How Biden’s inaction aggravates Cuba’s food crisis

By William LeoGrande* (Progreso Weekly)

HAVANA TIMES – While President Joe Biden dithers about when or whether to keep his campaign promise to roll back Donald Trump’s economic sanctions on Cuba, people on the island are going hungry. Cuba imports 70 percent of its food and its foreign exchange earnings have plummeted due to the cut-off of remittances by Trump and the closure of the tourism industry by COVID-19. Increases in world market prices for food have aggravated an already precarious situation, producing severe shortages and a looming humanitarian crisis.

Hunger has been a weapon in Washington’s arsenal against Cuba ever since Dwight D. Eisenhower sat in the White House. In January 1960, Ike suggested blockading the island, arguing, “If they (the Cuban people) are hungry, they will throw Castro out.” In April 1960, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Lester D. Mallory proposed, “Every possible means should be undertaken promptly to weaken the economic life of Cuba…to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government.”

President John F. Kennedy imposed the most comprehensive economic embargo that the United States has ever imposed on any country, including prohibitions on both food and medicine sales. The core of that embargo has remained in place ever since.

From 1975 to 1992, Cuba could buy goods from the subsidiaries of U.S. companies in third countries. Ninety percent of the $700 million in goods Cuba bought annually was food and medicine. President George H. W. Bush, with presidential candidate Bill Clinton’s support, signed the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act, cutting off those sales just as the Cuban economy collapsed due to the loss of Soviet aid. Cubans went hungry then, too. “Food shortages and distribution problems have caused malnutrition and disease,” the CIA reported in August 1993.

The Trump administration’s campaign of “maximum pressure” was designed to block Cuba’s sources of foreign exchange earnings by limiting U.S. travel, remittances, and Cuba’s earnings from the export of medical services. The goal, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told European diplomats, was to “starve” the island to bring down the regime. So far, President Biden has left all these sanctions in place.

Even though the United States no longer prohibits the sale of food to Cuba, by intensifying economic sanctions, Washington impedes Cuba’s ability to earn enough money to buy adequate food supplies from anywhere. Moreover, by exacerbating food shortages, forcing Cubans to stand in line for hours in the midst of the pandemic, U.S. policy also impedes Cuba’s ability to control the spread of COVID.

The international community regards using food as an instrument of coercion to be a violation of international humanitarian law. In 2018, the UN Security Council voted unanimously to approve Resolution 2417, which condemns the deliberate deprivation of food “in conflict situations” as a threat to international peace and security. Resolution 2417 focuses on armed conflicts, but the underlying principle is no less applicable to conflicts in which one country has the ability to impose food insecurity on another, even without the use of armed force.

The international community has also made clear what it thinks of the U.S. embargo. Since 1992, the United Nations General Assembly has annually voted overwhelmingly for a resolution calling on the United States to lift the embargo because of its “adverse effects…on the Cuban people.” In 2019, the vote was 187 in favor, three against (the United States, Israel, and Brazil).

The Biden administration has yet to complete its review of Cuba policy, but officials, when asked, never fail to say that it will center on democracy, human rights, and “empowering the Cuban people.” In his confirmation hearing, Brian Nichols, Biden’s nominee to be Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, declared, “We should be focusing our efforts on what is best for the Cuban people.”

On Cuban Independence Day, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken addressed the Cuban people directly, assuring them, “We recognize the challenges many of you face in your daily lives,” and pledged, “We will support those improving the lives of families and workers.”

Fine sentiments, but their sincerity is belied by the Trump-era sanctions that the Biden administration has done nothing to change, sanctions that make the daily lives of Cuban families harder. Having enough to eat is a basic human right, too, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt affirmed when he included “Freedom from Want” among his “Four Freedoms.” Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the United States signed, includes adequate food as a right.

If President Biden wants to support human rights in Cuba and empower the Cuban people, he can start by alleviating the food crisis by ending Trump’s prohibition on remittances and restoring the right of U.S. residents to travel. Remittances put money directly into the pockets of Cuban families. Restoring the right to travel will help Cuba’s ailing private sector recover post-COVID. The resulting inflow of foreign exchange currency will enable the government to import more food, especially for marginalized populations—single mothers, the elderly, and the poor—who have no direct access to hard currency.

There is no excuse for delay. No long, drawn out policy review is needed to recognize that there is a food crisis in Cuba due in part to U.S. policies, and that helping alleviate it is a moral obligation—an extension of the responsibility to protect. Moreover, these are actions Biden promised he would take during the presidential campaign. Every day he delays is another day that Cubans go hungry.

*William M. LeoGrande is Professor of Government at American University in Washington, DC, and co-author with Peter Kornbluh of Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana.

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times.


6 thoughts on “How Biden’s inaction aggravates Cuba’s food crisis

  • June 22, 2021 at 11:59 am
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    Cuban people’s inaction aggravates Cuba’s food crisis! Grow your own food! You live on an island with plenty of water, fertile soil! You don’t even process salt! Instead of migrating, dancing, partying and complaining how about you grow your own food? Castro and socialism bare a lot of the blame, but cubans are a lazy people!

  • June 13, 2021 at 12:56 pm
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    I agree with some points made in the article but not all. The Cuban government officials who claim to work for the people must take some responsibility for the current situation in Cuba. I am sure the officials and their friends are not starving or going through rubbish bins looking to salvage items to use or to sell. They must get the country moving, grow crops for the people, support farming, feed the children they are the countries future, stop looking at the past and blaming everyone else for their homemade problems the Cuban people do t believe you anymore. Stand up and do what’s rite for the country, stop being the fat cats and telling lies to the population for your ineptitude to run the country the people of Cuba deserve better.

  • June 12, 2021 at 6:03 pm
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    Eleclectic: Your words are so Honest & it brings anger to this Canadian, I invested Canadian $ & worked hard only to watch a small family chicken farming operation fail because of the controls held over this family with one Canadian farmer bound to make it a self worth operation. 83 Birds, Countless Eggs & only 4 losses to health, This was feeding many people & the chicken feed was controlled that it would only operate at a loss for this Canadian investor, Cuba the pan handler of nations & how true of those words of squeezing any life Cubans may have left. One pissed off Canadian & many more of us.

  • June 12, 2021 at 5:57 am
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    I pay close attention to LeoGrande’s writings because he is very knowledgeable. Plus, he generally refers to action in specific practical terms that could cause positive effects. However, this piece has me confused with his specific action items.

    He suggests ending Trump’s prohibition of remittances. But ….. Trump’s ban on remittances apply only to those handled by Fincimex and AIS, both part of the Cuban military. Could Cuba solve this problem simply by moving the responsibility for processing Western Union from the military to the Ministry of Finance?

    Remittances from other sources suffer by Cuban government imposed exchange rate problems. Any remittance sent officially results in the Cuban government keeping the foreign currency and paying the Cuban recipient in CUP at the rate of 24 CUP per US dollar or equivalent. The street or free market currently values the US dollar at approximately 60 CUP. Alternatively the remittance funds can be deposited into a MLC account which can only be spent at a Cuban government store.

    He also suggests restoring the right of U.S. residents to travel. But ….. I see no real limitations on travel by US residents. The 12 OFAC exemptions to the travel ban provide an opportunity for anyone to travel to Cuba. Granted buying a ticket to Cuba is currently difficult because the Cuban government is limiting the 3 major airlines and one charter airline to one flight per week each as a covid protection measure. That is not a US caused travel limit. Cuba’s covid problems from international sources is almost exclusively travelers, both Cuban and foreign, coming from Russia which are allowed unlimited flights.

    LeoGrande chides Biden for inaction in reversing Trump’s restrictions. This must be a well thought and organized plan that signals the opening of dialogue and negotiations that will result in both sides working towards resolution of the hostilities. The message must be conveyed that the next step, no matter how minor, must be by the Cubans. It cannot be a unilateral action by the US that results only in the Cuban response “Good, now end the embargo and give us Guantanamo”. Obama’s attempts ultimately demonstrated that US unilateral concessions with no response from the Cuban side caused only the shallowest of results that could be undone by a subsequent administration. Biden has one chance to start both parties along a path of mutually working together to solve the relationship problem long term.

  • June 12, 2021 at 1:59 am
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    The number one priority for Cuba is to work toward being greater food self sufficiency. This is entirely possible given the amount of fertile land. This is not even close to being achieved. A drastic change in direction regarding agriculture is required. This would result in Cuba being better placed when it comes to pandemics or external attempts to disrupt by means of starvation.
    When people emigrate from poorer countries to richer countries they typically send money to their family back home. This happens regardless whether back home has a ‘socialist’ or ‘capitalist’ economy. The majority of these remittances will go to poorer capitalist countries. That is a plain and simple fact.
    Even just taking the Americas as a continent we can see that the trickle down from Canada and the USA is primarily to capitalist countries down near the bottom of the greasy ladder.
    For the USA to try and impede this trickle down in the case of Cuba is a disgrace.
    To try and starve people as suggested by the likes of Eisenhower and Pompey is a disgrace.
    The other Presidents mentioned have all perpetuated this disgrace which, as the article confirms, breaks the UN resolution. It is telling that the resolution was signed by FDR, by far the most decent of the questionable array of U.S. Presidents that the article mentions.
    As an aside, FDR was also known for various successful ‘socialist’ policies which got a great many people in the USA back on their feet economically after the Great Depression.

  • June 11, 2021 at 8:44 pm
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    The Progresso writer deflects from the true problem in Cuba….a failed socialist system.

    It is not the fault of the embargo that Cuba, with thousands of acres of fertile (and fallow) land, needs to import 70% of its food. After 62 years of socialist neglect, Cuban agriculture has collapsed with the rest of the Cuban economy. Cuban has gone from the largest producer of sugar in the world, to a net importer of sugar.

    Even now, Cuba can (and does) import food (such as chicken) from the United States. The embargo has not affected this. But the problem for Cuba is that U.S. companies demand to be paid in real currency (not worthless Cuban pesos).

    The most telling indicator of Cuban’s socialist failure, is that it has become an international beggar. It is dependent on the charity of others. First it was subsidized by Russia. Then it was dependent on Venezuela. Now it is like a panhandler standing on the corner with its hand out….asking for remittances from kind family members. (Indeed, remittances are now the leading component of the Cuban economy!)

    So, it is appropriate to sympathize with the suffering Cuban people, but it is equally important to recognize the true source of those problems……a failed socialist system.

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