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US Blockade against Cuba, explained: What is it? What does it cover and when did it start? 

As Cubans take to the streets, many in the US and around the world begin to wonder exactly what the US embargo against Cuba consists of and when it began.

As Cubans take to the streets, many in the US and around the world begin to wonder exactly what the US embargo against Cuba consists of and when it began.

On 11 July, protests began across Cuba, calling for major reforms in light of severe food and medical supply shortages. Cuba’s leader, Miguel Díaz-Canel, the first non-Castro to take power since 1959, blamed the protests on a US-based social media campaign.

In an address on Monday 12 July, President Díaz-Canel did say that “It’s legitimate to feel dissatisfaction," as many suffer from shortages but blamed them on the US embargo. While the economic embargo undoubtedly has played a role in the shortages, the covid-19 pandemic and the decrease in tourism has also led to the worst economic situation for the country since the early 1990s. 

There is no denying the brutality of the Cuban regime, which has negated the rights of its citizens to maintain power.

However, for many activists, these actions do not make the embargo, which also deprives the Cuban people of their right to self-determination, ethical. Cubans who want a Democratic future should be able to voice that opinion, free from violence.

But, international intervention to put increased pressure on the government could create more violence in an already tense situation.

Overview of the US Blockade against Cuba

An economic embargo, or blockade [known in Cuba as el bloqueo], is a political tool aimed at distributing a countries economy by banning the export of products to the target country.

Blockade Timeline

The blockade was first implemented after the Bay of Pigs by President John F. Kennedy in 1962. Since then, the embargo has been lightened and toughened depending on the foreign policy view of the President sitting in the White House.

In 1961, Congress passed two pieces of legislation -- the Foreign Assitance Act and the Cold War Act -- that prohibited the distribution of aid to Cuba and gave the president the authority to put an economic embargo in place.

In 1962, President Kennedy formally introduced the Cuban blockade through Executive Order. The order banned ”importation into the United States of all goods of Cuban origin and all goods imported from or through Cuba the import of Cuban products.” It also prohibited the export of all US products to Cuba. Exceptions were made for food and medical supplies.

In 1963, after the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy tightened the blockade further by banning travel, and Congress passed a law to penalize countries that assisted the island nation.

In the 1970s, President Jimmy Carter did not use his authority to ban travel to Cuba, but his predecessor Ronald Reagan took the standard view and further strengthened the blockade. President Reagan made changes to the travel ban, making exceptions for US government officials, movie production, researchers, and family visits.

By the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Soviet Union, Cuba’s largest international partner, was on the brink of collapse. President Bill Clinton and Congress toughened the embargo in 1992 in hopes of undermining Fidel Castro’s regime. The Cuban Democracy Act and the Helms-Burton Act created more rules for sending and trading food and medical products and established more penalties for countries and companies doing business with Cuba.

These new laws came during the Special Period; an era marked in Cuban history by economic crisis and hunger. From 1990 to 1996, the calorie intake in the nation was cut by almost thirty percent, and people starved. The impacts of these bills contributed to this crisis.

In 1990, two years before the law was passed, Cuba imported more than $400 million worth of food and medical supplies from the US. After the passage of the law, through 1996, imports decreased to $64 million.

Just a few weeks ago, the 184 members of the United Nations General Assembly voted in favor of the US lifting the embargo. The only votes opposing the measure came from the United States and Israel. Three countries, Brazil, Colombia, and Ukraine obtained.

Obama and Trump Presidencies

Part of President Obama’s second term was focused on re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba. Obama was the first president to visit Havana since 1928. During a speech he made at the National Theater in Havana, he described how over his lifetime, the world had “remade itself time, and again, one constant was the conflict between the United States and Cuba.

Pres. Obama spoke of the dreams and hopes of the Cuban people, congratulated them for all they had innovated and for how they have helped the global community.

It was the first step towards normalization, which President Trump quickly erased.

After first taking office, President Trump re-implemented some of the business and travel restrictions Obama had repealed.

As the pandemic began, many United Nations advisors urged the administration to loosen the embargo as it “may lead to a higher risk of such suffering in Cuba and other countries targeted by its sanctions.” He did not, and in October, he enacted further sanctions targeting key revenue sources for the government and officials.

President Biden has made his support for the protestors public but has not released any details on how his administration plans to address the failing diplomatic relationship. This series of protests may force him to act and rethink the decades-long embargo as international calls for its ending have grown in recent days.