This summer in Cuba was defined by protests that spread far and wide on the island. The July protests were sparked by a frustration of having to deal with food shortages and blackouts, along with the government’s much-criticised handling of the pandemic. The unrest, the biggest the country had seen in decades, was met with repression by the Cuban government. Over one hundred people were reported to be missing or arrested, and one person was reported to have died during the clashes between protestors and police.

The US responded to this crackdown by sanctioning a Cuban security minister and a special forces unit. According to Al Jazeera, the swiftness at which these new sanctions were imposed indicates the hard-line approach that the Biden administration will be taking towards Cuba.

This gives us a stark reminder of the US embargo on Cuba which has long been criticised by the UN. In June of this year, the UN General Assembly called for the US to end the economic blockade on Cuba for the twenty-ninth year in a row. Only two countries voted against—the US and Israel—while 184 countries supported it. According to the political coordinator for the US mission to the UN, Rodney Hunter, the motivation for keeping the embargo was that these are necessary tools to “advance democracy [and] promote respect for human rights”. The Cuban foreign minister, Bruno Rodriguez Parilla, qualifies this embargo as an “economic war” and an “unacceptable violation of the human rights of the Cuban people”.

Christopher Rhodes, a lecturer in government at Harvard University, argues in an opinion piece for Al Jazeera that after 60 years of economic blockades and no clear tangible changes within the country, one should question the embargo’s effectiveness.

Activists in New York as the UN calls for ending the embargo (Photo: Steve Sanchez Photos / Shutterstock.com)

The aim of the sanctions has been to create discontent within the country to pressure the regime to either introduce major reforms or to step down. Initially, the sanctions’ implementation was a reaction towards Fidel Castro’s seizing of American businesses and properties following the Cuban revolution in 1959. This embargo forbids American companies and punishes foreign ones from doing business in the country. That is not to say that other countries cannot trade with Cuba, but the rule is that products containing at least 10% of American-created content must have a US-issued license to trade on the island. In the context of today’s globalised economy, this can be quite the obstacle.

According to the UN, the US embargo on Cuba has created an asphyxiating economic situation, with the island nation having lost US$160 billion in the past six decades. This money could potentially have been used to invest in jobs and infrastructure in the country.

Children outside of school in Trinidad, Cuba (Photo: jakubtravelphoto / Shutterstock.com)

The embargo has arguably also resulted in human suffering amid the pandemic. According to a report from the NGO Oxfam, the sanctions during the pandemic presented a real obstacle in acquiring medical equipment needed to fight the pandemic, such as  mechanical ventilators, vaccination syringes, diagnostics kits and face masks. Oxfam therefore stresses that the embargo has been delaying vaccination projects on the island.

In fact, Oxfam’s report argues that the US embargo on Cuba has led to widespread suffering. They strongly advocate for ending the economic blockade, emphasising the benefits there would be both for those most in need as well as for boosting the private sector. Yet, the topic remains a heated debate. Still, it raises questions whether at this point the existence of the embargo is still justified.

Ultimately, the question is how long Cuba can survive under the embargo’s strain, and how long the US can keep it in place. As fewer countries support the embargo, the US-led policy has become increasingly internationally isolated—the US’s defeat in the UN General Assembly is testament to this. If pressure continues to mount, the US will soon need to redress the issue of the embargo in order to maintain its relevance on the world stage.

Christopher Fletcher Sandersjöö and Ondrej Gomola