THE BLOG

Effect of Cuban Embargo

05/05/2015 11:32 am ET | Updated May 05, 2016

The U.S. trade embargo of Cuba was initiated "in response to a 1960 memo by a senior State Department official. The memo proposed "a line of action that makes the greatest inroads in denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and the overthrow of the [Castro] government."

In April 2015, I ventured to Cuba to write an article on the effect of the embargo on the Cuban people. Before going to Cuba, we read the normal travel books, telling us that since the 1959 revolution, there has been almost no food available and rooms were difficult to find. Having grown up amidst threats of the danger of communism and the Soviet Union's minion Cuba, I expected to see soldiers carrying AK-47s on the corner and find it difficult to talk with the people about their lives. Neither occurred. Cuba today seemed like Mexico or Costa Rica during the 1950s.

The afternoon we arrived in Havana, we began talking with Cubans in their home converted to a casa particular, our home for the night. We walked several blocks through Havana to Plaza Viejo, where we feasted on fish caught that day in the nearby Caribbean, roasted pork chops and platanos. That evening, we ventured down Avenida Obispo and Calle Aguilar through Havana Viejo without being accosted by vigorous salesperson or beggars. The next morning, the owner of the casa particular served us breakfast of eggs, toast, fresh fruit and coffee and found us a ride 140 kilometers (or 87 miles) to Matanzas Province, not far from the 85 degree crystal sand beach and 86 degree water. Again, we talked with Cubans in their home, a casa particular. After several days, we went to the bus station for a ride across Cuba to the cobblestone streets of ancient Spanish Trinidad where we spent a night in a 15th Century Spanish home, a casa particular. The room in Havana, Matanzas Province, and Trinidad cost us less than $30 a night.

Life in Cuba was not as I expected. I learned that there exist two very distinct economies, one for the residents, one for the visitors. Fidel Castro led the revolution movement to equalize economic life in a country with a handful of rich and millions of poor. The Cuban people's acquisition of property of the wealthy angered rich Cubans who fled to Miami. This led to a U.S. embargo of Cuba and loss to the Cuban people of their primary source of income, exportation of sugar cane. Because Cuba echoed Marx's political theory of world-wide worker revolutions, the Soviet Union assisted Cuba to continue its effort to improve the lives of the poor which have been a success in Cuba's exceptional health care and education program. But, by 1991 the Soviet Union dissolved and its assistance to Cuba ended. Loss of Soviet financial support and the continuing U.S. economic embargo resulted in severe poverty. This led to the Cuban leadership encouraging Canadian and European tourism.

Since the 1959 revolution, all Cubans received less than $20 a month, barely enough to survive. (After talking with two university professors about socialism in Cuba, they asked if we could help them get food for their children.) However, with the expansion of tourism, some Cubans were able to increase their income through government-permitted small businesses. They rent rooms in their home (casa particulares), convert their kitchen into small restaurants, sell embroidery table cloths in stalls along the street and even doctors drive the family car, classic 1950s Chevys, as taxi cabs after they go home from work. Amiable and attractive Cubans have learned they can leave their poverty behind by flirting with, dancing with, and talking with visitors who become their companions and lovers. This has resulted in Cuba's two economies, one for the people who earn $20 a month and the other for companions of tourists who spend more on a single meal or bed than those who are not connected to the tourist economy spend in a month.

For non-Americans, Cuba is a living dream, the weather, the beaches, the friendly people, the lack of crime, the lack of traffic, inexpensive rooms the food, and the music heard nearly 24-hours a day. Because the goal of the United States embargo was to cause the Cuban people to go hungry through elimination of the primary sources of income in the country, the equality Castro sought resulted in the sharing of very little, $20 a month and government provided education and health care. The increase in European and Canadian tourism has reduced poverty; through fiscal prudence and ambition Cubans convert their home of eight rooms into several rooms for the family and five rentals for tourists. In many ways this part of Cuba's economy mirrors the American Dream through the spread and growth of small businesses. As long as the businesses remain small, energetic efforts can lead to comfortable lives; property does not have to be amassed.

Recently, President Obama noted that the U.S. embargo of Cuba that impoverished the Cuban people for over half a century has failed. Today, the Cuban people look forward to hosting American visitors. Cuba will likely soon see the return of Americans, the purchase by Cubans of American products and the sale of Cuban cigars and rum in the United States with the Cuban people sharing in the growing economy. This furthers the dream and efforts of Castro and his supporters and the goal of those who support a free world economy. While the U.S. embargo of Cuba has caused hunger in the Cuban people, elimination of the otherwise fruitless embargo will be the first step in showing that United States foreign policy can reflect our humanity and that we are not too arrogant to admit our mistakes.