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Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 3.4 (2000) 100-120

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Is the U.S. Economic Embargo on Cuba Morally Defensible?

Vilma Hidalgo and Milagros Martinez

Editor's note: Pope John Paul II on more than one occasion has called for an end to the U.S. embargo of Cuba. While the embargo has recently been softened with respect to medicines and food, some still argue that the essentials of the embargo be kept in place. In an op-ed column in the New York Times (June 24, 2000) "On Trade, Cuba is not China," Senator Jesse Helms wrote: "Those who advocate lifting the embargo speak in broad terms about using investment to promote democracy in Cuba. But I challenge them to explain exactly how, under this system, investment can do anything to help the Cuban people." As it happens, Logos had already commissioned the following essay by two Cuban economists, Drs. Vilma Hidalgo and Milagros Martinez, both of the University of Havana. Responding to the challenge in detail, the essay closes with direct citation of the Pope's solemn appeal. [End Page 100]

I. The Economic Costs: Embargo or Blockade?

The year 1959, with the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, marked a dramatic turning point in relations between Cuba and the United States. From that year to the present, relations have been conducted within a framework of stark confrontation. Economic sanctions have been one of the mainstays of an openly hostile U.S. foreign policy toward the Cuban political regime. For a small nation like Cuba, dependent in large measure on a meager array of principal exports with increasingly depressed prices in the international market, having to face an economic blockade throughout the course of four decades has unquestionably been one of the greatest challenges in its history.

The set of economic sanctions imposed against Cuba cannot be aptly characterized using the term "embargo"; rather, as we shall argue in this essay, given their scope, nature and strategic implementation, we are justified in using the term "blockade." There are two additional reasons that validate the distinction between these terms in the case of Cuba. First, the economic sanctions are not applicable exclusively to bilateral economic relations between Cuba and the United States but rather have been extended to apply to third countries, and second, they constitute economic aggression involving agencies of the highest level in the U.S. government, with the strategic objective of bringing down the political system in Cuba and without flinching at the prospect of subjecting the Cuban people to penury, hunger, and shortages of staple goods as a means to this end.

In 1961, the United States broke diplomatic relations with Cuba, and in 1962 the economic blockade was officially proclaimed, although many of its measures dated back even further. Among other restrictive steps, all kinds of commercial exchange with Cuba were prohibited, regardless of the nature of the activity or ultimate destination of the goods, including reshipment of Cuban goods from third countries; the use of the dollar in business transactions with Cuba was forbidden; commercial flights from the United States were [End Page 101] suspended, and drastic restrictions were placed on the travel of U.S. citizens to the island. Thus, Cuba was forced suddenly to redefine its international trade practices, cut off from the trading partner on whom it had traditionally relied, and accordingly its access to one of the world's most competitive markets and to a significant source of state-of-the-art technologies worldwide was curtailed.

Although the damage these measures brought about was always felt, the extent of their influence was relatively minor during the seventies and eighties, as Cuba was a part of the Council for Mutual Economic Aid (COMECON), 1 which afforded it preferential status, especially vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. Commerce with the socialist countries of Eastern Europe and the U.S.S.R. represented approximately 80 percent of the country's trade. But in the early nineties, with the disappearance of the socialist...


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