Why was the embargo imposed on Cuba

Background current

The United States' decision on sanctions during the Cold War had a massive impact on Cuba's economic situation. The embargo is now being relaxed in small steps.

A participant in the traditional May Day march on Revolution Square in Havana protests against the US trade embargo against Cuba with a handwritten sign. (& copy picture-alliance / AP)

The US economic and trade embargo against Cuba, which has existed since 1960 and which emerged from the Cold War conflict, still exists today. It is the longest embargo in modern history, although the severity and extent of the embargo have varied over the past 55 years. The United States imposed a trade embargo on Cuba in 1960 - which has had close economic ties with the United States since the 19th century - in response to the expropriation and nationalization of foreign property and businesses, many of which were owned by US citizens. Medicines and some food were exempt from the sanctions.

After trade was suspended at the beginning of January 1961 and all diplomatic relations with Cuba were broken off, the US government under President John F. Kennedy announced a total embargo on all trade between the USA and Cuba on February 3, 1962.

With the help of the embargo, known in Cuba as "El Bloque" (the blockade), the US government tried to overthrow the communist regime of Fidel Castro, which came to power in 1959 and which cooperated with the Soviet Union. Critics of the sanctions such as ex-US President Jimmy Carter, on the other hand, speak of a "counterproductive policy" that "only strengthens the dictatorship" to this day.

Economic aid from the USSR

Despite the embargo, the leadership of Cuba was able to stabilize the country as the first welfare state in Latin America. On the one hand, the massive financial support, especially from the USSR, but also from the GDR and the CSSR, as well as a black market for food in Cuba itself were decisive.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the associated collapse in financial aid, the country fell into an economic crisis. Even economic reforms introduced between 1993 and 2000 brought few improvements. The relationship with Venezuela, which has been intensifying since 2003, brought some relief, since then it has been supplying Cuba with oil in exchange for services, doctors and training. According to Cuban information, the embargo caused economic damage of over 1.15 trillion US dollars by 2014; the actual amount is difficult to estimate.

Attempts have repeatedly been made to loosen or lift the embargo. The first foray was made by the Democratic US President Jimmy Carter in 1977, who eased travel restrictions for US citizens; his successor, Republican Ronald Reagan, repealed the changes in 1982. In the 1990s, the influential Cubans in exile in the USA prevented a possible change of course under President Bill Clinton. The 1996 Helms-Burton Act extended the trade embargo to include Cuba's trading partners; this should hinder or completely prevent foreign investments in Cuba. For example, on this legal basis, the Swiss bank UBS had to pay a fine of around 100 million US dollars in 2004 after it had supplied Cuba with foreign currency. In addition, this law was intended to prevent Cuba's membership in any international financial institutions - such as the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development or the International Monetary Fund.

In October 2000, Congress passed a law on "Reforming Trade Sanctions and Export Extensions," which eased the embargo and allowed the sale of agricultural goods and medicines on humanitarian grounds. In 2009, the US government basically again granted Cuba the right to buy food and agricultural products.

Relaxation of relationships

In 2008 Fidel Castro's brother Raúl Castro became president. With him, US President Barack Obama decided on diplomatic rapprochement between the two countries in December 2014. After the US removed Cuba from its list of terrorist states, the two states officially established diplomatic relations in July 2015. The respective embassies were reopened in Washington and Havana. In January 2015, the embargo was eased, including the export license for certain technology products from the USA to Cuba, especially computers, cell phones and televisions. This should bring about the media exchange between Cuban citizens with the USA and the rest of the world, according to the US Treasury Department. In return, US citizens have since been allowed to take home Cuban products, such as cigars, in limited quantities from Cuba. The easing includes further travel and trade facilitation; Until the embargo was eased, US citizens were prohibited from traveling to Cuba as tourists. Only well-founded business or cultural trips and family visits were allowed.

So far, the Republicans, who currently hold the majority in the US Congress, have prevented the embargo from being completely lifted by law. The Cubans in exile are an important republican group of voters, especially in the US state of Florida, and the majority support a restrictive Cuban policy. At the same time, however, there is great interest on the part of the US economy in lifting the embargo, for example in order to participate in the development of oil deposits off the coast of Cuba.

Obama calls for an end to the sanctions

The United Nations (UN) last called in October 2014 for the 23rd time that the embargo be lifted - with a large majority of 188 of the 193 member states. In June 2015, the 28 EU states and 33 countries of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (Celac) for their part called for a swift end to the embargo. On September 29, US President Barack Obama also spoke out in favor of lifting the embargo during the UN general debate.

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