Pompeo said that Cuba refused to extradite members of a Colombian guerilla group who had traveled to Cuba to participate in a formal peace dialog with the Colombian government. But Cuba and Norway had been co-hosting an internationally recognized peace process, and Colombian President Gustavo Petro specifically asked Cuba to resume its role as guarantor country for the peace dialog. The Columbian president also stated that Cuba should be removed from the SSOT list. The Trump administration had also claimed that Cuba harbors US fugitives who are wanted for political violence nearly 50 years ago. Dozens of lawyers have signed a letter pointing out that Cuba is the only country in the world to which this rationale is applied.
The United States stands virtually alone in its persecution of Cuba. Over thirty years, the United Nations General Assembly has voted overwhelmingly to condemn the US blockade, with the most recent vote being 184-2, with three abstentions.
At a deeper level than the flimsy reasons given, the US embargo aims to punish Cuba for nationalizing its resources after the 1959 revolution, fearing that other countries in the global South might follow suit. Cuba reclaimed its nickel mines, cattle and sugar ranches, phone and electric company, harbors, and other enterprises, to fund free high-quality education and health care for its people. The new Cuban government offered to compensate the US and European companies that had owned the companies, at the prices the companies had been declaring on their tax bills. While many European companies accepted compensation, the US set a more hostile course. Lester D. Mallory, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, in a secret State Department memo, defined the US strategy that continues to this day. Mallory noted that given that the majority of Cubans support the revolution:
“…the only foreseeable way to detract from … domestic support is by disenchantment and dissatisfaction arising from economic malaise and material hardship…every possible means must be rapidly employed to weaken the economic life of Cuba…a course of action which, being as skillful and discreet as possible, will achieve the greatest advances in depriving Cuba of money and supplies, to reduce its financial resources, to bring about hunger, despair, and the overthrow of the Government.”
The Cuban people should not be pawns on the geostrategic chessboard of the United States. We urge readers to work with the national movement to get Cuba off the so-called “terrorist list” and to demand that President Biden end Trump’s other 240+ sanctions. Reversing the Trump administration’s measures is something President Biden could do with the stroke of his pen.
San Francisco residents can call our Representative Nancy Pelosi to urge her to advocate that the Biden administration do the right thing: (415) 556-4862. Connect with the Bay Area movement by writing to our committee at email@example.com, and by signing up for low-volume Cuba news at Sign Up for VB Cuba News . Connect with the national movement at the National Network on Cuba (www.nnoc.org) and the Alliance for Cuba Engagement and Respect (https://acere.org/). And consider traveling to Cuba to see for yourself — sign up for information on the Venceremos Brigade website (https://vb4cuba.com/)