Cuba--Conservatives’ New Club Against BLM, AOC & Sanders

By Glenn Sacks

Led by Senator Marco Rubio, conservatives in Florida and throughout the US are fired up over recent events in Cuba. While they may have some passing interest in what’s actually happening there, it’s becoming clear what they’re really interested in: using the Cuban events as a club against their domestic political opponents.

Black Lives Matter, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) are under fire from conservative political and media figures for issuing statements on the Cuba crisis that are factually correct and rather unremarkable.

BLM calls for ending America’s "cruel and inhumane” embargo, briefly traces the US’ decades-long efforts to crush the Cuban Revolution, and commends Cuba, mostly correctly, for its help in African anti-colonial struggles.

AOC states:

We stand in solidarity with [the protesters] and condemn the anti-democratic actions led by President Díaz-Canel. The suppression of the media, speech and protest are all gross violations of civil rights. We must also name the US contribution to Cuban suffering: our sixty year-old embargo.

She also condemns the US for using “cruelty as a point of leverage against everyday people.”

Sanders tweeted “I call on the Cuban government to respect opposition rights and refrain from violence,” adding “It’s also long past time to end the unilateral U.S. embargo on Cuba, which has only hurt, not helped, the Cuban people.”

For most of the world, these are mundane recitations of part of what is common knowledge: via history’s longest-running embargo, coup plots, assassination attempts, Operation Mongoose, the newer measures taken by the Trump Administration and much, much more, since the early 1960s the US has tried to destroy Cuba’s socialist regime. Yet to some Americans, with their often incredible naiveté about the actions of their own government, these three critical statements are a source of outrage.

Rubio slammed BLM’s statement, saying: 'The extortionist ring known as the Black Lives Matter organization took a break today…to share their support for the Communist regime in Cuba.”

Rubio’s denunciation was joined by Republican Senators Josh Hawley, Tom Cotton, Marsha Blackburn, congresswoman Elise Stefanik, conservative media figures Ben Shapiro, Lisa Boothe, Dana Loesch, Allie Beth Stuckey, and Liz Wheeler, and many others.

Republicans in Florida and elsewhere fervently assert that the Cuban demonstrations are about opposition to communism and denounce any hint that America’s measures against Cuba have contributed to the outburst of popular dissatisfaction. Yet at the same time President Trump, the standard-bearer for many of them, cites the Cuban demonstrations and brags “I fought for Cuba.” How? By enacting these damaging measures during the latter years of his presidency.

It is certainly true that the bureaucratic caste that rules and misrules Cuba has contributed to this crisis. In high-minded rhetoric it claims to govern on behalf of Cuba’s working people but largely excludes them from having a voice in how their country is run.

Because Cuba has spent 60+ years under the gun, its ruling bureaucratic caste’s parasitism and cynicism never reached the levels of that of the Soviet Union’s ruling bureaucracy during its final decades. However, Cuba’s dictatorship--its censorship and stifling of independent political life--has often demotivated the population, sapping their work ethic and civic spirit.

Even before the Trump administration tightened the noose on Cuba, Cubans faced numerous economic problems, including:

  • Shortages of consumer goods and a food ration which “no alcanza” (is not sufficient).
  • Make-work jobs, poor labor discipline, and idleness in place of productivity.
  • A "no-frills" economy that offers few avenues for economic advancement or for the entrepreneurial spirit quite evident in many Cubans.

Nonetheless, Cuba could claim significant achievements. According to the United Nations' 2015 Human Development Index, Cuba ranked fifth in Latin America, alongside Costa Rica, and 67th worldwide. This is vastly better than comparably situated free-market economies like El Salvador (116th in the world), Guatemala (128th), Honduras (133rd), Haiti (163rd), and much of the rest of Latin America.

According to the World Health Organization, Cuba's life expectancy and infant mortality rates are similar to America's and among the best in Latin America.

Cuba, like other Caribbean islands, is frequently the target of powerful hurricanes, and it is axiomatic in the international disaster relief community that Cuba's emergency preparedness is extraordinary. Jon Lee Anderson of the New Yorker explains, "Cubans have conducted annual drills to prepare for hurricanes, resulting in a national disaster-response system that has saved many lives during past storms."

Why is Cuba so well prepared? "Cuba is the only country which knows that if there's a disaster, no help is coming" is how it is often explained, and that's true. But it is also attributable to the Cuban system's ability to commandeer resources effectively for important societal goals, including health care and education and disaster relief.

Americans’ criticism of Cuba’s economy has always inappropriately compared Cuban living standards with American ones, rather than comparing Cuba’s to that of other 3rd world countries.

Socialism as practiced in Cuba has its positives, such as admirable education and healthcare systems, as well as its negatives. However, despite Cuba’s mismanagement and bureaucracy, the system works well enough to give Cubans a decent standard of living. There’s no way its flaws--though quite real--have brought the country to its current low. How did Cuba get here?

Remittances from American family members are key to the economies of many Latin American nations, including Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Last fall the Trump administration took actions which severely limited the remittances Cubans could receive, taking an estimated $3 billion out of the Cuban economy.

Cuban medical missions, which provide medical care to people in over 60 countries, earned Cuba an estimated $7 billion a year. Over the past 15 years America--to the consternation of many of these nations’ leaders--has taken numerous actions to undermine these missions.

The Trump administration urged and enticed Brazil, Ecuador, and Bolivia to expel or create conditions that would make Cuba withdraw its medical missions. When COVID hit soon afterwards, medical experts criticized these moves and argued for the Cubans’ return.

Cuba previously imported nearly 100,000 barrels of oil a day from its ally Venezuela, but US actions against Venezuela and its oil exports to Cuba have cut Cuba’s oil supply in half.

And, of course, the embargo. The Trump administration instituted 240 different measures to tighten the embargo on Cuba, and Biden, despite campaign promises, has not moved to undo any of them. In 2019 Reuters explained:

Tougher U.S. sanctions against Cuba have led…prospective overseas investors [to] put plans on hold and foreign firms operating in the country consider restructuring to lower their risk exposure.

Just a few years ago, foreign businesses were rushing to take a firsthand look at Cuba’s opening economy…Yet two dozen Western executives, consultants and diplomats interviewed by Reuters said…[Trump’s] ratcheting up of the U.S. trade embargo ha[s] poisoned the business climate… compliance officers say business with Cuba is not worth it…”

Many Western banks have long refused Cuba-related business for fear of running afoul of U.S. sanctions and facing hefty fines…Now, the combination of Trump’s aggressive stance, the complications of new sanctions and fear of being sued under Helms-Burton are deterring the few that remained…

As part of “fighting for Cuba,” Trump activated Title III of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, prohibiting international companies profiting from property that was nationalized or confiscated after Cuba’s 1959 Revolution, and giving the former owners the right to sue the foreign companies. Helms-Burton essentially prohibits companies in many industries from doing business with the Cuban government.

Of these and other measures, John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, says, “Financial sanctions are weapons of mass destruction.”

In June, for the 29th consecutive year the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution condemning America’s embargo on Cuba. Republicans are excoriating BLM, AOC, and Sanders for taking a position that 184 out of 186 nations re-endorsed just a few weeks ago.

The Trump Administration has carried out other ad hoc moves to cut off Cuba. For example, in 2019, after three years of negotiations, Major League Baseball and the Cuban Baseball Federation came to an agreement on how Cuban players could play in the major leagues without defecting from Cuba. It is similar to the “posting” system used by Japan, South Korea and Taiwan that has allowed Asian baseball stars to play in the MLB.

The Trump administration killed the deal just a week later, asserting that it would have subjected the Cuba players to their government’s “human trafficking.” Under a similar system American baseball teams paid $51 million and $52 million respectively in posting fees to Japanese teams to sign Japanese pitchers Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish. In 2017, the Los Angeles Angels paid a $20 million fee to the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters to sign Shohei Ohtani. Yet neither Trump nor his predecessors ever accused Japan of “human trafficking.”

Retired Cuban baseball star Carlos Tabares told Reuters that the Trump administration seeks “to destroy us, even through baseball,” adding that the scrapped deal would have given his fellow players the opportunity “to enter legally rather than falling into the hands of traffickers and having to risk their lives.”

Beyond Cuban government mismanagement and US actions--which Diaz-Canel aptly calls America’s “politics of economic asphyxiation” that has reduced Cuba to “practically a war economy”--there has also been bad luck.

The Cuban economy relies heavily on tourism. This has long been divisive--for example, in the popular anti-government rap song “Patria y Vida”, Cuban rappers Maykel Osorbo and El Funky slam the government for “advertising a paradise in Varadero" while the Cuban people do without. Varadero, a gorgeous beach and resort area near Havana, is only for tourists.

Nevertheless, in 2019 Cuba earned $3 billion via nearly 5 million tourist arrivals, making tourism 10% of its economy. Under the impact of COVID, in 2020 Cuba lost three-quarters of these visitors.

Lacking the hard currency needed to buy foreign products, Cuban imports declined 40% last year, and even more this year. Shortages--always an issue--have reached an acute point.

Conservative critics could rightly fault BLM for failing to point out that economic conditions and changes in Cuba over the past three decades have generally worked to Afro-Cubans’ disadvantage, though that has not been the Cuban government’s intent.

One reason for the growing inequality in Cuba is that it was the upper and middle classes which fled to the US after the Cuban Revolution. Because these emigres were overwhelmingly light-skinned Cubans, Afro-Cubans are far less likely to have relatives in the US who can send them remittance money.

However, BLM does have good reason for loyalty to the ideals of the Cuban Revolution--the first three decades of Cuban socialism brought great changes for Afro-Cubans. Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who led the New York Times publication of the controversial “1619 Project,” is now being hammered by conservatives for her 2019 statement calling Cuba “the most equal, multiracial country in our hemisphere.”

However, in 2016, UCLA political science and African-American studies professor Mark Sawyer explained:

[Afro-Cubans] benefited from the literacy campaigns and the advents of universal education. And their life expectancy looks a lot like white Cubans, and they're living almost 80 years, which is higher than [in] the United States…[Castro] elevated the Afro-Cuban population to be the healthiest, longest living black population in the world…[he] came as close as anybody has ever come to eliminating racial inequality in a place that had had plantation slavery…

Instead of attacking BLM, Sanders, and AOC, former Trump press secretary Kayleigh McEnany and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis have focused their criticism on President Biden. McEnany says Biden “chose…to side with AOC, BLM, and put [his] arms around the Cuban dictatorship…” DeSantis urges him to “stand and be counted…with the people who are seeking freedom from a brutal 62-year reign of communist oppression.”

But McEnany and DeSantis know--or certainly should know--that a strong, aggressive stance by Biden plays into Diaz-Canel’s hands, providing him the Yankee bogeyman which could help him quell this crisis.

DeSantis also calls for the Cuban military to launch a coup d’état against Diaz-Canel’s regime. But DeSantis knows--actually, he probably doesn’t know--that Latin America has a long, bloody, and not very far removed history of horrendous military dictatorships.

To pick just one example of many, the Argentine military murdered/“disappeared” between 20,000 and 30,000 people from 1976-1983 during the Dirty War. Many were drugged, loaded into aircraft then tossed out over the Atlantic Ocean or Río de la Plata. Similar atrocities were committed by the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile.

These regimes and many similar ones throughout Latin America, including blood-soaked dictatorships in El Salvador and Guatemala, were armed, supplied, and supported by the United States.

This is a major reason why Latin Americans have never taken America’s ferocious denunciations of the Castro regime very seriously. Fidel Castro was a dictator, a true Latin American caudillo (strongman), however, he was undoubtedly milder than most of America’s friends during the three decades after the Cuban Revolution.

These regimes’ death flights, mass torture, and massacres were all well beyond Castro, who, with some justification, fancied himself a man of the people. Also, these Latin American military dictatorships didn’t face US economic sabotage and US-backed coup and assassination attempts--major problems for Castro.

Rubio, DeSantis, Miami mayor Francis Suarez, former Florida congresswoman Debbie Mucarsel-Powell--all of whom have been in the forefront over the Cuban events--share a particular form of blindness found most acutely in Florida politicians: the inability to see tyranny or poverty in any Latin American country except for Cuba or Venezuela, even if other regimes have been, or in some cases continue to be, far worse.

For the past 60 years US policy on Cuba has never been about what’s best for the Cuban people, but instead about politics. Winning the key swing state of Florida in the Electoral College. Intimidating other Latin American countries so they won’t cross the US. Placating the embittered, politically-powerful elders of the powerful Cuban-American community. Standing up to the old USSR.

But most importantly, America’s Cuba policy has always been designed to ensure Cuba isn’t given the breathing room it needs to progress.

If it did, its socialist economic system would stand as a promising example of an alternative to the free-market misery that engulfs much of Latin America. A misery which at this moment is propelling masses of Latin Americans to risk their lives seeking to cross our Southern border. These people are poor and desperate--and they’ve never been within 1,000 kilometers of communism.