Aug 1 2009

Ineffective–Or Illegal and Unjust?

Cuba embargo opposed as well-intentioned mistake

The handclasp between U.S. President Barack Obama and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez at the Summit of the Americas grabbed U.S. media attention in April. But at the summit itself, there was a more pressing issue: the U.S.’s nearly 50-year-old embargo against Cuba.

Before the meeting, Obama had made some moves to ease its impact, including lifting travel restrictions for Americans wishing to visit family members in Cuba, and allowing them to send more remittances to the island. In so doing he hoped to avoid criticism from Latin American heads of state on the maintenance of the embargo.

Many U.S. media outlets, like those heads-of-state, urged Obama to go further; their reasons, however, were somewhat different. The New York Times editorial board attacked the embargo as “counterproductive” (4/18/09, 4/24/09). The Boston Globe (4/15/09) said that while its intended goal was “hastening democratic change in Cuba,” it was now a “useless vestige of a vanished era.” The L.A. Times (4/15/09) called it “ineffective” because it denied Cubans the ability to “appreciate this country in all its diversity and ingenuity.”

Other sources emphasized the embargo’s injurious effects on the country that imposed it: Foreign Policy editor Moses Naim (Newsweek International, 6/22/09) lambasted the “absurd and useless embargo that hurts the United States more than Cuba.”

Why is it still around, anyway? Pesky Floridians: According to the New York Times, it’s merely “a Cold War anachronism kept alive by Florida politics” (6/04/09) that has “outlived its usefulness” (6/01/09).

So that’s the embargo, according to U.S. corporate media: intended to quicken Cuban democracy, but now misguided and ineffective, perhaps even harming our vital interests.


While no doubt U.S. political interestsare an important angle to consider, newspaper editorials almost universally refrain from citing the main reason many Latin Americans and almost every country on earth oppose the embargo: They believe it’s illegal and unjust.

Andreas Lowenfeld calls the embargo a “classical secondary boycott,” as the Helms-Burton Act, which intensified the embargo in the post-Cold War year of 1996, is intended to prevent not only U.S. nationals but also citizens of other countries from trading with Cuba, thus seeking “unreasonably to coerce conduct” of sovereign states (American Journal of International Law, 7/96).

For the last 18 years, with increasing unanimity, the United Nations General Assembly has adopted a resolution on Cuba calling on member states to act “in conformity with their obligations under the Charter of the United Nations and international law which, inter alia, reaffirm the freedom of trade and navigation.”

The resolution doesn’t name names, but the 2008 version (U.N., 12/11/08) does refer to “laws…such as that promulgated on 12 March 1996 known as the ‘Helms-Burton Act.’”

The recurring U.N. vote does occasionally appear in the pages of the major papers. Adam Cohen of the New York Times (1/12/03) worried that the lopsided vote—the U.S. alongside a couple of stalwarts like Israel and Palau, pretty much—makes us look loutish to the world community.” Some years see an 80- to 150-word item in the Times, accompanied by American officialdom’s defenses: In one of these (11/09/05), an American spokesperson blustered that “if the people of Cuba are jobless, hungry or lack medical care, as Fidel Castro admits, it is because of his economic mismanagement, not the embargo.” In another (10/31/07), Cuba was accused of having created an “embargo on freedom.”

Even less noted than the U.N. resolutions, the European Union took the embargo to court in 1997 for violating World Trade Organization rules. The U.S. successfully cited the WTO’s national security exception. The Defense Department reports that the Cuban army consists of 60,000 troops.

And the impact of the embargo on the Cuban people goes well beyond denying them the ability to appreciate the United States. Anthony F. Kirkpatrick, writing in the British medical journal the Lancet (11/30/96), notes that the Cuban Democracy Act and the Helms-Burton Act have produced severe shortages, and “the resultant lack of food and medicine to Cuba contributed to the worst epidemic of neurological disease this century.”

An L.A. Times op-ed (3/14/09) was one of the few exceptions to the unspoken media rule against mentioning the embargo’s legal status, noting that at the December Sauipe Summit, “33 Caribbean and Latin American nations agreed that, in Raul Castro’s words, the U.S. should ‘cease this illegal and unjust violation of the human rights’ of Cubans.” The writer notes that “they may have a point”—not that the embargo is illegal, but that “the consensus, even among conservative business groups in the U.S., is that the embargo has failed miserably.”

Attentive readers will note that the effectiveness of the embargo was not what the Latin Americans were talking about.

Max Ajl is a writer in Brooklyn, New York. He has written for the Guardian, the New Statesman and NACLA, and blogs at