For six decades, American foreign policy toward Cuba has consisted largely (though not solely) of unilateral coercive economic measures. Sanctions, in other words, beginning with the Eisenhower administration’s cut on sugar imports to the United States in July 1960 and proceeding on up through the Trump administration, which has taken economic sanctions to unprecedented levels. Although the rationales have varied somewhat over time, the consistent objective has been to deploy U.S. economic power to undermine Cuba’s socioeconomic and political systems and bring about regime change. The State Department’s notorious Mallory Memorandum of April 1960 made it explicit: “The only foreseeable means of alienating internal support is through disenchantment and disaffection based on economic dissatisfaction and hardship.… If the above are accepted or cannot be successfully countered, it follows that every possible means should be undertaken promptly to weaken the economic life of Cuba.”
What is commonly known as the U.S. embargo against Cuba subsequently commenced, in October 1960, when the Eisenhower administration invoked the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917 to ban all exports to Cuba except medical supplies and food. In 1962, President Kennedy further tightened the screws by prohibiting the import “of all goods of Cuban origin and goods imported from or through Cuba.” In the decades that followed, the United States expanded and reinforced the regime of sanctions against Cuba, by 2007 transforming it into the most comprehensive embargo on any state, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Today, every major method available to a sanctioning state is currently employed: trade control, suspension of aid and technical assistance, the freezing of financial assets, and the blacklisting of foreign companies involved in trade with Cuba. (Then there are the suggested covert actions; as early as 1963, U.S. officials sought to sabotage key sectors of the Cuban economy.)
What has been the impact of this decades-long approach? Back in 2000, a report commissioned by the UN Human Rights Commission noted that “health and nutrition have been two of the primary victims of the sanctions.” It quoted the highly critical report from the American Association for World Health confirming that the embargo led to “malnutrition, poor water quality, and the denial of access to medical equipment and drugs” and amounted to “the deliberate blockading of the Cuban population’s access to food and medicine.” Amnesty International has also documented the effects of the sanctions on economic and social rights, and has repeatedly called for the lifting of the embargo. And though the Obama administration eased certain restrictions following the accords of December 2014, those measures were limited, primarily relating to travel and cultural exchanges. None of the regulatory changes made through executive action affected the core provisions of the embargo established by federal legislation.
Enter Donald Trump, who has not only reversed the modest changes made by the Obama administration, but has also taken the sanctions program to new extremes. The measures imposed by the Trump administration are plainly geared toward bankrupting the Cuban state. They target the country’s areas of economic strength, such as tourism and the export of professional services, and exploit its vulnerabilities, such as its energy dependence and its reliance on direct foreign investment. By undermining Cuba’s economic performance, U.S. sanctions have further degraded the living standards of the Cuban people, who rely on the state for access to health care and education, along with subsidized housing, food, transportation, and utilities. Their plight is worsened by a new cap on family remittances, which limits the amount of money Cubans can receive from family in the United States.