By W. T. Whitney Jr.

May 28, 2021


The U.S. blockade against Cuba causes shortages of basic materials. Buses lack fuel and spare parts; bus routes have been dropped. Food supplies are precarious. Cuba can’t buy ventilators needed for critically ill COVID-19 patients. The Swiss manufacturers supplying them were purchased by a U. S. company. They can’t sell to Cuba.

Cuban technicians devised a ventilator model which is now in production. Reagents and laboratory supplies may have been in short supply, but Cuba was the first Latin America country to develop its own COVID-19 vaccines. Now Cuba is short of syringes just when they are needed for injecting vaccines. Domestic manufacture is not feasible. Importing them is impossible, because of the blockade.

According to Global Health Partners, “Cuba needs roughly 30 million syringes for their mass Covid vaccination campaign and they’re short 20 million.” Solidarity organizations are seeking donated funds to buy syringes and ship them to Cuba. (Readers may donate by contacting Global Health Partners or visiting here.) See related content in this posting: Solidarity Saves Lives )

Syringes are lacking all over. The New York Times estimates an overall need of between “eight billion and 10 billion syringes for Covid-19 vaccinations alone.” Manufacturing capabilities are increasing, but that’s of no use to Cuba.

Nothing is haphazard about how the blockade affects Cuba. The impact there reflects an institutionalized process of asserting U.S. domination over the island. It rests on laws, administrative decrees, regulations, officials’ interpretations of regulations, and caution on the part of third-country traders and financiers.

Without enough syringes, Cubans suffer. That’s not new. Calling for economic blockade in 1960, State Department official Lester Mallory claimed that imposing desperation and grief on Cuba’s people would push them toward overthrowing their government.

Legislation has been in place that forbids U.S.- owned companies from selling goods to Cuba, syringes included. The Cuba Democracy Act of 1992 ensnared foreign companies into the blockade system. That law authorized the Treasury Department to decide on licensing foreign subsidiaries of U.S. corporations to export goods to Cuba. Most often licenses are withheld.

The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), enforcer of the blockade, gradually found leeway to regulate the foreign corporations themselves. Whenever these corporations sell goods to Cuba, they are subject to sanctions if they have branches in the United States, partner with U.S. corporations, or handle U.S. dollars.

Manufacture of most of the world’s syringes is in the hands of three U.S. companies and five companies elsewhere. Each of the latter has ties with a U.S. entity and is banned from exporting syringes to Cuba

Germany’s B. Braun Melsungen Corporation partners with Concordance Healthcare Solutions, “one of the largest independent, healthcare distributors in the U.S.” Tokyo-based Terumo Corporation has a headquarters in New Jersey. Osaka-based Nipro Corporation recently “announce[d] the creation of a Vascular Division in the U.S.”  “Healthcare heavyweight Cardinal Health” is headquartered in both Ireland and the United States.

Now Hindustan Syringes and Medical Devices, in India, comes under OFAC purview. It recently selected Envigo Global Products as its “digital marketing partner.” Envigo is headquartered in Indianapolis.

Officers of foreign companies presumably seek legal advice.  One lawyers’ group maintains that, “OFAC has long held that if a non-U.S. company engages in business transactions in U.S. dollars, the foreign party is availing itself of the U.S. financial system and hence becomes subject to the U.S. sanctions laws.” Vulnerability is diffuse: “non-U.S. parties have been subject to U.S. sanctions [when] the foreign party provides material support or assistance to … certain parties that are subject to sanctions.”

Penalties may be expected, if “the foreign party has a requisite level of contacts with the U.S., such as engaging [with] U.S. products, software or technology.” The National Law Review recommends that, “Foreign companies … need to be aware of board members, directors, or employees who hold U.S. citizenship or U.S. green cards.”

President Obama eased many blockade regulations and re-established U. S. diplomatic relations with Cuba. He never pushed to end the blockade. The Biden Administration chooses not to prioritize improved relations with Cuba. Biden recently upheld the Trump Administration’s reassignment of Cuba to the U.S. list of terrorist-sponsoring nations. However, it’s up to Congress to end the blockade, as per the Helms-Burton Law of 1996.

Since then, Congress has changed nothing except for legislation in 2000 allowing for the export of U.S. food products to Cuba. In February Oregon Senator Ron Wyden introduced his “United States-Cuba Trade Act of 2021,” which would end the blockade. The bill has four co-sponsors.

Senators Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Jerry Moran of Kansas, and Patrick Leahy of Vermont on May 20 reintroduced the Freedom to Export to Cuba Act. That bill would facilitate exports to Cuba, especially agricultural products. It would allow some Cuban goods to enter the United State, but leaves intact sanctions previously imposed because of alleged human rights violations.

In March, 80 congresspersons sent a letter to President Biden urging him to use executive action to reverse restrictions imposed by President Trump.

The U.S. economic blockade of Cuba is calculated, systematic, all-encompassing, and savage. It’s lasted sixty years.

 Critics’ arguments vary from: “The blockade is cruel and illegal,” to “Cuba, a model of human solidarity, needs to be spared,” to “National sovereignty should be respected,” to “Cuba should survive to teach us about health care and education.”  Blockade defenders claim they are deserving of votes from Cuban-exile families in Florida, defending human rights in Cuba (but not in Saudi Arabia), fighting communism (but no longer in Vietnam), and blocking Cuban intervention in Latin America (where the U.S. intervenes).

Within each camp, talking points are disconnected, one from the other.  What’s lacking is a central focus that defines each of these two opposing, decades-long campaigns. Something is missing.

Struggle against U.S. racism provides a lead. There too, progressive activists go from pillar to post attending to various symptoms of racial oppression, while they avoid root causes. That may be changing.

Some commentators are linking manifestations of racial oppression today with durable systems of repression that involve capitalism. Historian Joshua Rothman, writing about a notorious slave-trading firm, captures that association in the title of his new book, The Ledger and the Chain.

Similarly, opponents of the blockade would surely add substance and strength to their work, if they allowed the long history of U. S. ambition to dominate Cuba to inform their campaign. The underlying assumption would be that European and U.S. powers have long sought to bring the Americas and Cuba, dependent territories, into their capitalist orbit. 

The syringe story reflects U.S schemes in the 19th century to absorb Cuba, actual U.S. control following Spain’s departure in 1902, and U.S. determination after 1959 to restore domination lost to the Revolution.