‘Economic asphyxiation’: U.S. restricts food supplies in bid to strangle Cuban revolution
A portrait of Argentine born Cuban revolutionary hero Ernesto 'Che' Guevara hangs on a shelf at a food store in Havana with some of the few products for sale. | Ramon Espinosa / AP

The civilian victims of U.S. war-making in Gaza—the U.S. government supplies the big weapons—are on full display right now, broadcast on television screens and Twitter feeds around the world.

There’s another group on the receiving end of U.S. imperialism whose plight is not being publicized very much at the moment, though, and that’s the resistance of the long-suffering people of Cuba against an unrelenting economic war.

Differences in scale and immediacy of course distinguish the assault they face due from the U.S. blockade and the bombardment and constant death being visited upon the Palestinians by Washington’s Israeli ally, but for the island nation to our south, the supply of food and other necessities is becoming ever more precarious by the day.

And despite the differences in the war against Palestinians and the economic war against Cubans, there is a common principle that governs in both instances: Subjecting non-combatant populations to potentially lethal danger, under conditions of war, is criminal. That’s reason enough to force an end to the U.S. economic blockade of Cuba.

The blockade promotes food shortages and is putting more and more lives at risk. The U.S. public needs to know about, understand, and reject this blockade, its operation, and its impact. Letting people in the U.S. know the full details of what’s being done in their name is, of course, no small task. The blockade proceeds automatically and quietly; the human suffering it causes is largely hidden.

Economic embargos are a form of war and the people whose government is dishing out such a strategy is often unaware of what’s happening, writes commentator Nicholas Mulder: “Voters in the sanction-imposing country are unlikely to observe or understand the full costs of sanctions on ordinary people abroad.”

Not by accident

The blockade promotes food shortages, and that’s its intention. New Jersey Congressman Robert Torricelli introduced the Cuban Democracy Act in 1992 in the wake of the Soviet Bloc’s collapse. Cuba had just lost 80% of its trade and was vulnerable, which provided what the U.S. government saw as a chance to finish off Cuba’s Revolution.

The law prohibits those exporters abroad who are affiliated with U.S. companies from shipping food and other goods to Cuba under threat of penalties and fines. Torricelli explained the rationale, saying you mus “keep your foot on the snake, don’t let up.”

Companies around the globe had previously been exporting almost $500 million worth of food to Cuba annually, but Torricelli’s law put a stop to that. The legislation, which is still in effect, prohibits ships from entering U.S. harbors for six months after they visit a Cuban port.

The effect has been to raise shipping prices for Cuba and severely limit the number of international companies willing to risk their access to the giant U.S. market in order to sell to a much smaller customer like Cuba.

U.S legislation in 2000, provided some small relief, authorizing exports of U.S. farm products to Cuba. Payments are in cash only—no loans. Shipping costs remain high, though, because the food products must be carried in U.S. ships, and they return empty. Cuba has to pay for a two-way trip to get only one boatload of goods. U.S. food exports to Cuba peaked in 2008 and have fallen since.

The U.S. blockade also restricts financial services provided by international banks and lenders. Under U.S. pressure, they don’t lend money to Cuba and can’t handle U.S. dollars in transactions involving Cuba. The legislation that authorized U.S. presidents to designate other nations as sponsors of terrorism incorporated these prohibitions, along with penalties.

Cuba, as an alleged—falsely so—terrorist-sponsoring nation, lacks the credit and often the cash to pay for food imports and to develop the island’s own domestic agricultural potential. Cuba must spend $4 billion annually to import 80% of the food it consumes.

The U.S. blockade causes other shortages that also hobble food production. Fuel shortages impede the transport of goods and the operation of machinery. Fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides, seeds, spare parts, new equipment, veterinary supplies, irrigation equipment, new breeding stock, and grains used to make animal feed are all constantly in short supply. U.S. limitations on the remittances Cuban-Americans send to their families in Cuba further interfere with food purchases and spending on agricultural projects.

A comparison of agricultural production in Cuba and in the Dominican Republic suggests food shortages are due mostly to the U.S. blockade. The two are neighbors with essentially identical climates. The total of food produced in the unblockaded DR in 2021 exceeded Cuba’s “best historical average” yield by 35.7%, even though agricultural acreage in the Dominican Republic is only 25% of Cuba’s total.

Some difficulties affecting agricultural production result from non-blockade causes, to be sure: mounting inflation, domestic corruption, theft, currency speculation, and shortages of foreign currency due to reduced tourism during the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequently. Higher food prices generally around the globe recently and climate-change effects are also phenomena bearing on food availability in Cuba.

Policy failures also factor into the equation, as Cuba’s government has fallen short in converting the island’s many idle fields into productive farm land. And relatively few Cuban young people are attracted to farming; only 15% of Cubans live in the countryside.

Empty shelves

Agricultural minister Ydael Jesús Pérez Brito, interviewed recently, noted that the agriculture sector has secured only 40% of the diesel fuel it needs, 4% of required fertilizers, and 20% of feed needed for livestock.

He reported that pork production fell from almost 200,000 tons in 2017 to 16,500 tons in 2022, due in part to only 14% of necessary fuel being available. Rice farmers are producing 10% of recently achieved levels of production. Current production of beans and corn amounts to 9% and 30%, respectively, of yields in 2016.

Manuel Sobrino Martínez, the food industry minister, indicated last month that food processing generally and milk processing in particular is down over three years to 50% of capacity. He described a 46% drop over one year of milk received for processing to powdered milk, and reported that a ton of milk costs $4,508 now, up from $3,150 in 2019.

The availability of cooking oil is down 44% in a year; its cost is up from $880 per ton in 2019 to $1,606 now. Wheat processing is at half capacity. Fishing activity has fallen by 23% since 2022; 60 boats are not operating because motors are expensive and suppliers refuse to sell, or demand hard currency up-front. The minister said he must choose between “powdered milk, or wheat, or motors.”

The essence, according to an observer, is that, “owing to low agricultural yields, total food production in 2022 fell to 26% [of food produced] in 2019.”

Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel told a reporter recently that, “They have put us in a situation of maximum pressure, of economic asphyxiation to provoke the collapse of the Revolution, to fracture the unity between the leadership and the people, to obliterate the work of the Revolution.”

Production is low, he pointed out, and “the country’s fundamental problem is low availability of foreign currency.” Díaz-Canel said the government would “take advantage of the possibilities we have as a socialist state to plan and distribute available resources to prioritize the production that … could give us more possibilities, and also to protect people who may be in a situation of social disadvantage.”

Grim reality, of which food insufficiency is one aspect, demonstrates that now is the time for action and messaging strong enough to finally end the U.S. blockade. Suffering and distress at U.S. hands should provoke revulsion, just as does U.S. complicity with attacks on hospitals in Gaza, and killings of non-combatants.

A key element of Cubans’ distress is lack of currency and credit. President Joe Biden has only to remove Cuba from the U.S. list of terrorist-sponsoring nations to provide immediate humanitarian relief and restore Cuba’s government some room to maneuver the food crisis. An easing of current living conditions would surely result in fewer Cuban migrants heading to the United States, too.

For the U.S. government to be at peace with Cuba would hardly violate baseline presumptions for war-making, which would indeed be the case if the United States opposed Israel’s war in Gaza. Doing so would disturb respect for ally Israel’s historical memory, profiteering by U.S. weapons manufacturers, and backing for Israel as U.S. beachhead for regional control.

In dropping the blockade, U.S. power-brokers would lose little more than gratification and political reward for fighting communism and opposing Cuba’s efforts to rearrange their U.S. Latin American and Caribbean backyard.

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W. T. Whitney Jr.
W. T. Whitney Jr.

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a political journalist whose focus is on Latin America, health care, and anti-racism. A Cuba solidarity activist, he formerly worked as a pediatrician, lives in rural Maine. W.T. Whitney Jr. es un periodista político cuyo enfoque está en América Latina, la atención médica y el antirracismo. Activista solidario con Cuba, anteriormente trabajó como pediatra, vive en la zona rural de Maine.