Illustrated | AP Images, iStock
On Sunday, July 11, Cubans across the country took to the streets in an effort to bring attention to entrenched poverty, hunger, and decades of one-party rule. “This is the largest popular protest against the government that we’ve seen in Cuba since 1959,” Cuban activist and art historian Carolina Barrero reported to The New York Times via text message.
President Biden announced his solidarity with the protesters via an official press release: “We stand with the Cuban people and their clarion call for freedom and relief from the tragic grip of the pandemic and from the decades of repression and economic suffering to which they have been subjected by Cuba’s authoritarian regime.” On Thursday he followed up with another statement calling the country a “failed state.”
What Biden didn’t mention is that some of the primary architects of modern Cuba are U.S. policymakers like himself.
At a press conference on July 12, President Miguel Díaz-Canel accused the United States of creating “a policy of economic suffocations” with the purpose of provoking “social outbursts, misunderstandings, and dissatisfaction.” History supports his claim.
On October 19, 1960 — nearly two years removed from the revolution — the U.S. began the longest trade embargo in modern history by prohibiting commerce with Cuba. According to a State department memo, the goal of the policy was to block “money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation, and overthrow of government.”
More than 60 years later, Washington’s self-fulfilling prophecy may finally be coming to fruition, but it has come at the cost of thousands of lives, an entrenched economic depression, and the dignity of an entire nation.
I traveled to Cuba multiple times between 2015 and 2017. I immediately saw the obvious impacts of the embargo including the dilapidated colonial buildings, stores with bare shelves, pharmacies in low supply of medicine, young women selling themselves on the boardwalk to feed their families, and antique cars outfitted with newer model engines flown in by relatives piece by piece in suitcases.
As a guide named Javier Huerta told me during my first trip to the island in 2015, “Life in Cuba is dura [hard]. It requires a great deal of imagination and a high tolerance for suffering.” But, he went on, “It didn’t have to be this way.”
Javier was a proud history teacher turned tourist guide. He was passionate about his nation’s past, but he loathed the idea of showing uninformed vacationers around the island. “When my first child was born I suddenly realized my pockets were empty,” Javier explained. “And, well, tourism is much more profitable.”
“Most assume, because we lack material wealth, that we hate our government,” explained Javier on a bus bound for Santa Clara, where we were scheduled to visit Che Guevara’s tomb. “But it’s not that simple. The revolution brought real opportunities for the working class. What’s complicated our lives are the terrorist attacks and economic blockade.”
In 2017, with Javier in mind, I visited a museum in Havana named Memorial de La Denuncia, which is located in Miramar at the old Ministry of the Interior. The museum pays tribute to the deaths of more than 3,000 Cubans who have lost their lives at the hands of terrorist attacks, many of which were U.S.-funded. Just beyond the main entrance, there is a stairway leading to the second floor. The wall to the left of the steps is lined with thousands of small crosses, which cast long shadows upon the white-washed wall. “You see the crosses?” my guide asked. “Each one represents a Cuban who has died at the hands of your country.”
Upstairs I read about the French freighter La Coubre, which left Europe with 76 tons of Belgian munitions in 1960. According to the exhibit, the CIA rigged the ship with explosives prior to crossing the Atlantic. Upon arrival in Havana harbor, undercover agents allegedly detonated a series of small explosions designed to lure as many people as possible on board. Once the ship was packed with people, the agents then triggered the remaining explosives, provoking a massive explosion that killed 101 people, and injured another 200. The day after the explosion, with munition shells from the ill-fated ship in his hands, Fidel Castro addressed thousands of mourners in La Havana. During his speech he belted out, “Homeland or death.”
The U.S. continues to deny involvement in La Coubre and definitive links have never been established. However, in the eyes of most Cubans, the charges are credible due to the fact that the attack mirrors a long history of U.S. intervention including provocations of war and multiple attempts on Fidel Castro’s life.
Also represented in those 3,000 crosses were the 161 Cubans who were killed in President John F. Kennedy’s failed invasion of the Bay of Pigs in 1961, which cemented the perception on the island that U.S. aggression had little to do with what was best for everyday Cubans. Shortly after, Che Guevara attended the Organization of the American States conference in Uruguay. During his stay, he gave a note to one of Kennedy’s secretaries that read, “Thanks for the Bay of Pigs. Before the invasion, the revolution was weak. Now it’s stronger than ever.”
Empirical research confirms Che’s theory. In 2017 a pair of researchers analyzed the impact of U.S. intervention on human rights in 144 countries between 1975 and 2005. They found that economic and military intervention is ineffective at impeding authoritarian regimes. Their work supports the notion that foreign intervention legitimizes anti-imperialist rhetoric, and in turn, facilitates the ability of authoritative leaders like Fidel Castro to rally supporters against a common enemy.
We will never know what an autonomous Cuba sans U.S. interference would have looked like, but the true cost of the U.S. blockade has never been more clear. The United Nations, which has called for an end to the embargo since 1992, estimates that the policy has cost Cuba upwards of $130 billion across six decades.
Today, 1.5 million Cubans — or roughly 13 percent of the country’s population — live abroad. Shortly after the revolution, many Cubans left for political reasons, but now, Cuba’s emigration crisis is rooted in the economy. The money expats send home helps buoy the national economy, but restrictions passed during the Trump years drastically reduced their flow, further crippling the nation.
In turn, the global pandemic has brought the nation’s already fragile economy to its knees, and it may prove to be the last straw. Alongside a food crisis and a new wave of emigration, massive protests are testing the communist party’s resolve in unprecedented ways.
To be certain, economic mismanagement and corruption within the communist party has contributed to the problems facing Cuba today. However, if Díaz-Canel and his government survive this latest test, I sense it will be the result of the United States’ long history of intervention in Cuba’s domestic affairs. As Javier pointed out the last time I saw him, “The blockade allows our government to blame its own shortcomings on U.S. policy.”
And so long as that’s true, the communist party may well continue to defy the odds.