Cuba has beaten the pandemic, but is getting beaten by sanctions

. Jul 24, 2020
cuba covid-19 coronavirus Havana, March 28, 2020. Photo: Yamil Lage/AFP via Getty

On July 20, almost four months after the first Covid-19 case in Latin America, Cuba recorded its first day without a single new confirmed infection. With only 2,446 cases and 87 deaths — the fourth-lowest number in the region — Cuba is one of the few countries in the world which can realistically claim it is winning the war against the coronavirus. On the other hand, the nearby Dominican Republic — one of the fastest-growing economies in the region — has battled with 57,600 cases and 1,000 confirmed deaths.

But overcoming the virus in Cuba has not been an easy task.

</p> <p>Since Cuba’s coronavirus outbreak started in February, the island has been testing and monitoring tourists, using its state-owned television channels to promote isolation measures — even broadcasting arrests of those who do not comply — reporting cases, and even sending doctors from door to door. The secret to Cuba’s success is that the island nation has the highest rate of doctors per 1,000 inhabitants in the world: 8.2, according to the World Bank.</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-chart" data-src="visualisation/3278154" data-url=""><script src=""></script></div> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-chart" data-src="visualisation/3278195" data-url=""><script src=""></script></div> <p>That such results were achieved are even more impressive considering the island is still under heavy U.S. economic sanctions. &#8220;The blockade is stopping Cuba from getting much-needed medical supplies. For example, if more than 10 percent of the components in the medical equipment or medications we want to buy are of U.S. origin, then Cuba is not allowed to purchase them,&#8221; <a href="">writes</a> Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, Cuba’s Ambassador to Canada.</p> <p>Despite the global health crisis — which could cause Cuba’s economy to shrink by 8 percent in 2020 — the U.S. has refused to lift economic sanctions. The embargo, according to the Cuban government, results in a USD 4-billion loss per year, representing almost 4 percent of the GDP.</p> <h2>Progress was made, then rolled back</h2> <p>Along with the Iran Nuclear Deal, opening up relations with Cuba was one of the major foreign policy achievements of the Barack Obama administration in the U.S. Facilitated by Pope Francis, relations with Cuba were normalized and embassies were reopened in Washington and Havana. The U.S. government ceased to fund anti-government terrorists and treat Cuba as a fundamentally illegitimate regime.&nbsp;</p> <p>Flights to Hava resumed for the first time in 54 years and families separated by the blockade could visit once again each other. Regular mail service resumed and Mr. Obama became the first president to <a href="">visit the island</a> since Calvin Coolidge in 1928.</p> <p>However, right-wing Cubans in Florida and powerful sections of the Republican Party — along with hawks in the Democratic Party — strongly opposed the thawing in tensions between the two countries. To these figures, Cuba still represented a legacy of communist defiance during the Cold War and a normalized relationship with the island could not be tolerated.&nbsp;</p> <p>Tensions between the two countries increased once more once Donald Trump took office. Since 2016, the White House has described Cuba’s government as a “dictatorship.” While conceptually accurate —&nbsp;Cuba is, after all, a one-party state that routinely targets opposition figures and critics of the government —&nbsp;the move marks renewed aggression towards its neighbor to the south.&nbsp;</p> <p>It fundamentally places Cuba once again into the “axis of evil,” that is, countries that are considered existential enemies to the U.S. In essence, Havana is no longer considered a legitimate interlocutor and Washington has returned to its decades-old policy of trying to undermine and topple the Cuban government.&nbsp;</p> <p>Under Mr. Trump, Washington has also moved to throttle the Cuban economy, by overturning operating licenses of U.S. hotel chains working in the island, cutting fuel shipments, and forbidding visits from U.S. flights and cruises, typically filled with U.S. tourist dollars. Cuba&#8217;s Foreign Affairs Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla complained to the United Nations that Mr. Trump has “escalated aggression.”&nbsp;</p> <p>Calling the embargo an &#8220;<a href="">act of genocide</a>,&#8221; Mr. Parrilla said that, since the 1960s, U.S. sanctions have prevented Cuba from getting at least USD 138 billion in foreign money.&nbsp;</p> <h2>Trump not the only hardliner from the U.S.</h2> <p>Mr. Trump’s tough guy message has a direct impact on daily life in Cuba, where even soap and food are scarce. It is a throwback to the island’s “Special Period” in the 1990s —&nbsp;when the dissolution of the Soviet Union sank Fidel Castro’s socialist agenda. However, the change in approach appears to be merely a shift in attitude, as the practical effects of the sanctions remain the same.</p> <p>Even during the administration of Mr. Obama, economic pressure remained. Carlos Gustavo Poggio, an international relations professor specializing in U.S. foreign relations, told <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong> that, in general, Mr. Trump has not represented a major shift in U.S. policy towards Cuba. The change has been purely rhetorical.</p> <p>In retrospect, the Obama-led rapprochement was more symbolic than effective. It was as easily done away with as the Iran Nuclear Deal, as powerful sections of the American state never accepted its legitimacy.</p> <p>“Economically and politically, little has changed [since Mr. Trump&#8217;s election], as the decision to end sanctions hinges on the U.S. Congress. Despite a more dovish rhetoric from Mr. Obama, the sanctions continued in place,” he says.</p> <iframe src="" width="100%" height="232" frameborder="0" allowtransparency="true" allow="encrypted-media"></iframe> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>What would change with a Biden win?</h2> <p>Barring major changes in the 2020 U.S. presidential race, the White House is set to have a new tenant by January 2021. Former Vice President Joe Biden holds a double-digit lead nationally, according to the latest <a href="">Washington Post-ABC News poll</a>. And Mr. Trump’s approval ratings continue to crumble amid the coronavirus pandemic —&nbsp;which has <a href="">infected over 4 million Americans</a>— and a weakened economy.</p> <p>But Mr. Biden won&#8217;t represent radical change. Especially not with the world’s largest economy set to contract 6.6 percent this year, according to predictions by the International Monetary Fund. But a new era of respectful relations could at least ease tensions.</p> <p>In May, Mr. Biden <a href="">tweeted</a> that the president&#8217;s agenda on Cuba “undermined U.S. diplomacy.” He promised to “empower the Cuban people, defend human rights,” and to “go back” to the Obama-era policies of engagement with Havana. So even with the sanctions happening under the table, a Biden win in November — in a race that is much closer than national polls might suggest —&nbsp;could mean that dialogue is once again possible.</p> <p>Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel represents the regime’s &#8220;softening.&#8221; Since taking office in 2019, the first leader not named Castro in six decades has moved to implement liberalizing reforms and social opening. The country’s new constitution, approved in 2019, began recognizing the right to private property, established shorter mandates for presidents, and even admitted the role of the market in Cuba’s development. Inch by inch, and despite the coronavirus, Cuba seems to be changing.</p> <p>While a Biden victory could signal further thawing in relations with Cuba, Republican and Democrat hawks are flocking to his candidacy and might block any actual progress in U.S.-Cuba policy. One of the legacies of Mr. Trump’s administration might be the continuation of the Cold War with Cuba, which only serves to hurt the Cuban people — regardless of what one thinks of its government.

Lucas Berti

Lucas Berti covers international affairs—specializing Latin American politics and markets. He has been published by Opera Mundi, Revista VIP, and The Intercept Brasil, among others.

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