Andrew S. Vargas

In an effort to understand the consequences of the recent historic shift in diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, it's useful to examine the complex web of laws, presidential decrees, and exceptions that have characterized the U.S. trade embargo against the island.

First, it is important to note that the embargo has not been lifted. As President Obama himself mentioned in his speech this past Wednesday, what we know simply as “the embargo” was codified into law under President Clinton in 1996 in a highly controversial bill known as the Helms-Burton Act (a shorthand for the significantly more awkward Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act). As such, President Obama’s power to act upon this law is limited and only Congress has the power to fully annul its provisions.

Previously, the embargo was grandfathered in from an antiquated version of the 1917 Trading With the Enemy Act, which for several decades allowed the wartime law to apply in a case of a state of “national emergency” with a particular country. When this provision was removed in 1977, an exception was made for Cuba that was subsequently extended one year at a time by six presidential administrations, including that of Barack Obama.

Invoked by the Kennedy administration in early 1961, the TWAE was further supplemented by Presidential Proclamation 3447, or the Foreign Assistance Act, which took effect in February of 1962, followed by 1963’s Cuban Assets Controls Regulations (CACR), which completed the basic provisions of the embargo regarding trade and travel. Of course, these measures were hardly of any effect to a Cuban regime wholeheartedly aligned with the Soviet Bloc and the cause of international Communism. While the Cuban economy experienced relative highs and lows throughout its period of alliance with the Soviet Union, it was thoroughly embedded in the USSR’s centrally-planned international economic machine. It wasn’t until the island’s post-Soviet economic collapse, known as the Special Period, that the U.S. trade embargo took on a humanitarian dimension, and the tightening of restrictions that characterized the Helms-Burton Act seems in retrospect like a misguided attempt to strangle out the Cuban Communist Party in its moment of profound vulnerability.

A comprehensive 1997 study by the American Association for World Health, cited in a subsequent Amnesty International Report entitled, “The U.S. Embargo Against Cuba: It’s Impact on Economic and Social Rights,” described the embargo as having “wreaked havoc” on the island. The sectors hit hardest at the time were nutrition and healthcare; understandable given that trade in agricultural goods was entirely restricted, while the exportation of U.S. medicines or medical equipment was (and continues to be) subject to debilitatingly rigorous inspections and certifications.

With that being said, prior to President Obama’s proclamations this week, the nature of the embargo had evolved in its own strange way. The 2000 Trade Reform and Export Enhancement Act eased restrictions on the exportation of agricultural goods to Cuba, which according to the U.S. Census Bureau, reached a staggering total of $711 million dollars annually by 2008. Yet the most pernicious effects of the embargo continues to be in the field of healthcare, where restrictions on the exportation of medicines and medical instruments (applying to any instrument where over 20% of the parts are of American origin) has effectively left Cuban medicine in the technological dark ages and restricted patient’s access to essential medications, despite their highly extensive system of universal care.

Throughout the island, billboards dot the Cuban landscape reminding the Cuban people of the impact of these restrictions, referring rather melodramatically to the embargo, or “blockade,” as “the longest genocide in human history,” and citing unsubstantiated figures such as, “12 hours of blockade are equivalent to all the insulin necessary for the 64,000 diabetics in the country.” Indeed, the Cuban government’s unabashed use of the embargo as a justification for the regime’s countless shortcomings has become part of the local folklore. In my years living in Cuba, I myself unconsciously adopted the somewhat cynical punchline that, when something goes wrong in one’s day-to-day life, it’s because of the “blockade.” Some have gone so far as to speculate that the embargo has been more useful to Fidel than to U.S. foreign policy, and at least on a rhetorical level, the regime has adopted it as a sort of ‘great evil’ against which the righteous revolution has battled doggedly over the decades.  

But things in Cuba have been changing. In 2011, a landmark reform dramatically expanded the reach of the private sector on the island, allowing for small-scale free enterprise and opening the door for a collectivization of select state industries that is just beginning to take hold. There was the lifting of the infamous travel restrictions in 2012 that allows Cubans the freedom of movement so long restricted by odious “exit visas.” The regime’s rhetoric has also changed from one of embattled resistance to a more forward-thinking discourse about “updating” their clearly dysfunctional economic model.

And now we come to learn that over the course of 18 months, high level diplomatic talks between the U.S. and Cuba had been carried out with the mediation and “moral authority” of Pope Francis, and further facilitation by the Canadian government. The symbolic exchange of spies along with the release of Alan Gross and 53 imprisoned dissidents amount to an extraordinary gesture of good faith on the part of both governments, and reestablishment of diplomatic relations through mutual embassies is imminent. So what could this mean for the future of Cuba?

First of all, naive assertions about the impending “McDonaldization” of Cuba fail to take into account that the United States isn’t the only country in the world. Cuba has rather happily been doing business with everyone from China and Vietnam to Spain and Brazil for many years, and continues to insist on maintaining a majority stake in any cooperative venture carried out on the island. One particularly impressive example of economic cooperation on the island is the massive Port of Mariel project, underwritten by Brazilian industry, that could yield unprecedented dividends for the Cuban government in coming years. In addition there are the numerous Spanish, Italian, and Canadian resort complexes popping up from the province of Pinar del Río in the west, to Holguín on the country’s eastern extreme.

Rather than a paradigm shift, the normalization of relations with the United States seems like a logical and intelligently timed step in the slow and fragile process of economic reinvention taking place in Cuba at the moment. While the Soviet Union’s implosion was swift and traumatic, Cuba has clearly been looking to China as a model of persistence and prosperity in a 21st century globalized society. Looking ahead, the United States will presumably become yet another bidder in Cuba’s emerging hybrid economy, with the clear advantage of geographical proximity in their favor. Yet whether or not these new economic possibilities translate into material benefits for the Cuban people is still entirely in the hands of the Communist Party, which sometimes seems a little lost as it seeks to balance a radical economic overhaul with the need to maintain its hold on power and, ostensibly, its revolutionary ideals.

Andrew Stehney Vargas is a Brooklyn-born, Mexico City-based writer, director, and photographer. A graduate of the International Film and Television School (EICTV) in San Antonio de los Baños, Cuba, his award-winning short films have been featured at film festivals across the U.S., Latin America and Europe. His writings and criticism have been published in Indiewire, Remezcla, Papercut, Den of Geek, and La Respuesta.

Image via the Washington Times.