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Artillery Row

Economical with the truth

Deconstructing the left’s Cuban blockade fantasy is a matter of numbers

It is a particular fantasy of the western left that the abject failure of the Cuban economy is somehow the fault of the USA. For example, some 58 British Corbynista and SNP MPs have recently signed a motion attacking what they call the US “blockade” of Cuba.

Of course there is no blockade, only a partial embargo. The two are absolutely different. A blockade would require the US to prevent the movement of goods and people to and from Cuba.  The US laws that constitute the embargo only limit what US citizens and companies can do in relation to Cuba. They don’t prohibit Cuba from doing anything.

It’s the USA’s sovereign right to impose such restrictions on its own citizens. Countries routinely impose tariffs on other countries, ban products, apply border controls based on nationality and block the involvement of foreign companies.

There was once a US blockade of Cuba in 1962 when Fidel Castro stationed Soviet nuclear weapons on the island, and a fleet of US and Latin American ships blockaded it for 13 days until the missiles were successfully removed.

Cuba’s essential problem is the failure of its economic model

Other than those 13 days, there has been no “blockade” or “siege”. Cuba trades with the entire world including the USA. Latest data shows that in 2020 the US exported $177m worth of goods to Cuba and imported goods worth $15m. In the first five months of 2021 the US has already exported $134m of goods to Cuba. The US is the largest exporter of food to Cuba, with frozen chicken being the main export. Food and many other items such as medical products are exempt from the embargo.

Ending the US embargo wouldn’t make much difference to Cuba.  Its essential problem is the failure of its economic model.  The regime is not only unable to breed chickens. Prior to the communist takeover the largest Cuban export to the US was sugar, and the second largest export was coffee. Both sectors have been largely destroyed as a consequence of nationalisation and under-investment.

In May this year the Azcuba Cuban state sugar monopoly announced that the 2020-2021 harvest was “one of the worst in the history of Cuba”, a harvest of 816,000 tonnes the lowest since 1908. In 1959, the year of the communist revolution, the harvest was over six times larger at 5.6 million tonnes. Of the 156 sugar mills operating before 1959, only 56 exist today and just 38 of these can still operate.

At a Council of Ministers meeting the president of Azcuba, Julio García, listed the causes of the low performance as “organizational and management deficiencies”, broken equipment, low quality of raw material and time lost in harvesting and transportation. He added that “financial difficulties, weather conditions, accumulated problems in the infrastructure of the power plants and lack of labour and technology discipline also had a negative effect”.

Domestic sugar consumption is between 600,000 and 700,000 tonnes per annum, and Cuba has an agreement to sell China 400,000 tonnes annually. This means either denying sugar to the people or cutting the few remaining exports. If Cuba could once again export sugar to the USA it would be unable to do so, because it cannot produce enough sugar to supply existing markets.

The Cuban state blocked access to the internet

Coffee is a similar story. Once a major Cuban export, with annual exports of over 20,000 metric tons in the 1950s, the sector collapsed following nationalisation and price controls. Cuba now rations coffee for its own citizens (to 2 ounces every 15 days) and even has to import some. According to the FAO by 2013 the number of hectares devoted to growing coffee had declined to 28,000 from 170,000 in 1961.  Cuba has no coffee to sell to America, although US law does permit the import of coffee from the Cuban private sector.  But Cuban entrepreneurs are blocked from exporting coffee by the regime, which imposes a state monopoly.

There is indeed a blockade in Cuba one enforced by the Cuban state against the Cuban people.  Cubans are blocked from many activities.  Cubans are blocked from speaking freely, engaging in peaceful protest and from artistic activity that is not approved by the state. After the recent mass protests, the Cuban state blocked access to the internet. Many Cubans are blocked from leaving the country.

Cubans are blocked from producing food. The state maintains its monopoly on food products by force. For example, cattle owners are not allowed to sell cheese, milk, butter or meat from their animals and are arrested if they do. In August 2020 the regime arrested a Cuban farmer from Artemisa province for producing and selling cheese.  He owned 42 cows and was selling his cheese to local people. A Cuban commented on social media, “These guys are useless. They take away his cows and close his cheese business when they should instead be encouraging him to produce cheese and milk.”

The failure of the Cuban state cheese monopoly has forced the regime to spend limited hard currency on importing cheese ($106m since 2014). Of course ordinary Cubans cannot afford the high prices of imported cheese – some $30 for 3.4 kilos of gouda cheese, for example.  That cheese is for the party elite.

It is entirely possible for Cuba to put an end to the US embargo immediately.  All it needs to do, according to US law, is to legalise all political activity, allow freedom of the press, permit independent labour unions, respect internationally recognised human rights and commit to free and fair elections in a transition to a representative democracy. These steps would be hugely beneficial but of course will not be enacted by the Cuban communist elite. It would no longer be able to live in luxury at the expense of the rest of the population.

Cuban communists are not actually interested in receiving help from America

As a Cuban worker commented, “In Cuba it’s a great myth that we live off the state. In fact it’s the state that lives off of us.” US sanctions are primarily targeted at the state monopolies that control 90 per cent of the economy and exist to bleed ordinary Cubans dry while enriching the elite.  A lifting of sanctions, insofar as Cuba could actually take advantage of it, would mainly benefit these state monopolies. US sanctions don’t apply to much Cuban private sector produce. If the Cuban regime wanted Cuba to be able to export to the US, it would free the private sector to do so.

The truth is that Cuban communists are primarily interested in using the sanctions as an excuse to explain the dismal failure of their regime. They are not actually interested in receiving help from America, as evidenced by their blocking humanitarian assistance.

The regime has refused President Biden’s offer to supply free vaccines to Cuba, preferring instead to rely on its domestically produced vaccine, which doesn’t actually appear to work. The Cuban dictatorship has also blocked ten flights a week of humanitarian aid from the US to assist in the Covid pandemic.

Cuba receives $6 billion in annual humanitarian assistance from the US (around $3 billion in remittances and $3 billion in material aid), plus hundreds of millions of revenues in payments for telecommunications on the island. This mostly comes from the 2.3 million strong Cuban diaspora that travels regularly to the island, leaving countless more millions to the Cuban government. Both aid and travel are exempted from the embargo.

Joe Biden has just extended the sanctions on Cuba for another year, but would it be better to scrap them, as they have little practical effect and largely serve as a propaganda tool for Cuban and other communists? Unfortunately, the left would soon find some other excuse for the failure of Cuban communism.

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