US blockade of Cuba cartoon, Carlos Latuff US blockade of Cuba cartoon, Carlos Latuff

As Cubans take to the streets to protest the escalating health and economic crisis, the key demand must be for an end to the US’s crippling sanctions, argues Raoul Walawalker

Following large-scale demonstrations in Cuba that began on Sunday in protest over food and medical shortages, campaigners and left-leaning MPs have once again been calling for an end to the US’s long-term abuse of Cuba.

While most of the mainstream media has largely focused on arrests, so far involving at least a hundred, they are ignoring or downplaying the role of the US in causing the hardship that Cubans are protesting against.

Along with a near-60-year-old blockade against Cuba, the additional 243 sanctions introduced by former president Donald Trump – all still in place – are causing intense hardship for the Cuban people as their government battles a spike in Covid-19 cases, according to the UK-based Cuba Solidarity Campaign (CSC).

Give the situation, CSC has appealed to the Biden administration to observe the recent United Nations General Assembly vote on 23 June 2021 which voted 184-2 for an end to the blockade.

As part of a US strategy of economic warfare aimed at prompting regime change through hunger-fuelled protest, the long-running blockade has made life on the island challenging for decades with food queues for everyday necessities becoming part of Cubans’ everyday reality.

But the raft of additional sanctions drawn against Cuba by Trump have intensified pressures as the country deals with a surge in Covid-19 cases, a serious economic downturn and shortages of vaccine supplies and other key medicals items.

CSC said that in recent days, Cuba has been hit by the worst increase in Covid-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, with a severe outbreak in the Matanzas area which has stretched capacity in hospitals and isolation centres to the limit.

Food, medical and fuel shortages were being exacerbated by the sanctions even before the pandemic struck, according to the campaign organisation.

CSC claims that the situation is being further aggravated because increasing numbers of banks are refusing to transfer funds to Cuba for fear of US fines, and it is now almost impossible for Cubans living abroad to transfer money to family on the island. With the onset of Covid-19, Cuba has also lost vital income from international tourism.

A product of imperialism

“It is immoral and dangerous to seek to exploit the current struggles of the Cuban people to serve the political objectives of a few hardliners in Miami,” CSC said.

Hundreds of medics have been deployed to Matanzas, it said, adding that while the situation is severe, the numbers of cases and deaths are far below those in most other countries of the region and not even a fraction of those in the US (which as of 10 July had a death rate of 1,870 per million compared to Cuba’s 139 per million.)

The only two countries currently favouring the blockade are the US and Israel, but commentators in the US and further afield are urging the Biden administration to re-assess the sanctions.

Aida Chavez, a correspondent of US journal The Nation tweeted,

“All of Trump’s Cuba policies are still in place. President Biden could lift all 240 of the sanctions Trump imposed to toughen a genocidal blockade — at any moment, with the swipe of a pen — but won’t.”

It’s a view echoed by Labour party members in the UK, such as MP Richard Burgon, who tweeted,

“The single most important thing that US politicians can do to help Cuba is to call for their country’s near 60-year blockade to be lifted – as the world has voted for time after time at the United Nations.”

Labour MP Zara Sultana reflected a similar view, tweeting:

“The US has waged economic war on Cuba for nearly 60 years. Its blockade of the country is estimated to have cost Cuba $753,000,000,000+. If you care about Cuba, the key demand is for Washington to end its economic war on the country, just as the UN has repeatedly demanded.”

Cuba has shown resilience during the Covid-19 pandemic having managed to develop its own vaccines. But efforts to roll-out the vaccination have been delayed by shortages of items including syringes, the campaigners said.

On Sunday 11 July, street protests occurred to express genuine concern over the scarcity of food, medicines and power supplies as well as the government’s austerity measures and mismanagement of resources.

Cuban president Miguel Díaz-Canel reportedly travelled to San Antonio de los Baños, site of the original demonstration, and spoke to protesters. Despite this, Cuban authorities have cracked down on protesters. The left must be clear in calling for the right for people to protest against the government without being attacked to be respected.

But according to CSC, there have also been “groups seeking to exploit and provoke this difficult situation,” in Cuba and the US by using the anti-government sentiment to call for further US interference in the country.

“Now right-wing, pro-blockade, and regime-change politicians and groups in the U.S. are also seeking to manipulate the situation. They have called for a so-called ‘humanitarian corridor’ (a pretext for US intervention) to be set up. Anyone genuinely interested in helping the Cuban people at this time should instead be calling for the US government to ease the crippling sanctions,” it said.

CSC points out that last year the US blockade prevented delivery of a consignment of Covid-19 medical aid for Cuba, including PPE, ventilators and testing equipment.

Genuine concern for Cuba means ending blockade

It notes that solidarity organisations around the world have had funding sites raising money for Covid-19 medical aid closed down because of blockade measures.

“CSC itself receives numerous enquiries from people who can’t find a way to transfer money to friends and family in Cuba,” it said.

“Meanwhile, the US government spends millions of dollars every year on so-called “democracy promotion” on the island, funding groups and individuals who work undercover attempting to build US-supported opposition,” it added.

It argues that if those calling for humanitarian aid to Cuba were genuine in the concerns for the people of Cuba they would start by calling for the blockade to be lifted to allow medical and other supplies to be sent to the island.

Raoul Walawalker is a freelance journalist who also writes for the Immigration Advice Service, a firm of international lawyers.

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