The Future at Last: Unraveling the Embargo on Cuba

[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by L. Kaifa Roland who is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Kaifa is the author of Cuban Color in Tourism and La Lucha: An Ethnography of Racial Meaning (OUP, 2010) “T/racing Belonging in Cuban Tourism” (Cultural Anthropology, August 2013), and “Between Belonging and the F/Act of Niggerisation” in Trayvon Martin, Race, and American Justice: Writing Wrong (Sense Publishers, 2014). Currently, she is doing ethnographic research with Black women entrepreneurs in Havana.]

CUBA, Havana- Photographer Unknown, 'Cuba' - RESIZED

Just for the fun of it—in the aftermath of President Obama’s announcement that relations between the U.S. and Cuba were thawing—I decided to revisit the conclusion to my now ten year-old dissertation in which I had done the academically forbidden: I gazed into my “crystal ball” to imagine the future. I laid out a couple of scenarios involving Fidel Castro’s dying in office or relinquishing the position while still alive. Then I outlined another scenario that resonates with today:

There is one other possibility that does not depend on the life or death of Fidel Castro, but on the U.S. government’s decision to end the economic embargo of its own volition. Many historians have written about Castro’s skill at manipulating the Cuban people’s nationalism into anti-Americanism … If the U.S. imperialist role in Cuba prior to the revolution were not ample justification, more than 40 years of economic sanctions is an easy means not only to generate nationalist sentiment, but also serve as a crutch for the revolution’s many failures. The U.S. argues that it maintains sanctions in order to bring about Castro’s downfall, but the only reason the socialist government can even attempt to contain the capitalist incursions exemplified by tourism is precisely because of the blockade… [I]t would be impossible for Cuba’s socialist government to contain the onslaught of American-style capitalism as it is practiced on a near-global scale today. The blockade is what allows the Cuban government to safely experiment with capitalism within the socialist context (Roland 251–252).

Since it is no longer looking into the future, but watching the present unfold, I hope it is safe to dust off this nugget for consideration at this moment. The question I have received most frequently in the days since President Barack Obama’s and President Raúl Castro’s simultaneous announcements is, “this is good, right?” And of course it is! More than 50 years of trying to bully Cuba into doing what the U.S. wanted is untenable. But as anthropologists, we are also interested in know what the changes mean on the ground, so I am more interested in asking who will the policy changes affect? But first a little background to the blockade…

Cuba and the U.S.: How did we get here?

Whereas Cuba and the U.S. were bound to one another by close economic and political ties in the early twentieth century, the countries have effectively been in a stalemate since the early 1960s. When Fidel Castro overthrew what he perceived to be an illegitimate president who only acted at the behest of the United States, he began nationalizing U.S. properties to which the U.S. responded by limiting the sugar quota. The chess match continued to deteriorate relations between the two until the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis signified the inability to trust the security of one’s borders with the other, especially once the Cubans had turned to the Soviets for support. Many among Cuba’s white upper classes fled to the U.S. during these early years of revolution, while increasing numbers left over the decades. The perspective of these Cuban Americans on Cuba is the one that most U.S. citizens recognize. With their base in Florida, the Cuban American lobby influenced one of the most important policy decisions toward Cuba: the 1980 Helms-Burton Law codified the long-standing embargo which now requires a congressional majority to change. Fidel Castro would rally the Cuban people into a nationalist frenzy by pointing to such moves by the United States as a way to try to control Cuba like they did before the revolution—and indeed, as President Obama acknowledged in his announcement, Cubans could always point to el bloqueo (as they call the blockade) as the cause of the revolution’s many shortcomings in its ability to provide for the Cuban people.

Implications of U.S. Policy Change

So what does all the policy change mean for both Cubans and Americans? Though the terms of the Helms-Burton Law remain in effect, President Obama outlined several ways in which the blockade will be relaxed.

Diplomatic Relations

There have been “Interest Sections” in each country representing the interests of the other since the Carter administration, but formal diplomatic relations means that the two countries officially recognize one another and agree to dialogue with one another. These conversations will facilitate every other area of policy shift.

State Sponsored Terror List

This is one of the most annoying features of the U.S. position towards Cuba as far as most Cubans are concerned. Both sides of this fading Cold War episode have been involved with spying and shooting down planes, so Cubans have long resented being considered a state sponsor of terror alongside countries considered threats in the post 9/11 era. The prisoner swap involves individuals on both sides who were caught spying or trying to foment revolt in the other country. If Cuba is removed from the state sponsored terror list, it will go a long way toward viewing the United States as a country that interacts with Cuba on a realistic basis, rather than based on fears born of Cold War nightmares.

Travel Restrictions

For the most part, the travel restrictions that keep most Americans from legally traveling to Cuba will remain in place until the law enforcing the embargo is repealed. The U.S. Treasury Department’s “Trading with the Enemy Act” makes it illegal for U.S. citizens to spend money in Cuba. However, the recent announcements will broaden categories of legal travel to include those that previously needed special permission like athletes, humanitarian work, and travel involving the export of authorized goods.

Banking and Trade

This is a big deal! The previous iterations of the embargo prevented not only U.S. citizens from easily accessing money based in the U.S., but individuals and corporations from other countries as well. Now a Mexican citizen, for example, can use his/her American Express card to pay for a hotel in Cuba. This opening in the banking area means much more money will be flowing through Cuba. For those of us who regularly travel to Cuba, we will no longer have to carry stacks of cash simply because we could not use anything plastic. Also, my study abroad students will be happy to know that those of us who legally travel to Cuba can now bring a limited amount of cigars and rum back without repercussion (a throwback to the pre-George W. Bush regulations).

Transfer of Money

While this is largely just an expansion of a previous policy, it is also the area that will make the greatest difference in the lives of everyday Cubans. Family members or other contacts that live abroad are now able to send greater amounts of money to those on the island. My own anthropological research is most focused in this area, as I seek to determine who benefits most from access to the movement of money and goods into Cuba. To this point, it seems that Cuba’s capitalist openings in entrepreneurship in particular have had the greatest benefit to those with family who live abroad; because the majority of Cubans who fled abroad are whiter skinned, blacks and mulatos have to be more creative to access the newly circulating material goods.

In sum, all of these openings will have positive implications for both Cubans and U.S. citizens. I would only note that there is very little change in who will be affected by the openings. Still, the aggregate of the policy change is what is really important. One of the arguments I made in my book Cuban Color in Tourism and La Lucha (yes, a shameless plug!) was that much of Cuban nationalism is a reflection of what Cubans understand as the masculinist duty to provide and protect those in the man’s family. If I metaphorically described the collapse of U.S.-Cuban relations in the 1960s as a “phallus measuring competition” in my book, then one of the key effects of the U.S. tucking its member away first is that Cubans will get to maintain some degree of their dignity as they re-enter the U.S. sphere. Contrary to Senator Rubio’s assertion, I wonder if President Obama’s anthropologist mother gave him a unique sensitivity to the kinds of cultural dynamics required to finally resolve the half century stalemate with Cuba as no prior president could.

Next steps: What can WE do?

U.S. policy toward Cuba has long been the singular purview of one group of Americans: Cuban Americans. In this moment that the broader U.S. citizenry has a reason to think about Cuba again, the best thing we can do is to invoke our networks to contact our congressional representatives and implore them to end the embargo now. When more Americans than the small but powerful Cuban American lobby take a stand on Cuba, we can impact lasting change. Re-entering the U.S. sphere will bring new challenges to Cuba including increasing inequality, eroding a welfare state that has provided free cradle to grave health care and education, and introducing massive corporations like Walmart that will easily overwhelm state-controlled socialism within months of their arrival. Indeed, I have long argued that Cubans should be careful what they wish for when they chant “Abaja el bloqueo – End the Blockade!” Nonetheless, the Cuban revolution’s survival or failure should be decided by the Cuban people without the U.S. blockade as a scapegoat that fuels nationalism.

Everyday Cubans have been waiting for change for a long time. The future is here. Let us put our crystal balls away and further tear down the wall that blockades us from one another.


Carole McGranahan

I am an anthropologist and historian of Tibet, and a professor at the University of Colorado. I conduct research, write, lecture, and teach. At any given time, I am probably working on one of the following projects: Tibet, British empire, and the Pangdatsang family; the CIA as an ethnographic subject; contemporary US empire; the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet; the Chushi Gangdrug resistance army; refugee citizenship in the Tibetan diaspora (Canada, India, Nepal, USA); and, anthropology as theoretical storytelling.