In Havana, Cuba, the effects of sanctions imposed by the Trump administration have seeped their way into daily life: the long lines of cars outside gas stations, the dwindling stock on store shelves, the increasingly common apagones, or power outages. In early September 2019, Cuba’s President Miguel Díaz-Canel appeared on live television to address the Cuban people, describing the country’s economic situation as “coyuntural,” meaning happening on some occasions, but not in a habitual or customary manner.
This diagnosis was ridiculed by many Cubans, all too aware of the decade-long crisis known as the Special Period that followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union — a geopolitical shift that decimated the Cuban economy. With more and more symptoms of another lasting economic hardship today, the word “coyuntural” strikes many as an ironic description of a situation that may not be as temporary as it seems.
Upon taking office in 2017, US President Donald Trump immediately vowed to reverse the policies of the Obama-era Cuban thaw, a period which saw the 44th US president become the first to visit Cuba in almost a century, along with the easing of the decades-old embargo, looser travel restrictions and the reopening of embassies in Washington and Havana. “Since December 2014, the Treasury Department and our partners across the Administration have progressively reshaped our regulations in order to empower the Cuban people and enable economic advancements for Cubans and Americans,” said Jack Lew, secretary of the treasury under Barack Obama, in a statement announcing the continued easing of sanctions, which were in effect until early 2017.
The Obama-era changes had marked a new potential for economic growth in a country in need of foreign investment to develop its economy. Tourism boomed as a result of these policies, along with changes to Cuba’s Constitution in 2019 that expanded the private sector. Cuba became the “fastest growing country on Airbnb ever in the history of our platform,” its founder said in 2016. The number of US tourists visiting Cuba annually rose from 63,046 in 2010 to 162,927 in 2015, then nearly doubled in both 2016 and 2017, before plateauing at 637,907 a year into Donald Trump’s presidency. Between 2017 and 2018, the number of Americans visiting Cuba rose by a mere 19,561, compared to a 333,749 increase the previous year.
It was on June 16, 2017, that Trump issued a National Security Presidential Memorandum (NSPM) on “Strengthening the Policy of the United States Toward Cuba,” outlining his hard-line stance. Restrictions on financial transactions, trade and commerce were announced in November of 2017 by the Departments of State, Commerce and the Treasury to implement the NSPM. The Trump administration has continued laying on sanctions, releasing new travel bans, including restrictions on vessels entering Cuba, in June last year.
This affected vessels transporting oil to the island from Venezuela. Cuba depends heavily on oil exports from Venezuela, which have slowed down in recent years as a result of the latter’s own economic crisis. Up until 2015, Venezuela supplied Cuba with 90,000 barrels of crude and fuel per day, the majority of the island’s 145,000 bpd consumption, according to Reuters. However, sanctions placed by the US on PDVSA, Venezuela’s national oil company, have led to a significant decline in its output in recent years, with an estimated $11-billion loss in proceeds from exports in 2019. For Cuba, which as of 2017 only produces 51,000 bpd, these sanctions have had an extreme impact on daily life.
For the People
The Trump administration’s policy on Cuba, like that of his predecessor, claims to be in support of the people of Cuba. “We are taking additional steps to financially isolate the Cuban regime. The United States holds the Cuban regime accountable for its oppression of the Cuban people and support of other dictatorships throughout the region, such as the illegitimate Maduro regime,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in September 2019. “Through these regulatory amendments, Treasury is denying Cuba access to hard currency, and we are curbing the Cuban government’s bad behavior while continuing to support the long-suffering people of Cuba.”
Although these sanctions claim to be a response to government suppression, such as the arrest of an independent journalist, Roberto Quinones, in September, they do little to achieve their intended purpose of supporting the people of Cuba. In reality, the economic impact of the sanctions is felt most by ordinary Cubans struggling to make ends meet.
The petroleum shortages have caused a large-scale transportation crisis, leading to severely overcrowded public transportation and constant delays. Long lines of cars could be seen outside of gas stations, and some taxi drivers resorted to sleeping in their cabs overnight while waiting for gas, in order to continue working the next day. The University of Havana was forced to shorten the school day by two hours to allow more time for students to commute to class, and the National Library, among other national institutions, turned off its lights and closed its doors early as a way to reduce energy consumption.
In many neighborhoods, power outages have also become increasingly common. During the Special Period in the 1990s, when Cuba faced more extreme oil shortages, the government was forced to implement scheduled power outages across the country. Although the current power cuts tend to be sporadic and temporary, they are a dark reminder of that difficult time, and some fear that the hardships of this so-called “coyuntural period” may become the norm.
Trump’s approach to Cuba has been a policy failure at best, and at worst another chapter in the United States’ long history of exerting its grip on the country under the guise of defending its people. The latest US sanctions reversed the progress made by the Obama administration in reopening diplomatic ties with Cuba and, more than anything, the brunt of their force is being felt by the very people the sanctions claim to support.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.