By Hawley Harrigan
When I went to Cuba I was aware of what we call in the United States an embargo, which made it difficult, and in recent years nearly impossible, for a citizen of the United States to travel legally to Cuba. Upon arrival, I stopped hearing the word embargo as it was quickly replaced by the Cuban’s word, bloqueo. Whereas an embargo can be defined as “a legal prohibition on commerce,” a blockade is “the isolating, closing off or surrounding of a place, as a port, harbor, or city by hostile ships or troops to prevent entrance or exit.” Regrettably, these two definitions do not make the issue of US sanctions against Cuba much clearer. The United States does not have a physical presence preventing other countries from importing goods into Cuba. There is no blockade in the physical sense. The United States, however, through the Helm-Burton Act does claim the right to cut negotiations with companies that also conduct business within Cuba. This claim exceeds the bounds of stated U.S.foreign policy free trade goals and therefore affects the international trade of other sovereign nations. The United States is a huge market from which no growth-minded company wants to be excluded. Cuba, by contrast, is a tiny and unequal market player. International businesses are likely to choose to the United States, and ignore Cuba. In this sense the embargo functions much like a blockade.
Nevertheless, whatever you decide to call it, el bloqueo has made life difficult for the Cuban people. The United Nations (UN) estimates that the blockade (The United Nations refers to it as a blockade in their publications) exceeds $975 Billion in economic damages and has even led to the restriction of humanitarian aid. The UN General Assembly has called for the end of blockade in 20 consecutive resolutions. In 2011, 186 countries voted to end the blockade with just 2 – The United States and Israel – voting for its continuation. The United States continues to insist, over 50 years after imposing this antiquated, cold-war era policy, that it will lift the embargo when the Cuban government comes to respect its peoples’ human rights. The United Nations rejects this argument, calling it “stale rhetoric…designed to confuse and obscure the real relationship between the United States and Cuba” (U.N. General Assembly 11162).
After visiting Cuba, I have come to side with the United Nations and the rest of the world. Cuba is an interesting, beautiful island that has pursued education, health care, and food security through a system that is different from that of the United States. This should not be considered a crime, and the Cubans should not be punished for it. As such, the embargo/blockade has no place in today’s global economy, and indeed works to counter act the very principles of free trade and self-determination on which the United States has built its economic power.