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Ending the Blockade: Myths versus Reality

August 30, 2021

For more than sixty years the US has maintained a sometimes looser, sometimes stricter blockade of the island nation of Cuba. The point of the blockade was to isolate Cuba and the supposed contagion of communism in line with the then current domino theory. The desired outcome was to cause regime change by imposing such material hardship and deprivation on the population that they would turn against the revolutionary government. The blockade was in origin and remains today a punitive policy imposed on Cuba for its refusal to subjugate itself to US imperialism. It is one of the very few policy items on which it is possible to get bi-partisan support in the capitalist Congress.  

The trouble was and remains that the revolution and the revolutionary government remain widely popular. None of the many machinations of the CIA and other US agencies were able to divorce the people from the party or from the revolution, despite the millions and millions spent to do just that. The number of failed assassination attempts against Fidel Castro are now the stuff of legend. There are many well documented operations designed to contain and undermine the Cuban revolution, foment internal dissent, and ultimately topple the regime. Operations Mongoose may be the best known, but others include Operation Northwoods, Operation Peter Pan, Operation Bounty, and Operation Squaredance. This is to say nothing of the actual invasion attempt at the Bay of Pigs. Or, the state-sponsored paramilitary terrorist attacks by Miami-based exile groups. US imperialism has never spared any expense combating the Cuban revolution.           


US imperialism was not successful precisely because the revolutionary government followed through on its promises. It brought a great many fundamental reforms to Cuba and completely transformed Cuban society. The revolutionary government’s achievements are well documented. They brought, literacy, education, and healthcare to a population that was previously almost entirely denied all three. The revolutionary government brought political, social, and economic rights rights to the people. It embarked on a program of economic and social development meant to raise the standard of living of all Cubans. The blockade has had a major impact on these plans to say the least. But, the intent of the revolutionary regime has never wavered no matter the hardships imposed. Even in the depths of the Special Period the people stuck with the government. 

It has been clear for many years that the blockade is a failed policy. That it has reached a dead-end, and that even a rational capitalist should try something else. The policy remains in force, as was noted, only to punish Cuba for its defiance. The blockade has indeed cost Cuba over a hundred billions of dollars over the years. It also has cost the US millions each year to enforce the blockade. More than just economic costs, there are diplomatic costs. The extraterritorial sanctions chafe other nations as infringements on their sovereignty. The UN has voted, COVID-19 aside, for nearly thirty consecutive years to condemn the blockade, and by and overwhelming margin. The only countries to vote consistently with the US against the resolution is the apartheid state of Israel.

There has been for some years now a general consensus about Cuba policy, lets call it the Helms-Burton Consensus. This notion has it that the 1996 Helms-Burton Act “codifies” the US blockade such that Congress has a say over when and if the President may terminate the blockade. The act imposes a set of conditions that must be met by the Cuban government in order for the President to be able to end the blockade. This act has been cited by each President since as an obstacle to ending the blockade. The reality is that this is just obfuscation, a convenient fiction that gives cover for inaction. The reality is that no US President wants to end the blockade, because the capitalist class still fears the contagion of communism, still wants to punish the island for taking back its sovereignty and its liberty. 

The President can end the blockade in two ways. Both are very easy. In the first method, a President could simply do nothing. If the President were to allow the statutory authorities that support the blockade to expire. By law these authorities have to renewed every year. The legal authority that permits the blockade is founded on the 1919 Trading With the Enemy Act. This typically takes place each September. By doing nothing, Biden or any President can end the blockade. The other method would be to end it by executive authority. Because, despite the Helms-Burton consensus, the President does have the power to unilaterally terminate the blockade. And, if a President chose to do this, there is nothing Congressional opponents could do to stop it. 

First, Congressional opponents of such a move would not be able to establish standing in order to bring a lawsuit. Even assuming, they could establish standing, the Supreme Court would not hear the case due to the Political Question doctrine whereby the Supreme Court refuses to get involved in policy matters that should be settled by the elected branches of government. Moreover, even if the first two problems could be wished away, the Constitution makes very clear that foreign policy is the exclusive domain of the President. Any attempt by Congress, such as the Helms-Burton so-called “codification”, to usurp that power would thus be unconstitutional under the Presidential Supremacy clause. President Clinton’s signing statement to the 1996 bill makes very clear he does not recognize the Congresses power to limit the President’s power in foreign policy. So, with the stroke of a pen the US blockade could be eliminated. And, there would be no legal avenues through which Congressional opponents of such a move could successfully challenge it. 

So, if it so easy to end the blockade, why does it still exist? Why doesn’t Biden end it? The answer is, unsurprisingly, politics. Biden and the Democrats want urban latino voters and thus make concessions to the political machines that mobilize those voters. There is also the political muscle of advocacy groups like the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) who make it their mission to make sure the blockade is not lifted, and spend liberally making “campaign contributions”. More than that anti-communism is still a potent political force. While Obama got away with opening up to Cuba, to loosening the blockade, he never came close to ending the blockade. Even for a “progressive liberal” like Obama the blockade was the central pillar, perhaps fulcrum is more accurate, of Cuba policy. Ending the blockade would open up the President doing so to red-baiting from all but the tiny minority of the woke Squad members; this is to say nothing of the reaction from the Republicans.     

So, how do we end the blockade then if the capitalists won’t do it? Yes, the President can end the blockade. But, it is very unlikely any President will do so. Yes, we should continue to call for the end of the blockade, we should continue show solidarity with Cuba, and expose the hypocrisy of the blockade through activism. This is important because in doing this we expose the fundamental truth that no less than Old Europe, modern America is haunted by the spectre of communism. And, for this reason, US imperialism can never relent on blockade, can never not try to undermine the Cuban revolution. This is because the Cuban revolution makes plain the dangerous truth that a better world is possible for working people, and that all they have to do is seize it. How do we end the blockade? By seizing power! Only an all socialist government in the US will end the blockade.

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