The Costs of the Embargo
On January 1, Cuba celebrated the 50th anniversary of the revolution
against the US, backed Batista regime. For 47 of those years, Cuba has
suffered under what US officials call an “embargo” against the Caribbean
nation. Cubans’ name for the embargo el bloqueo (the blockade), is
arguably more apt, given that the US policy also aims to restrict other
countries from engaging in business with Cuba.
What’s surprising is that while the blockade continues to take a
considerable toll on the Cuban people, it costs the United States far
more, and the gap is widening. Given the economic meltdown, it is only
fitting that a growing chorus of diverse voices is calling for an end to
the costly vendetta.
The original justification for the embargo was Cuba’s expropriation
of some $1.8 billion worth of US owned property, according to the US
Foreign Claims Settlement Commission.
In turn, Cubans argue that early in the century, the United States
had seized control of 70 percent of Cuban land and three-quarters of
Cuba’s primary industry.
By the 1950s, as a result of US colonialism and preceding Spanish
rule, five out of six Cubans lived in shacks or were homeless, 80
percent of Havana suffered from hunger and unemployment, and two out of
three Cuban children didn’t attend school. Cubans say such conditions
left them no recourse but to expel the Yanquis, just as the Yankees had
expelled the British in 1776.
Today, US public opinion is turning against the embargo. A majority
of 52 percent wants the embargo to be lifted, with 67 percent favouring
an immediate end to the travel restrictions, according to the Cuba
Policy Foundation (CPF), a nonprofit run by a former US Ambassador.
Recent polls have even shown that a majority of Miami Cubans now support
lifting the embargo.
These percentages might be even higher if the US public were aware
that the blockade is actually costing them more than the Cubans,
something that is finally beginning to dawn on the US business
community. Representatives of a dozen leading US business organizations,
including the US Chamber of Commerce, signed a letter in December urging
Barack Obama to scrap the embargo.
The letter pegs the cost to the U.S. economy at $1.2 billion per
year. The CPF’s estimates are much higher: up to $4.84 billion annually
in lost sales and exports. The Cuban Government estimates the loss to
Cuba at about $685 million annually. Thus the blockade costs the United
States up to $4.155 billion more a year than it costs Cuba.
The US Government also spends $27 million each year to broadcast
Radio and TV Mart¡, even though the television signal is effectively
blocked by the Cuban Government. The largely futile propaganda effort
has cost US taxpayers half a billion dollars over the last twenty years,
according to the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.
Beyond the economic costs, the blockade has deprived US citizens of
Cuba’s medical breakthroughs. Cuba has developed the first meningitis B
vaccine, treatments for the eye disease retinitis pigmentosa, a
preservative for un-refrigerated milk, and PPG, a cholesterol-reducing
drug gobbled up by foreigners for its side effect: increased sexual
potency. And last summer Cuba released CimaVax EGF, the first
therapeutic vaccine for lung cancer.
The drug triggers an immune response that extends life in lung cancer
patients and can ease breathing and restore appetite.
The blockade has always cost the US more, but the gap has widened
considerably. By 1992, US businesses had lost over $30 billion in trade
over the previous thirty years, according to researchers from Johns
At that time, Cuba’s loss for the same period was smaller, but not by
much: $28.6 billion, according to Cuba’s Institute of Economic Research.
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba’s
diversification and increased trade with other countries has widened the
gap between the costs to Cuba and the costs to the United States. While
the dollar cost to the US may be higher, Cuba has suffered a greater
economic hit relative to its size and resources.
Although lifting the blockade will inevitably boost Cubans’ living
standard, the Cuban economy will still be saddled with its colonial
legacy as a mono-crop producer. Unequal trade terms enforced by treaties
and organizations such as the World Trade Organization, the World Bank,
and the International Monetary Fund maintain formerly colonized
countries as underdeveloped purveyors of raw materials, subsidizing the
high standard of living in industrialized countries. It is useful to
remember this uneven playing field whenever making US-Cuba comparisons.
Regardless of all these obstacles, the socialist island has managed
to provide its inhabitants with what the United States, one of the most
affluent countries in the world, so far has not: free top-notch health
care, free university and graduate school education, and subsidized food
and utilities. Meanwhile, 36.2 million people go hungry in the United
States and 47 million lack health coverage. Indeed, Cuba compares
favorably to the United States on a number of basic social factors:
Housing: There is virtually no homelessness in Cuba. Thanks to the
1960 Urban Reform law, 85 percent of Cubans own their own homes and pay
no property taxes or interest on their mortgages. Mortgage payments
can’t exceed 10 percent of the combined household income.
Employment: Cuba’s unemployment rate is only 1.8 percent according to
CIA data, compared with 7.6 percent (and rising) in the US. One factor
contributing to Cuba’s low unemployment is undoubtedly the 350,000 jobs
that have been recently created by the burgeoning sustainable urban
agriculture program, one of the most successful in the world, according
to US based economist Sinan Koont.
Literacy: The adult literacy rate in Cuba (99.8 percent) is higher
than the United States’ rate (97 percent), according to the United
Nations Development Program (UNDP).
Infant mortality: Cuba has a lower infant mortality rate (4.7 per
1000 live births) than the United States’ (6.0).
Prisons: Cuba even does better on prisons. Its rate of incarceration,
estimated at around 487 per 100,000 by the UNDP, is among the highest in
the world, yet it is considerably lower than the US rate of 738 per
100,000. Now that the number of political prisoners Cuba locks up is in
decline, according to a February Associated Press news release, there is
even less justification for the blockade.
The fact that a poor, formerly colonized country can meet its
citizens’ basic needs, while outperforming the US on key measures,
underscores how inexpensively the United States could follow suit.
Cuba’s example could prove instructive to President Obama and his
constituents as the US faces economic collapse.
And herein may lie the real motivation of the blockade, and its most
significant cost: it keeps people from making such comparisons
first-hand. If the only concrete threat the Cuban Revolution poses to
the United States these days is the threat of a good example, isn’t it
high time we bury the blockade?
This article is from the March/April 2009 issue of Dollars & Sense