The Costs of the Embargo [Cuba]
by Margot Pepper
On January 1, Cuba celebrated the 50th
anniversary of the revolution against the U.S.-backed Batista
regime. For 47 of those years, Cuba has suffered under what U.S.
officials call an "embargo" against the Caribbean nation.
Cubans' name for the embargo-el bloqueo (the blockade)-is arguably
more apt, given that the U.S. policy also aims to restrict other
countries from engaging in business with Cuba.
What's surprising is that while the blockade
continues to take a considerable toll on the Cuban people, it
costs the United States far more, and the gap is widening. Given
the economic meltdown, it is only fitting that a growing chorus
of diverse voices is calling for an end to the costly vendetta.
The original justification for the embargo
was Cuba's expropriation of "some $1.8 billion worth of U.S.-owned
property," according to the U.S. Foreign Claims Settlement
Commission. In turn, Cubans argue that early in the century, the
United States had seized control of 70% of Cuban land and three-quarters
of Cuba's primary industry. By the 1950s, as a result of U.S.
colonialism and preceding Spanish rule, five out of six Cubans
lived in shacks or were homeless, 80% of Havana suffered from
hunger and unemployment, and two out of three Cuban children didn't
attend school. Cubans say such conditions left them no recourse
but to expel the Yanquis, just as the Yankees had expelled the
British in 1776.
Today, U.S. public opinion is turning
against the embargo. A majority-52%-wants the embargo to be lifted,
with 67% favoring an immediate end to the travel restrictions,
according to the Cuba Policy Foundation (CPF), a nonprofit run
by a former U.S. ambassador. Recent polls have even shown that
a majority of Miami Cubans now support lifting the embargo.
These percentages might be even higher
if the U.S. public were aware that the blockade is actually costing
them more than the Cubans, something that is finally beginning
to dawn on the U.S. business community. Representatives of a dozen
leading U.S. business organizations, including the U.S. Chamber
of Commerce, signed a letter in December urging Barack Obama to
scrap the embargo. The letter pegs the cost to the U.S. economy
at $1.2 billion per year. The CPF's estimates are much higher:
up to $4.84 billion annually in lost sales and exports. The Cuban
government estimates the loss to Cuba at about $685 million annually.
Thus the blockade costs the United States up to $4.155 billion
more a year than it costs Cuba.
The U. S. government also spends $27 million
each year to broadcast Radio and TV Martí, even though
the television signal is effectively blocked by the Cuban government.
The largely futile propaganda effort has cost U.S. taxpayers half
a billion dollars over the last twenty years, according to the
Council on Hemispheric Affairs.
Beyond the economic costs, the blockade
has deprived U.S. citizens of Cuba's medical breakthroughs. Cuba
has developed the first meningitis B vaccine; treatments for the
eye disease retinitis pigmentosa; a preservative for un-refrigerated
milk; and PPG, a cholesterol-reducing drug gobbled up by foreigners
for its side effect: increased sexual potency. And last summer
Cuba released CimaVax EGF, the first therapeutic vaccine for lung
cancer. The drug triggers an immune response that extends life
in lung cancer patients and can ease breathing and restore appetite.
The blockade has always cost the United
States more, but the gap has widened considerably. By 1992, U.S.
businesses had lost over $30 billion in trade over the previous
thirty years, according to researchers from Johns Hopkins. At
that time, Cuba's loss for the same period was smaller, but not
by much: $28.6 billion, according to Cuba's Institute of Economic
Research. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991,
Cuba's diversification and increased trade with other countries
has widened the gap between the costs to Cuba and the costs to
the United States.
While the dollar cost to the United States
may be higher, Cuba has suffered a greater economic hit relative
to its size and resources. Although lifting the blockade will
inevitably boost Cubans' living standard, the Cuban economy will
still be saddled with its colonial legacy as a mono-crop producer.
Unequal trade terms enforced by treaties and organizations such
as the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and the International
Monetary Fund maintain formerly colonized countries as underdeveloped
purveyors of raw materials, subsidizing the high standard of living
in industrialized countries. It is useful to remember this uneven
playing field whenever making U.S.-Cuba comparisons.
Regardless of all these obstacles, the
socialist island has managed to provide its inhabitants with what
the United States, one of the most affluent countries in the world,
so far has not: free top-notch health care, free university and
graduate school education, and subsidized food and utilities.
Meanwhile, 36.2 million people go hungry in the United States
and 47 million lack health coverage. Indeed, Cuba compares favorably
to the United States on a number of basic social factors:
Housing: There is virtually no homelessness
in Cuba. Thanks to the 1960 Urban Reform law, 85% of Cubans own
their own homes and pay no property taxes or interest on their
mortgages. Mortgage payments can't exceed 10% of the combined
Employment: Cuba's unemployment rate is
only 1.8% according to CIA data, compared with 7.6% (and rising)
in the United States. One factor contributing to Cuba's low unemployment
is undoubtedly the 350,000 jobs that have been recently created
by the burgeoning sustainable urban agriculture program, one of
the most successful in the world, according to U.S.-based economist
Literacy: The adult literacy rate in Cuba
(99.8%) is higher than the United States' rate (97%), according
to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
Infant mortality: Cuba has a lower infant
mortality rate (4.7 per 1000 live births) than the United States'
Prisons: Cuba even does better on prisons.
Its rate of incarceration-estimated at around 487 per 100,000
by the UNDP-is among the highest in the world, yet it is considerably
lower than the U.S. rate of 738 per 100,000. Now that the number
of political prisoners Cuba locks up is in decline, according
to a February Associated Press news release, there is even less
justification for the blockade.
The fact that a poor, formerly colonized
country can meet its citizens' basic needs, while outperforming
the United States on key measures, underscores how inexpensively
the United States could follow suit. Cuba's example could prove
instructive to President Obama and his constituents as the United
States faces economic collapse. And herein may lie the real motivation
of the blockade, and its most significant cost: it keeps people
from making such comparisons first-hand. If the only concrete
threat the Cuban Revolution poses to the United States these days
is the threat of a good example, isn't it high time we bury the
Margot Pepper is the Mexican-born author
of Through the Wall: A Year in Havana, a memoir about working
in Cuba during the "Special Period." Her work has appeared
in the Utne Reader and Monthly Review and on Z-net, Counterpunch,
and elsewhere, and can be found at margotpepper.com and at freedomvoices.org.
Sources: Anita Snow, "Reported Number
of Cuban Political Prisoners Dips," Associated Press, February
2, 2009; Brendan Sainsbury, "Cuba-