On 3 February 1962, US president Kennedy signed proclamation 3447, decreeing an embargo on all trade with Cuba, which was to enter into effect on 7 February. This marked the official beginning of a 60-year blockade (though the imperialist assault had started earlier), which has progressively been strengthened and tightened.
The aims of this campaign of imperialist bullying were openly declared in an April 1960 secret memorandum by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Lestor Mallory. The memorandum, optimistically entitled “The Decline and Fall of Castro”, starts by establishing the following fact: “the majority of Cubans support Castro”. What’s the problem, one would think? There is a government in Cuba that has the overwhelming support of the population. Why should this worry the US? Ah, but, as Mallory points out: “Fidel Castro and other members of the Cuban Government espouse or condone communist influence.”
That is the problem. “We cannot allow a country go Communist just because the population supports it!”, is what he seems to be saying. This line of reasoning sums up the total worth of Washington’s references to the US defending “democracy” in its dealings with Cuba. The Cuban people can give itself any government it wants… as long as that is the government US corporations want.
Punishing Cuba with hunger
Incidentally, at the time of writing this secret memorandum, 6 April 1960, the Cuban Revolution had not yet made any statement nor taken any measure which could be described as socialist or communist. It had implemented agrarian reform and had taken steps to reassert its national sovereignty (both national democratic measures). It was only later that same year and in response to US provocations (the refusal to purchase an agreed sugar quota, and the refusal to refine oil at US-owned refineries) that the Cuban Revolution proceeded to expropriate US property on the island, moving very quickly towards the abolition of capitalism. And it was not until a year later, on the eve of the US-sponsored Playa Girón (Bay of Pigs) invasion, that Fidel Castro talked of the socialist character of the revolution.
But let’s return to Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Mallory and his memorandum. Not only is Castro’s government extremely popular and has communist leanings, he says, furthermore “there is no effective opposition”. He then considers the question of foreign intervention, which he seems to discard: “militant opposition to Castro from without Cuba would only serve his and the communist cause.” This is, of course, a sharp insight, but also a piece of cynicism. By this time, the US was already working closely with reactionary forces in Cuba and in Miami, sponsoring a campaign of terrorism, sabotage, aerial bombardment and counter-revolutionary insurgency in Cuba. Perhaps what Mallory was trying to say was that these methods were proving counter-productive, which is true.
Not that this appraisal would prevent the US imperialism from organising the counter-revolutionary disembarkment at Playa Girón in April 1961, which was swiftly defeated by the armed workers and peasants of Cuba.
What conclusion does Mallory draw from his observations? He writes: “The only foreseeable means of alienating internal support is through disenchantment and disaffection based on economic dissatisfaction and hardship.” To achieve that, he then proposes “a line of action which… makes the greatest inroads in denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation, and overthrow of government” (my emphasis).
So, there you have it in black and white, from the horse’s mouth. If the Cuban people have the temerity to overwhelmingly support a government that “condones Communist influence”, then they should be punished, by bringing hunger and desperation until they change their minds and overthrow the government. This is the reasoning behind the policy of aggression US imperialism has followed for 60 years towards the Cuban Revolution. It is a criminal policy based on punishing a whole people for having dared to free themselves from imperialist domination and abolished capitalism.
The refusal of US-owned refineries to process oil bought from the Soviet Union led to their state intervention of Texaco, Shell and Standard Oil refineries between 28 June and 1 July 1960. To this, the US replied with a cut in the sugar quota they had agreed to purchase from Cuba, in what was known in Cuba as the “Ley Puñal” (“Dagger Law”, as it was stabbing the revolution in the back). But the Cuban Revolution did not retreat in the face of economic blackmail. On the contrary, it responded by nationalising (between July and October 1960) all US owned corporations On the island. US president Eisenhower then imposed a ban on all US exports to Cuba, except food and medicine.
The 1962 presidential proclamation by Kennedy, imposing “an embargo on all trade with Cuba,” was therefore not the first measure of economic aggression against Cuba, but it represented a qualitative turning point in the campaign of US imperialism against the Cuban Revolution. It imposed a blanket ban on all US imports from and exports to Cuba, which Washington had earlier calculated would deprive Cuba of hard currency earnings of 60 to 70 million US dollars (about US$650 million in today’s currency).
The decision was also informed by the complete disaster of the attempted Playa Girón invasion the previous year and was part of a broader programme of sabotage and paramilitary attacks launched from the United States, organised and coordinated by the CIA, aimed at regime change. These activities, under the name of Operation Mongoose, included the infiltration of armed counter-revolutionaries in the island, saw funding of several million dollars, were coordinated at the highest level, by presidential authority, and were supposed to culminate in the overthrow and assassination of Fidel Castro by October 1962.
Kennedy had wanted economic action against Cuba to be taken jointly by the Organisation of American States (OAS). At the January 1962 OAS summit in Punta del Este, Uruguay, Washington put pressure on all countries to expel Cuba from the body and subject it to an economic blockade, but did not get unanimity. When it realised it would not get unanimity, it then settled for a two-thirds majority of 14 votes and a watered-down resolution. In order to achieve the necessary 14 votes, Washington agreed to resume aid to Haiti, then ruled by the brutal dictator François Duvalier in exchange for a favourable vote at the OAS. The whole operation, clearly, had nothing to do with “democracy” nor “human rights”, but rather with containing “communism” and revolution throughout the continent. There was not even a pretence that it was about anything else.
Under instructions from their masters in Washington, the OAS countries expelled Cuba, and 14 of them also agreed to different measures of economic sanctions. It was not until 1964 that the OAS as a whole, under pressure from the US and with the excuse of Cuba’s support for guerrilla struggle in Venezuela, agreed to a trade blockade against Cuba, with only Mexico voting against. The resolution talks of Cuba having put itself outside the “Christian and democratic traditions of the American peoples” (!!) But of course, no such action was ever taken by the OAS against ruthless dictatorships in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Nicaragua (which was ruled by Somoza at the time of agreeing the Cuba blockade), etc. Perhaps these dictatorships did not violate the “Christian principles of the American peoples” …
While European countries did not formally join the US blockade, they also sharply curtailed trade with Cuba.
It is significant to note that the blockade was originally put into law under the Democratic administration of Kennedy. The failed military invasion of Playa Girón was also carried out under his watch. This should be enough to dispel any illusions that the Democrats in power have a somehow more “humane” foreign policy. The foreign imperialist policy of the US is bipartisan, as both parties defend the interests of the ruling class.
The Cuban revolution responded to Kennedy’s blockade on 4 April 1962, with a mass rally at which Fidel Castro proclaimed the Second Declaration of Havana, expressing continued defiance against US imperialism and calling for revolution across Latin America.
Resilience of the revolution as embargo tightens
It is a testament to the resilience of the Cuban Revolution that the blockade has failed to destroy it. There was a short period of time in the 1970s when there was an attempt at normalising relations between Cuba and the US, and there was a partial easing of economic measures, but that came to nothing, and under the Reagan administration in the 1980s the blockade was tightened again.
For a whole period of time, the close alliance with the USSR propped up the Cuban economy, though that came with strings attached. But after the collapse of Stalinism in the Soviet Union, the Cuban Revolution was left on its own, suffering a massive economic collapse.
It was precisely at this time that new pieces of legislation were introduced by US imperialism, widening the scope of the blockade. The 1992 Torricelli Act, sponsored by a Democrat, backed by Bill Clinton and signed by George W Bush, reintroduced the blockade for subsidiaries of US-based companies and prevented ships that had docked in Cuban harbours from docking in US ports for 180 days.
Then came the even-worse Helms-Burton Act of 1996, initiated by Republican representatives and signed by Bill Clinton, which made the US blockade extraterritorial by threatening non-US companies with legal action in the US if they traded or invested in Cuban assets confiscated by the revolution.
Later on, particularly between 2002 and 2014, the Venezuelan Revolution provided both a political and an economic lifeline to Cuba, proving the point that, ultimately, the fate of the Cuban Revolution will be resolved in the arena of world class struggle. But the economic crisis in Venezuela has also had a negative knock-on effect on Cuba.
60 years later, a section of the US ruling class has admitted that this policy has not worked and has not achieved its aims. The Obama thaw represented an attempt to pursue the same objectives (to smash the revolution) by different means (through the battering ram of world capitalism).
Trump put an end to that policy and introduced 243 separate measures to tighten the blockade, in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, including the activation of Title III of the Helms-Burton Act, which had been left in suspension. These had a catastrophic impact on Cuba. It is calculated that, in 2020 alone, the blockade has caused US$9bn worth of damages. It should be noted that not a single one of these measures has been repealed by Biden.
The US blockade is a criminal policy, which is designed, as clearly explained in the 1960 Memorandum, to punish the Cuban people with hunger for having dared to defy imperialism and having abolished capitalism.
The blockade has been consistently condemned by the United Nations General Assembly for the last 30 years. In 2020, only two countries voted against a motion condemning the blockade, the US and Israel. In its report to the United Nations, Cuba estimated the cumulative cost of the embargo over six decades at $148 billion dollars.
However, 30 years of UN votes have not changed the position of the US one single inch. This is a demonstration of how toothless of a talking shop this body is. The UN can pass any resolutions it wants. If US imperialism doesn’t agree, nothing will be done. On the other hand, if US imperialism thinks it can use the UN as a fig leaf for imperialist intervention, then it will; as in the case of the Congo in the 1960s, the first Gulf War in 1991, or more recently the UN intervention in Haiti.
Not all the problems the Cuban Revolution faces stem from the blockade. The isolation of the revolution on a small island with limited economic resources and the existence of a bureaucracy in the state are serious obstacles to building socialism. But certainly, the blockade is a factor of the first order of importance.
It is the duty of all revolutionaries, but also all consistent democrats, to wage a consistent struggle against this criminal imperialist blockade and unconditionally defend the Cuban Revolution.