Hurricane Ian Highlights the Devastating Effects of the U.S. Blockade on Cuba

As Cuba reels from the ongoing effects of Hurricane Ian, a Havana-based Cuban scholar explains how the U.S. blockade has hampered Cuba’s recovery from Hurricane Ian and fuels ongoing mass emigration.

November 15, 2022

The streets of Havana after a thunderstorm in 2017 (Pxhere / CC0 1.0)

On November 3, the United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly condemned the U.S. Blockade of Cuba by a vote of 185 to 2 (the United States and Israel voting against) for the 30th time since 1992. All U.S. NATO allies, including conservatives, joined the world community on an issue that has isolated the United States like few others. While this perennial vote is nonbinding, the United States’ global economic and military hegemony enables it to continue defying global democracy while at the same time claiming that the 60-year blockade’s purpose is to bring democracy to Cuba.

During a three-week visit to Havana in October, I had the opportunity to sit down and converse with Dr. Ernesto Dominguez. Ernesto was born and raised in Havana and studied nuclear physics and later history at the University of Havana, where he received a PhD in Historical Sciences in 2010. He is now a professor of U.S. politics, U.S.-Cuba relations, political theory, and theory of history at the University of Havana’s Center for Hemispheric and United States Studies and has been a visiting scholar at numerous North American, European, and Latin American universities.

The Center is a unique teaching and research unit within the University of Havana. It originated in the late 1970s as the Department of Research on the United States, and in 1982 it was founded officially as the Center for United States Studies, a name that was modified in the 2000s to reflect the broadening scope of its work. Within the university, the Center is equivalent to a graduate school and has cooperation agreements with universities in several countries, including the United States.

This interview is based on our longer conversations in Havana about the devastation that Hurricane Ian wrought on Cuba after it struck in late September and how U.S. sanctions—along with what I call “blockade denialism”—persistently hamper the Cuban government’s ability to recover from Ian and other disasters.

Mikael Wolfe: How did Hurricane Ian affect Cuba? 

Ernesto Dominguez: Ian had a devastating effect on a large area, mainly in the westernmost province of Pinar del Rio and to a lesser degree in Artemisa. The areas that were hit directly suffered the destruction of houses, commercial buildings, healthcare facilities, schools, roads, and power lines. By late October, around 20 percent of Pinar del Rio was still without power. That province is the main producer of high-quality tobacco for the famous Habano cigars, which heavy rains destroyed.

The recovery effort required a nationwide mobilization of specialists and disproportionate concentration of very limited resources in the affected area, thus adding severe strains to Cuba’s already battered economy. Furthermore, even if direct impacts elsewhere were few, the hurricane damaged high-voltage power lines in Matanzas, which temporarily triggered a nationwide blackout. Restoring the already vulnerable power grid outside of Pinar del Rio took several days, but rolling blackouts continue nationwide due to the lack of resources for proper maintenance, let alone upgrades.

MW: How has the 60-year U.S. blockade, along with Trump’s additional sanctions, affected Cuba’s ability to recover from the hurricane? 

ED: The ability to recover is severely constrained for several reasons. The first is the pandemic, which Cuba effectively addressed, including vaccinating over 90 percent of the population with five home-grown vaccines. However, nearly all resources had to be diverted to the pandemic, just as major sources of national income—namely, tourism and remittances—shrank to historic lows. Additionally, the Ukraine war, which exacerbated global inflation and interrupted Russian tourism and commerce with Cuba, further constrained the availability of material resources to meet popular needs.

However, the misnomer referred to as the United States’ “system of sanctions”  against Cuba is the biggest obstacle to recovery. An embargo, according to U.S. definitions, is the government banning bilateral trade and/or investment in one, several, or all sectors of another country’s economy. In that sense, a mere embargo would mean very limited or no bilateral trade with Cuba. Yet, the fact is that the sanctions are clearly extraterritorial because the United States can punish foreign companies and other economic actors for transacting with Cuban economic entities or designated individuals. “Blockade” is more accurate, but the term is still too narrow because it denotes naval blockades. For instance, Trump’s baseless re-inclusion of Cuba on the list of countries that sponsor terrorism alone prevents foreign banks and other economic actors from transacting with Cuba for fear of punishment by the U.S. Office for Foreign Assets Control. This creates a multi-layered, extremely complex system of laws, regulations and policies that restrict trade, investment, and financial operations with Cuba, including by the United Nations, NGOs, and individuals.

During the pandemic, Trump blacklisted hundreds of additional Cuban entities, capped the remittances that U.S.-based Cubans can send to their relatives, and banned remittances to non-relatives (fundamental for financing startup businesses in Cuba). Biden maintained all of Trump’s sanctions until June 2022, when he only removed remittance caps. Also, Cuban companies that had partnered with Western Union for processing remittances are still blacklisted, thus impeding regular remittance flows.

The total losses caused by these policies even prior to Trump’s sanctions are difficult to quantify, but estimates vary between $2 and $3 billion annually, totaling $130 billion through 2018, for a GDP that in 2021 was only $22 to $25 billion. Most recent data indicate $3.8 billion in losses between August 2021 and April 2022. This enormous blow to Cuba’s GDP creates a chronic lack of resources that hampers the government’s ability to recover from catastrophes such as Hurricane Ian.

Recovery is further aggravated for two reasons. First, acquiring any equipment, material, or service is far costlier, as foreign companies that transact with Cuba recoup the risk of circumventing U.S. sanctions by raising prices much higher. Second, many materials and services, including spare parts and after-market services, are often unavailable. For example, the original European suppliers of critical power plant equipment recently broke their contracts with Cuba to comply with U.S. restrictions stemming from Trump’s re-inclusion of Cuba on the terrorism sponsor list. 

MW: Despite the overwhelming evidence of the U.S. blockade's catastrophic impact on the Cuban economy, among the counter arguments I’ve encountered—even among fellow Cubanists—is that it “does not exist in practice.” This astonishing claim, which I’ve coined “blockade denialism,” ignores the fact that the Cuban economy is only about 1/1000th of the $25 trillion U.S. economy. Due to geographic proximity, the United States should be Cuba’s natural market and principal trading partner, as it was for a century until 1959. If, say, Mexico imposed a U.S.-like blockade on Cuba it would have little effect, but because the United States is the global economic and military hegemon, the effect is enormous.

Indeed, the U.S.-Cuban relationship is metaphorically like that between a lion and a mouse. The lion keeps a claw on much of the mouse’s tail, making it impossible to escape, but the lion lambasts the mouse for not running forward instead of flipping over and "carelessly" entangling its tail. 

ED: Available evidence shows, unquestionably, that the blockade is very real and has devastating effects. What’s more, my Center’s research shows the dynamic nature of the sanctions. For the last 28 years, the U.S. government passed 179 regulations that either modify, extend, or introduce new sanctions in addition to the still effective legislation like the Helms-Burton Act (1996), Torricelli Act (1992), and Cuban Assets Control Regulation (1963). These constitute a complex system of increasing scope, despite Obama’s short-lived policy of engagement (even though regime change remained operative policy). The U.S. sanctions’ variability and complexity increases “country-risk” for Cuba and drastically reduces its appeal to international investors.

However, there is indeed a matrix of opinion asserting that the blockade is somehow not real, or even internal—created by the Cuban government itself—and, in some more “sophisticated” cases, that it isn’t a blockade but an embargo. Not only does this matrix ignore the sanctions’ vast scope, but it also singles out Cuba for undergoing a migratory crisis, inflation, and other economic hardships, blaming nearly everything on Cuba’s political economic system and its leaders’ alleged ineptitude—only to then be presented as proof that Cuba is a “failed state,” as Biden recently proclaimed.

Yet if mass emigration is supposed to be a metric for state failure, it should be noted that most irregular immigration through the U.S. southern border during the last fiscal year—when Cuba's emigration reached its record high, came from Mexico and the Central American northern triangle. Cuba’s Caribbean neighbors, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, have consistently had a higher percentage of their population migrating to the United States. But there are three major differences between them and Cuba. 

First, the United States doesn’t target these nations with a comprehensive system of sanctions designed, according to a declassified 1960 U.S. memorandum still in effect, to “bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of [the Cuban] government.” Second, all of them have a form of peripheral capitalism and liberal democracy, at least formally, so none fits the pattern of a socialist regime. Third, none of them “benefits” from something like the Cuban Adjustment Act or, until recently, U.S. executive policies like wet foot-dry foot through 2017 that granted almost automatic asylum to Cuban immigrants, and created a straightforward path towards legal U.S. permanent residency and citizenship.

We should also note that inflation and shortages are a global phenomena—felt in developed countries, including the United States, but far more so in developing countries—and deepen the structural inequalities that make populations in the Global South persistently vulnerable.

MW: How did this “matrix of opinion” denying the blockade form and evolve?

ED: Its origin lies in the historical construction of revolutionary Cuba in particular and of “Communist regimes” in general during the Cold War, the latter rooted in the anti-Communist reaction of the interwar period epitomized by the U.S. Attorney General Palmer’s Raids of 1919 -1920. This construction grossly oversimplified socialism and communism and gave rise to the “good versus evil” dichotomy that serves as a legitimizing framework for U.S. domestic and international policies (freedom vs. oppression, democracy vs. communism). Also, the many versions of socialism globally were lumped together under the inaccurate label of "communism" that helped create anti-communist imaginaries and the manufacture of consensus about how socialism is an inherent failure. Alongside ideas like American exceptionalism, the American dream, and the value of individualism, the communist label consists of a Manichean vision of socialism, which includes Cuba’s of course.

MW: How and why does this historical anti-communism toward Cuba persist long after the Cold War ended?

ED: It not only persists, but thrives today, albeit with a caveat. The current media environment, including fast-growing social media platforms, increasingly shapes public opinion, even for academics. The result is extreme polarization, as people tend to consume news from ideologically aligned sources and are increasingly unwilling to dialogue with different viewpoints. Echo chambers in audience-segmented social media have been instrumental in creating our so-called “post-truth” era, in which facts are cherry-picked, distorted, or denied, to fit preconceived narratives.

In this context, since 2016, there has been close alignment between Cuban American right-wing groups in Florida strongly opposed to the Cuban government and the MAGA faction of the Republican Party. This has led to an increasing integration of MAGA politics with reactionary positions toward Cuba within the Cuban American community, such as calls for a U.S. invasion after the July 11 protests of last year. New Cuban immigrants often socialize in that political environment, and then categorically reject alternative views of Cuba’s reality. 

The main caveat to this recent social media driven anti-Cuba sentiment is that "socialism" is ironically becoming, according to polls, a less scary word, particularly among the millennial and Z generations. Yet, even among U.S. progressives, views on Cuba tend to remain within a very narrow spectrum of traditional liberal media perspectives. These assume a false symmetry—two lions instead of a lion and a mouse, as you metaphorically put it—between the two countries that conservative views also hold. Such thinking reflects a deep—or sometimes even willful—lack of understanding of U.S.-Cuban relations. 

Mikael Wolfe is Associate Professor of History at Stanford University. He is currently working on a book project titled Rebellious Climates: How Extreme Weather and Geography Shaped the Cuban Revolution and the Revolution Shaped Them, 1955-1971.

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