Witness for Peace is grateful to Emma Tai for contributing this post to the WFP blog. Emma lives in Chicago, where she works as a community organizer and researcher. She participated in the Sustainable Communities delegation to Cuba with Witness for Peace in May 2014.

In Cuba, perhaps more than any place I’ve ever been, I felt acutely the tensions between the different versions of history. Each version has its own agenda (although the official version of the U.S. government has exponentially more money and power behind it), and each leads to its own interpretations of what’s happening in the present moment.

Our hosts in Cuba acknowledged this upfront, cautioning us that, “in Cuba, there are two answers to every question.” So instead of authoritatively summarizing the top three lessons learned from the Witness for Peace delegation in which I participated, I’ll be writing a series here about the key questions—and the many possible answers—that I’m still grappling with.

Question #1: The Blockade
In one of our first exchanges, our Cuban hosts told us that it is possible to tell United States history without mentioning Cuba, but that it’s not possible to tell Cuban history without talking about the U.S. My first question in this occasional series keeps the focus on the main policy that defines U.S.-Cuba relations today: the U.S. trade embargo. What is the impact of the U.S. embargo, and what would happen if it ended?

Popular sentiment against the U.S. blockade is strong in Cuba (photo: David Zucchino)

The impact of the U.S. embargo, or the “bloqueo” (blockade), as it’s referred to in Cuba, depends on who you ask. Below, I’ve paraphrased just a sample of the analyses that we heard or read while on our delegation:

  • “The blockade has cut us off from access to life-saving medical technologies, and innocent people have suffered and died as a result.” – Cuban senior
  • “Medications are exempted from the embargo. If regular Cubans don’t have access to medical technology, it’s because the government is too poor to buy them, because socialism doesn’t work.”  – U.S. government official
  • “The U.S. embargo is a failed human rights policy, because it targets the whole population’s access to basic rights like food, clean water, and health care, and gives the Castros an excuse to crack down on dissidents.” – Cuban scholar
  • “Sanctions work against dictatorships. Just look at South Africa and Iraq.” – U.S. government official
  • “As a result of the embargo, Cuba has created the world’s largest working model of organic, diversified, local agriculture that doesn’t rely on global agribusiness for oil and chemicals.” – U.S. environmental studies scholar
  • “The U.S. blockade is driven by the Castros’ political opponents, who have largely emigrated to Miami. That is why their overwhelming interest is in undermining Cuban sovereignty with regime change. But the regime has not changed even as our political and economic systems have, and now President Obama has a historic opportunity to change a counterproductive policy.” – Cuban journalist

The people I spoke with had grim memories of the “Special Period,” the years following the fall of the Soviet Union and the tightening of the U.S. blockade through the 1992 Torricelli Act, which cut off food and medicine imports, and the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which effectively created international sanctions by penalizing foreign companies for trade with Cuba. In the early years of the Special Period, Cuba lost 98% of their oil imports and 75% of their food imports.

The country has made a remarkable recovery since then; the resourcefulness of the many responses to the Special Period consistently inspired me. From improving access to food through diversified local growing to defending coastal communities from tropical storms through community-based evacuation plans to the development of a universal primary health care system that emphasizes prevention and early treatment, the Cubans have done much with very little. We have a lot to learn from these successes.

Backyard permaculture projects are part of a strategy to offset the loss of food imports due to the U.S. blockade (photo: David Zucchino)

But I don’t want to understate the effects of the U.S. blockade. Our interpreter, Alberto, reminded me that most people in Cuba were “very, very poor.” The effects of economic isolation—high consumer prices, low salaries, shortages of important goods—have been felt for over twenty years now. I met a young man whose day job was a government engineer, but who drove a cab at night to make ends meet. Ariel, our guide, chose not to study engineering because that job would only pay him 120 pesos (about $6) a month. He skipped college and went straight into the higher-paying, semi-privatized tourist sector. His son is now entering medical school; Ariel told us that he just hopes that the economy improves by the time his son finishes in 2020.

Opening up trade with and through the U.S. is seen as a necessary first step to gaining access to life-saving medical technologies, lowering consumer prices, and increasing salaries and incomes. And yet, as economist Gladys Hernandez shared with us, there is a very real concern that the intrusion of private economic interests will erode the “social gains of the Cuban revolution”: the elimination of illiteracy and homelessness, excellent universal health care, an extensive social support network (including youth programming and senior care), and basic income parity.

Income inequality is already on the rise in Cuba, thanks to increasing levels of privatization under the Raul Castro administration. Recent reforms allow the sale of homes and the formation of private restaurants to cater to tourists and higher-income locals. The higher-paying jobs in these new private sectors, particularly in tourism, tend to accrue to young, light-skinned, English-speaking Cubans. The Obama administration’s allowance of remittances has also contributed to rising income inequality; Cubans who have family sending them remittances from abroad tend to be better off than those who do not.

Permaculture in action (photo: Jordan Goldsmith)

Despite these concerns, every single Cuban I met wanted the blockade to end. One senior told me of the children she knew who had died of cancer because of Cuba’s limited access to medical technology. She then said that her greatest fear for the future of Cuba was that the blockade would not be lifted. Cuban journalist Alfredo Prieto believes that the Cubans can grow the economy on their own terms once trade is opened. “We have replicated the mistakes of the U.S. and we have replicated the mistakes of the Soviets,” he told us. “We want to make our own mistakes.”

I share the hope of our Cuban hosts when envisioning a future without the blockade. But unlike the people I met in Cuba, I can put pressure on the legislators who control this policy. I will be contacting them to let them know why the trade embargo is a failed and inhumane policy and to encourage them to lift it. I encourage you to do the same.

Look up your legislators here.