Cuba V USA: How The American Embargo Shaped Cuba

Published 2 years ago on November 9, 2017
By Vincent

For over 55 years the tiny Carribean island nation of Cuba has been under one of the most stringent trade embargos the world has ever seen, one that has crippled its economy, stretched its limited resources and pitted it against the fierce opposition of a global superpower and yet it has persisted. 

President Obama was the first leader of the United States to begin to relax these debilitating binds on the island that his country had imposed under John F. Kennedy, but now the Trump administration seems set on dialing the pressure back up again. Here we look at how this embargo has affected the nation in how it trades, survives and thinks.

Image Source:Christophe Meneboeuf/

In 1959, Fidel Castro, Raul Castro, Ernesto 'Che' Guevara and their band of revolutionaries overthrew the American-backed dictator of Cuba, General Fulgencio Batista who had implemented policies that meant landowners and wealthy casino and brothel operators benefited from the labor of the poor and so, largely, his toppling was seen as a good thing. 

At the time Cuba was seen as a sort of gangland paradise, a playground for the rich run by gangsters and unscrupulous business owners but with Cuba, at a crossroads in its history, it needed to decide which direction it would take post-revolution. 

At this point, the world was enamored by the revolutionaries as some kind of Robin Hood figures, and this included the US who were hoping to maintain their business interests in the country under the new regime, but many Cubans felt that they could not be under the influence of another state if they were to achieve true independence. 

Soon Fidel implemented policies nationalizing industry and throwing out American interests as they expatriated back the land which led to the USA to turn on him. As Cuba became a one-party Communist state that aligned itself with the Soviet Union at the height of the cold war and, being so close to America, Castro became increasingly divisive as sweeping reforms to help out the poor laborers were put in place and opposition was at best ignored, at worse declared anti-revolutionary and saw the dissenters locked up.

Image Source: Julian Peters Photography/

In 1960, the USA placed an embargo on exports to Cuba except for food and medicine after Cuba nationalized American-owned Cuban oil refineries without compensation, with the idea of deposing Castro and installing a head of state more sympathetic to American affairs. By 1962, the embargo was extended to include almost all imports but not only was it just on things from the USA but included anything that involved an American company in any step of the process . This meant that anything from another country that used an American service could also not get into the country making it one of the strictest embargos on any nation ever.

For a time Cuba predominantly relied on trade with the Soviet Union to survive, but when that collapsed they were left on their own, and their currency and industry ceased to have any sort of real value on global markets forcing the country to a point of near starvation. This impacted the working people of Cuba more than those it was intended to harm but rather than swell sentiment of discontent towards the Castros it helped with a form of social cohesion and a sense of share and share alike in the embattled nation and saw greater hostility towards the USA from Cubans, as they saw it as America's fault that they were suffering and not their own leaders. 

It also provided a perfect scapegoat for those in charge, as any failing could then be blamed upon the embargo and negative American propaganda.

This has persisted for the period of the embargo and saw Castro elevated to a sort of physical embodiment of the revolution that he fought. He was idolized by many of his people despite not being your typical dictator who forced this love of him upon them. Unlike leaders in North Korea, China or the former Soviet Union, even today you do not see statues of Fidel in towns and cities across the nation and he never pushed his image forward as the be-all and end-all of power in his country,  instead, he referred to this notion of 'the revolution' and how all Cubans must strive to protect and achieve its principles. In turn, as the figurehead of the fight against America, he then became the symbol of 'the revolution' without ever really intending to. In short, the embargo achieved exactly the opposite of what it was intending to.

Kimberly Shavender/

Perhaps President Obama recognized this or perhaps he realized that it was unfairly targeting the Cuban people rather than their politicians when he set about loosening the restrictions that had bound their close neighbor for so long and, as Cuba began to open up a little more here and there, (land was being denationalized, and small businesses were allowed to operate despite major industries and infrastructure remaining seized by the government) inequality did start to creep into certain strata of Cuban society thus beginning to chip away at the social cohesion that had held them together for so long. This could have begun a gradual path towards the democratization of the island in a tradeoff of greater liberty with less equality.

However, seemingly diametrically opposed to the Obama administration, the Trump administration has set out again to tighten trade with Cuba and restrict who can go into the country, with the US government imposing travel and commerce restrictions on Cuba that will make it harder for Americans to visit the island nation than it was previously. New rules have just been put in place that partially rollback the Obama administration's diplomatic opening with Cuba with Americans now wanting to visit Cuba having to go as part of organized tour groups run by U.S. companies. A representative of the sponsoring group must also accompany the travellers while The Treasury Department is exempting trips booked before Trump announced his Cuba policy on June 16, 2017.

Evan El-Amin/Shutterstock

This seems a little like folly in the face of things as Cuba will now see these policies as another US administration trying to push them back, and it will only feed into the anti-US sentiment that remains while doing little to stir consternation about the domestic ruling party. 

That being said, the embargo has been official US policy for a long time now in what seems a fight of ideology rather than morality (the US maintains it is due to the human rights violations that happen in the country despite hosting their own secretive and highly criticised Guantanamo Bay prison in the country and also being guilty of abuses themselves) and the Trump administration has previously said it is in favor of torture and rendition if it is to protect US interests. 

Image Source:Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C/

Despite Fidel's death earlier this year though, sweeping change has not happened and the notion of 'the revolution' remains in spirit throughout the Cuban people even without their iconic leader, and is embodied by the phrase "Hasta Victoria La Siempre", which is emblazoned everywhere in the streets of Cuba and is roughly translated as "Until victory, always" meaning that the ideas and ideals of the revolution will never cease until they have been achieved. 

And while this thinking remains in place, no embargo is going to change that and, as history proves, has only helped to solidify it in the hearts and minds of the Cuban people. 

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