During Christmas break of the year 2009 I had the fortune of being able to take a family trip to Cuba. Though I had been to the Caribbean/Latin America before, my previous trips had isolated me to the resorts that I had stayed in. Having never been exposed to the true culture of the countries I had visited, Cuba was an eye opener. In Cuba I was exposed for the first time to the culture and the lifestyle of a country in the Global South. In Cuba I saw the poverty in which the people lived but I also saw and learned from my tour guild the progress that the country has made in the face of the United States embargo, the loss of Soviet support and the devastating effects of annual hurricane seasons. In this paper I will first give a very brief outline of the history between the United States and Cuba to explain why it is that the United States has imposed a trade embargo upon them and the result that the United States government hopes to see come about. Secondly I will identify the disastrous effects the embargo had on Cuba during the years immediately after its implementation and how the effects of the embargo were felt primarily by the vulnerable civilian population not the communist government that it was meant to topple (Barry 2000: 151). I will then analyze the successes of Cuba to demonstrate how the United States embargo has been mainly ineffective and how Cuba is in the long term better off because of the embargo as there is a lack of neo-liberal influences in its economy.
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Nature of the Embargo
In 1962 the United States of America imposed a near total embargo on the island nation of Cuba in response to Cuba’s nationalisation of property owned by American citizens and businesses (Eckstein 1980: 255). The effect of this embargo isolated Cuba commercially, economically, and financially from the United States in a way that made it even more dependent on its alliance with the USSR for trade and financial assistance (Hamilton 2002: 21).Then in 1992 the United States Congress passed the Torricelli Act, designed to impede trade between Cuba and other nations (Hamilton 2002: 25). The Torricelli Act included a sanction that made it illegal for foreign subsidiaries of United States companies to conduct trade with Cuba (Barry 2000: 152). This sanction also included the trade of food and medical supplies with Cuban, one of the very few embargoes in the world to do so, and because of this the health of the Cuban population has suffered terribly (Barry 2000: 151). The Acts desired effect was to topple Castro’s communist government through economic sabotage and though the Torricelli Act was not successful in removing Castro from power it did, coupled with the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1991, cause the Cuban economy to crash (Xianglin 2007: 94).
Embargos Detrimental Effects on Cuban Health
The United States trade embargo on Cuba, explicitly the Torricelli Act, created a serious shortage of medical supplies and proper nourishment for the Cuban people in the early nineties (Barry 2000: 151). This was after Cuba found itself without access to the Eastern Blocs raw materials to manufacture pharmaceutical products and the countries lack of hard currency made purchasing the necessary materials from the West a financial impossibility (Barry 2000: 151). On top of that fifty percent of all newly patented drugs were owned by United States companies (Barry 2000: 151). This made it so that even if Cuba had had the hard currency to purchase the medicine the Torricelli Act made it illegal for the American companies to sell to them (Barry 2000: 151). For these reasons, during 1992 to 1993, there was deterioration of public health in Cuba (Barry 2000: 151).
During this time period in Cuba there were three notable medical calamities caused by the unavailability of food and medical supplies due to the United States trade embargo (Barry 2000: 152). The first of these tragedies was the development of optic and peripheral neuropathy, an illness that leaves the victim blinded, in no less than fifty thousand Cubans. This disease is directly linked to a lack of vitamins ingested by the body and had trade with United States affiliated companies been allowed this would have been avoided (Barry 2000: 152). The second was an epidemic of oesophageal stenosis resulted in toddlers as a shortage of soap forced Cuban parents to bath their children in lye, which the toddlers accidently ingested (Barry 2000: 152). The third medical disaster created by the United States embargo was the outbreak of Guillain-Barre syndrome in Havana caused by water being infected with Campylobacter species as the chlorination chemicals used to clean the water had run out (Barry 2000: 152). All three of these instances could have been easily avoided had the United States never imposed a trade embargo upon Cuba (Barry 2000: 152).
Since this time Cuba has taken great strides in improving the well being of it citizens in defiance of the restrictions set upon them by the embargo (Sainsbury 2005: 55). This demonstrates that though the initial impacts of the United States embargo were disastrous for Cuba’s development the country has managed to recover and through Cuba’s successes the ineffectiveness of the United States embargo, in the long run, has emerged.
Long Term Ineffectiveness of Embargo
The ineffectiveness of the American trade embargo is demonstrated best by the fact that after almost half a century of persecution the Cuban government and socialist ideals put in place by Castro have survived. Not only has the Cuban nation persevered under one of the most intense embargos of our time in has on top of that developed a medical research program that is the envy of many cash rich democracies (Sainsbury 2005: 52). The success of Cuba’s medical system is an prime example of the ineffectiveness of the United States trade embargo.
Under the United States embargo Cuba has continued to excel in the field of medicine and health care; being able to boast some very impressive medical achievements and universal medical coverage for all its citizens (Hood 2000: 548). Some of Cuba’s achievements’ consist of independently developing treatment for fifteen thousand Chernobyl victims, vaccinating one point five million Haitian children against measles, and developing the world’s first Meningitis B vaccine (Sainsbury 2005: 52). On top of that Cuba has one of the world’s lowest rates of HIV and Aids within the population (Sainsbury 2005: 52). Cuba also has twenty one medical schools that offer free educations and because of this in a country with a population of eleven million there are sixty six thousand physicians; a doctor per person ratio of 1/170 compared to a rate of 1/352 in the United States (Sainsbury 2005: 55). The Cuban health system is not only one of the best in South America it is comparable to the health system of its neighbour to the north, the United States (Sainsbury 2005: 51).
Even with the difficulties presented by the United States embargo Cuba has developed a health system that produces results that are equal to, if not better, than its counterpart in America (Sainsbury 2005: 51). Though United States has one of the most cutting edge medical systems but it is only available to those who have the financial ability to afford it (Sainsbury 2005: 54). In the United States there are forty three million people living without medical insurance and many who do have medical coverage pay a third of their monthly earnings for it (Sainsbury 2005: 54). On top of that a Harvard study found that one half of all personal bancruptcies were caused by people whole had the misfortune to fall ill (Sainsbury 2005: 54). In Cuba this is unheard of, everyone gets the equal treatment. Even though the Cuban government only spends one hundred and eighty six dollars per person on health care life expectancy in Cuba and the United States are the same at seventy six years of age (Hood 2000: 548). Also the infant mortality rate, per thousand live births, in Cuba is actually lower than the mortality rate of the United States (Hood 2000: 548). In the United States the national average is seven point two but for African Americans the infant mortality rate is much higher at fourteen point two (Hood 2000: 548). In comparison the Cuban infant mortality rate is at just six point four, better then that of the United States, even though Cuba is considered to be the much less developed of the two (Hood 2000: 548).
By developing a universal health care system that rivals the health care system of the United States in results Cuba has proven that the embargo placed upon them has become ineffective. With limited resources and under constant harassment from the United States Cuba has continued to develop its medical programs seemingly unhindered by the United States embargo and in some cases has benefited from this same embargo.
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The United States embargo has benefited Cuba’s development in the long run as it has protected Cuba from the destructive economical policies of neo-liberal theorists. A comparison of Cuban’s economic well being with that of Argentina’s in 2001-2002 shows just how much the embargo has benefited Cuba’s development. In 2001-2002 Argentina was at the climax of years of increased poverty and inequality caused by the government’s mismanagement of the economy (Vilas 2006: 163). Argentina’s economy was failing because of the neo-liberal policies it was structured upon, unlike the economy of Cuba which was just beginning to take off.
As Carlos Vilas (2006) illustrates, Argentina’s economy during the 1990’s was infused with neo-liberal ideologies. This same time period was marked by an increase in the level of poverty and inequality within the population. The 1990’s in Argentina were also marked by an increase in the number of unemployed and underemployed workers; along with a fall of salary value. This increase of economic sickness occurred while the liberalisation of Argentina’s economy was being carried out. This broad deregulation of financial and economic activity, along with other neoliberal policies, led to an overvaluation of the Argentinean currency. The end result was massive protests and the collapse of the Argentinean government. Fortunately for Cuba because of the United States trade embargo these neo-liberal ideas and influences never took hold upon the islands economy.
Since the United States embargo made it illegal for American companies to be affiliated with Cuba the country was never influenced by neo-liberal ideas and in this way Cuba benefited from the United States trade embargo (Vilas 2006: 167). Evidence that this was in fact a very good thing is that in the year 2000 Cuba had managed to bring its rate of unemployment to fewer than six percent (Cole 2002: 42). This number was vastly superior to the unemployment rate in Argentina which during the same time stood at thirty five percent (Vilas 2006: 166). Another statistic that displays the economic well being of Cuba in comparison to Argentina is that of the percentage of population living under the poverty line in 2002. In Argentina, because of the economic break down, the percentage of the population living under the poverty line had risen to nineteen point six percent (Group 2011). In comparison the Cuban government has managed to bring the unemployment rate to an impressive three point three percent (Group 2011). This is proof of the success the socialist based economic policies implemented in Cuba have had compared to the neo-liberal based economic policies in Argentina. Had the United States not placed an embargo upon the Cuban nation then the same neo-liberal ideology that caused the economic collapse in Argentina could have very well have been as influential in Cuba with a similar destructive effect.
The United States embargo against Cuba has affected Cuba’s development both positively and negatively. The embargo affected the health of the Cuba population in the most damaging ways in the years immediately after its implementation but since then has lost its effectiveness and it now has proven to have been a benefit to Cuba. Cuba has evolved because of the embargo from a country of illness to a nation with a strong health care system with universal coverage. The embargo has also benefited Cuba by shielding it from the effects of the same neo-liberal ideology that left Argentina in economical ruin at the turn of the millennium. The United States imposed this embargo in the hopes of toppling Castro’s government and eradicating socialism from the island of Cuba. This plan has been, still is, and will continue to be a failure. This is because Cuba has learned to live without contact to America and for that they are a healthier, greener, and more socially responsible country (Sainsbury 2005: 54).
The implication of the success of Cuba while under the persecution of the United States is that socialist based economies can be successful. The fact that during the same time that Argentina’s neoliberal influenced economy was failing the Cuban socialist based economy was growing, while under embargo from the United States, points to the fact that capitalism is not the only type of successful economy. Cuba’s health care compared to America’s also demonstrates how neo-liberal ideology in health care is not beneficial for all of society but only to the wealthy. Cuba can be looked at as a model for other countries of the Global South on how to create an effective medical system with universal coverage for minimal price.
A question my research raised was, if Cuba can provide health care free to all of its citizens while under an U.S. embargo and deliver the same results as the United States why is it that America, and other countries worldwide, not followed Cuba’s example. The answer I found was money. This brings up another question, why are there societies where corporate profits are more important than the well being of the less fortunate? It seems to me that the world could take a lesson from Cuba and stop putting profits over people.
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