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  • Ryan Servaites

Cuban President Díaz-Canel Calls for an End to the Embargo at the United Nations

Courtesy of Reuters

On September 19, the United Nations General Assembly continued its 78th session with a speech from Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez. The Cuban president’s speech would perhaps have the most publicity of any stop during his historic visit to the United States, a visit which included a trip to Harlem reminiscent of Fidel Castro’s 63 years prior. 

Mr. Díaz-Canel’s voyage to the United States comes only one day after the statesman finished hosting the G77 summit in Cuba, a meeting of over 130 developing nations with the goal of promoting collective economic progress. The summit culminated in Mr. Díaz-Canel’s declaration that, “After all this time that the North has organized the world according to its interests, it is now up to the South to change the rules of the game.” Now, in front of the global community, and in a country that considers him the head of a state sponsor of terrorism, the leader of the small island nation reiterated his message from days before, criticizing the Global North for failing to deliver on climate commitments, development goals, and what he called “marginalizing structures” which perpetuate “renewed forms of domination.”

As the President continued his speech, he began to shift inward, to the conditions of his home country, the Republic of Cuba, which has been under a strict embargo by the United States since February 1962 prohibiting trade between the regional hegemon to its southern neighbor. Mr. Díaz-Canel lashed out against the blockade, referring to it as “asphyxiating” and “unjustified”, a plea that, in the face of its continued imposition by the United States, seemed to resonate with the rest of the international community— the only nations who have consistently voted in support of the embargo for the last 29 years are Israel and the United States. 

The President concluded his speech to applause from his G77 supporters, a likely outcome for the man tasked with representing the interests of the group to the greater global community. However, only three days later on September 22, the statesman would not only be receiving praise from fellow bureaucrats but also from an American audience as protestors filled the streets in support of ending the blockade in a “Let Cuba Live” protest. As they made their way to Grand Central Station to show their support for the island nation, the activists raised Cuban flags and filled the air with chants of  “Cuba sí, Bloqueo no.” At one point, the Cuban President joined the demonstrators himself, who days earlier had shown up to support the President in his trip to Harlem, where he paid tribute to Malcolm X at the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center, the site of the Civil Rights icon’s assassination in 1965. 

Yet in stark contrast to the President’s reception by his fellow G77 members and sympathetic Americans, the Cuban Embassy found itself under attack. On September 24, an unidentified assailant threw two Molotov cocktails at the defenseless building, resulting in property damage that was swiftly condemned by the Cuban government. This visit and the subsequent response highlighted the contentious role that Cuba plays in United States foreign policy, a policy defined by various economic and political stances that have stood as an international edifice for the last 60 years. 

As many nations in the Global South, and specifically Latin America, continue to collaborate in advancing their economic and geopolitical interests, understanding the policy of the United States toward Cuba may prove useful in illuminating the hegemon’s attitudes towards the region, and how said attitudes might evolve.

Cuba’s Embargo: A Brief Look

Cuba has been under the gaze of major geopolitical powers since Christopher Columbus landed on the island in 1492. A major base in the Caribbean for merchants trading in sugar and tobacco, the island played an important role in the Spanish Colonial program, with colonial extraction increasing, and African slaves forcibly brought to the island to work on its massive sugar plantations.

As early as the dawn of independence for the United States of America, the island was already within the scope of an American vision of Manifest Destiny. Five U.S. Presidents, including Thomas Jefferson, offered to purchase the island from Spain during the 19th century. The United States even considered invasion at certain points, culminating in the Spanish-American War in which the U.S. fought against Spain for control of the island, citing the mysterious explosion of the USS Maine as a primary motivation in their “splendid little war.” 

Fast forward to the middle of the 20th century and a new, U.S.-backed leader had risen to power, Fulgencio Batista, whose program of repression and toleration of extractive foreign economic activity quickly led to rising tensions within the nation. The Batista regime’s attitudes not just toward legitimate U.S. interests but also toward illegitimate ones in the form of mass U.S. mob activity even elicited a response from U.S. President John F. Kennedy, who said “ some extent, it is as though Batista was the incarnation of a number of sins on the part of the United States. Now we shall have to pay for those sins. In the matter of the Batista regime, I am in agreement with the first Cuban revolutionaries.”

By 1959, the Batista regime had been toppled, and revolutionaries, led by Fidel Castro, began to establish a new, left-wing state in the midst of the ongoing Cold War between the global powerhouses of the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. As Cold War pressures festered, Castro nationalized foreign assets on the island, increased taxes on U.S. imports, and began to increase trade activity with the Soviet Union. In response, then-President Eisenhower slashed Cuban sugar imports, froze Cuban assets, and laid the beginnings of the modern Cuban embargo, which, two years later, after heightening tensions and the failed U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion, would be fully instituted by the Kennedy administration. 

The Modern Era

Over 60 years later, little has changed in the official economic relationship between the United States and Cuba. The island nation and the U.S. certainly found themselves in states of relative contention during the Cold War, perhaps most notably the Cuban Missile Crisis. Yet now, despite the dissolution of the U.S.S.R and the start of a new century without a “cold” multipolar conflict, the United States policy toward Cuba is at a relative standstill.

While the Caribbean nation has lost approximately $130 billion as a result of the foreign policy move, the United States has not shown any signs that it will amend this policy. The closest moment to an improved relationship between the two nations took place during the Obama administration, which worked towards normalizing relations by removing Cuba from its state sponsors of terrorism list, reopening its embassy, and even allowing Cuba to host President Obama on the island, a historic change of pace. This, coupled with an uplifting of certain travel and business restrictions, appeared to ease tensions between the two countries. Such a seeming change of attitude did not last long as the Trump Administration worked to reverse many of the Obama Administration’s moves adding Cuba back to the state sponsors of terrorism list and reinstating travel and business restrictions. Despite Joe Biden’s win in 2020, the embargo policy has stayed relatively the same as Donald Trump’s The only major difference is a slight easing of Trump-era business and travel restrictions, a disposition leading to President Díaz-Canel’s recent pleas to the United Nations. 

As various nations in the Global South begin to cooperate in furthering their interests, only time will tell how the United States will respond to the Cuban President’s appeals, and approach a Cuba policy in a century moving further and further away from the Cold War that rests at its core.


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