Why Obama maintains economic war on Cuba

When running for the US presidency in 2008, Barack Obama promised “change you can believe in”. As president, he has failed to live up to the hopes and expectations of his supporters for progressive change. However, when it comes to US policy towards socialist Cuba, which has endured a brutal US economic siege for the past 48 years, Obama has kept his word — the US economic blockade remains firmly in place.

As early as January 2004, when Obama was a senator for the state of Illinois, he acknowledged that the blockade had “utterly failed in the effort to overthrow [the revolutionary government of Fidel] Castro”. Obama’s words were echoed by his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, on April 13, 2009: “We are continuing to look for productive ways forward because we view the present [Cuba] policy as having failed”. This view has bipartisan support in Washington. In February 2009, Richard Lugar, the senior Republican representative on the US Senate foreign relations committee, delivered a report that concluded: “After 47 years ... the unilateral embargo on Cuba has failed to achieve its stated purpose of ‘bringing democracy to the Cuban people’”.

During his 2008 election campaign, Obama pitched to both supporters and opponents of the US blockade of Cuba. Raising hopes for a change in US policy, he made vague references to the need for a “new beginning” in US-Cuba relations, while being careful to avoid any specific commitment to end the blockade. In a May 2008 speech to the Miami-based counter-revolutionary Cuban-American National Foundation (CANF), Obama made clear his support for the US blockade.

Obama told the millionaire former owners of Cuba’s farms and factories. whose properties had been nationalised by Cuba’s revolutionary government in 1960: “I will maintain the embargo. It provides us with the leverage to present the [Cuban] regime with a clear choice: if you take significant steps toward democracy, beginning with the freeing of all political prisoners, we will take steps to begin normalizing relations. That’s the way to bring about real change in Cuba – through strong, smart and principled diplomacy.”

While promising more of the same, Obama tried to appear to be offering something different: “Now I know what the easy thing is to do for American politicians. Every four years, they come down to Miami, they talk tough, they go back to Washington, and nothing changes in Cuba. That’s what [Republican presidential candidate] John McCain did the other day. He joined the parade of politicians who make the same empty promises year after year, decade after decade. Instead of offering a strategy for change, he chose to distort my position, embrace George Bush’s, and continue a policy that’s done nothing to advance freedom for the Cuban people.”

How would Obama’s approach to “advancing the freedom of the Cuban people” differ from that of George W. Bush? Obama continued: “My policy toward Cuba will be guided by one word: libertad [liberty]. And the road to freedom for all Cubans must begin with justice for Cuba’s political prisoners, the rights of free speech, a free press and freedom of assembly; and it must lead to elections that are free and fair.” In other words, no change.

Since taking office, Obama has made some minor changes that leave the blockade intact. Last year, he announced an easing of restrictions on Cuban-Americans visiting and sending money to family members in Cuba that had been imposed by the Bush administration. He also authorised US telecommunications firms to provide internet, phone and TV services to Cuba. Yet he has so far resisted the growing pressure on Washington to end its economic blockade. This pressure comes from all quarters.

Internationally, the US is almost completely isolated in its efforts to crush Cuba economically. On October 29, the UN General Assembly voted for the 18th consecutive year to adopt Cuba’s resolution demanding that the US lift the blockade. There were 187 votes in favour of the resolution, three votes against (the US, Israel and Palau) and two abstentions. There was a time, in the 1960s, when Mexico was the only Latin American state to maintain diplomatic relations with Cuba. Today, the US is the only country in the Americas not to have normal diplomatic and trade relations with Cuba.

Within the US, an influential and growing sector of the US capitalist class — among them the owners of agribusiness, travel, airline and telecommunications corporations — is pushing hard for the normalisation of trade relations with Cuba. These capitalists stand to gain the most from being allowed to do business with Cuba and can only watch from the sidelines as their competitors engage in joint ventures with Cuba’s socialist state. Reflecting growing support among US capitalists for scrapping the blockade, US Chamber of Commerce president Thomas J. Donohue said on May 5, 2009: “For the benefit of both countries, it’s time to turn the page. The embargo has failed and it’s time for a change.”

Support for the blockade is also waning among working people in the US. An April 15, 2009 nationwide poll conducted by the University of Maryland found that 70% of US residents thought Americans “should be free to visit Cuba”. The same poll found that 49% favoured ending the blockade, with 48% opposed. Among Cuban-Americans there is also growing support for a change in US policy towards Cuba. The younger generation of Cuban-Americans don’t care much for the bitter anti-Castro vendetta waged by a few immensely rich and influential octogenarians who can’t accept that Cuba will never go back to being the US’s Caribbean plantation and brothel.

Given this growing pressure to lift the blockade, why is Obama persisting with what he and Hillary Clinton have acknowledged is a failed policy? The aim of the blockade was spelt out in a now-declassified US State Department document dated April 6, 1960: “Every possible means should be undertaken to promptly weaken the economic life of Cuba … to bring about hunger, desperation and the overthrow of [Cuba’s revolutionary] government.” By cutting off trade with Cuba and by seeking to bribe or coerce other countries into doing the same, the US imperialist rulers hoped that once Cuba’s working people were demoralised, they would rise up against their own revolutionary government — allowing the US marines to invade Cuba and install a pro-US puppet regime. In Orwellian doublespeak, this is what is meant by “bringing democracy to the Cuban people”. But the US rulers underestimated the depth of popular support for Cuba’s socialist revolution and the capacity of the Cuban people to resist and adapt to life under the blockade.

While it has failed to achieve the overthrow of Cuba’s revolutionary socialist government, the blockade has succeeded in other ways. It has stunted and distorted Cuba’s social development. The US, the world’s largest economy and just 150km to the north of Cuba, would be a natural market for Cuba’s products. But US firms are prohibited, with the exception of cash sales of food products to Cuba, from trading with the island-state.

More than trade sanctions, the blockade is an unrelenting economic war in which US imperialism exercises its vast political, economic and diplomatic muscle to discourage third countries, as well as its own capitalists, from having economic relations with Cuba. The cost to Cuba’s economy is considerable: around US$100 billion since 1962, according to the Cuban government.

The ban on US citizens travelling to the island has not only deprived the Cuban economy of an important source of tourism revenue. More importantly, it has kept ordinary Americans ignorant of the hardships and suffering caused by the blockade and unaware of the inspiring social achievements of the Cuban Revolution. What little most Americans think they know about Cuba comes largely from the US corporate media. US citizens who defy the travel ban, risking heavy fines or imprisonment, are often surprised at how different the real Cuba is from the corporate media caricature.

Were the blockade lifted tomorrow, there would be an immediate and significant easing of the privations Cubans endure as a direct or indirect consequence of the US economic siege. The ability of Cuba’s post-capitalist economy to meet the Cuban people’s need for food, housing, health care, education, transportation, communications and consumer goods would take a leap forward if Cuba had access to the US market and the ability to purchase US goods and services on credit. The consequences for Cuba of an end to blockade would be not only economic but political and psychological. Many of the defensive measures Cuba has had to take to deprive the US-sponsored counter-revolution of breathing space on the island could be lifted.

What Cubans call the internal blockade, the siege mentality born of half a century of “living on a knife’s edge”, as Cuban President Raul Castro has put it, would wither away. Freed from the shackles of the blockade, Cuba would become even more attractive as an alternative to crisis-ridden, decaying global capitalism, to Cubans living on the island and to working people elsewhere, including in the US. Cuba’s many disaffected youth would feel more hopeful about the future of socialist Cuba.

This is the last thing US imperialism wants. As the chief executive of US imperialism, it’s Obama’s job to ensure that the long-term interests of US capitalism prevail over the sectoral interests of those US corporations that, seeing that the blockade’s days are numbered, want to “get in early” and profit from the normalisation of trade relations. Until support for an end to the blockade among the US capitalist rulers becomes overwhelming, persisting with a failed policy seems preferable to admitting defeat and ending the blockade.

While some among the US ruling rich argue that ending the blockade would do more to advance US imperialism’s goals in Cuba than the blockade has been able to achieve — by flooding Cuba with US tourists and business investments — this argument is heard most often from those who stand to gain from “free trade” with Cuba. The more realistic and far-sighted representatives of the US ruling class, Obama among them, know what an end to the blockade would mean — a defeat for US imperialism and a victory for the Cuban Revolution, and for working people everywhere.