Valerie Werner, Ph.D., oversees the Human Rights Advocacy concentration within Adler University’s Master of Public Policy program. She is also Director of the Public Administration program and an expert in civic engagement and policy reform, particularly on issues of women’s rights and welfare.
I recently returned from my third trip to Cuba as part of the U.S. Women and Cuba Collaboration Delegation 2015. With political relations between this tiny nation and the United States somewhat improved, I am becoming cautiously optimistic the U.S. may finally lift its 55-year trade embargo. To that end, I feel it’s important that U.S. citizens understand the damage inflicted by this policy.
For nearly 120 years, the U.S. has exerted control over Cuba through expansionist foreign policies and economic coercion. This history began in 1898, when the U.S. won the Spanish-American War and, through the Treaty of Paris, was granted power in deciding Cuba’s leadership and control over its economy. That arrangement lasted until the 1959 revolution, after which Cuba declared itself a socialist country aligned with the Soviet Union, and the U.S. first imposed its trade embargo.
Most Americans view the embargo as a mild inconvenience: Travel to Cuba is limited and difficult to arrange, and Cuban cigars remain off-limits. However, for Cuban citizens, the effects have been disastrous.
In 2011 Amnesty International released a report detailing significant suffering in that the embargo restricted Cuba’s access to medical equipment and pharmaceuticals.
The American Association for World Health spoke out against the restrictions on food and drugs, saying, “It is our expert medical opinion that the United States embargo has caused a significant rise in suffering—and even deaths in Cuba.”
The embargo is so devastating because it not only bars Cuba from conducting business with U.S. companies, but it also prohibits business with companies acquired by or merged with U.S.-based organizations.
For example: When the U.S. pharmaceutical manufacturing firm Upjohn merged with Sweden’s Pharmacia in 1995, Cuba lost a 25-year partnership for obtaining medical equipment and chemotherapy drugs. With Wisconsin-based Sybron International’s acquisition of Germany’s Nuc, Cuba lost a crucial supplier of diagnostic materials. When Siemens of Sweden and Teletronics Pacing System of Australia moved production and ownership to the U.S., Cuba’s supply of pacemakers came to a sudden halt.
Things became more difficult with the collapse of the Soviet Union, which crushed the Cuban economy in the early 1990s. Still, the island and its people remained resilient, building relations with new foreign investors and opening itself up to a tourism industry. All these years later, Cuba’s sovereignty has remained intact despite the U.S. embargo.
Even as it seeks to improve its global standing, Cuba is cautious to preserve national solidarity by ensuring its assets, resources and economic gains are retained for its people. With 90 percent of the economy being state-owned, and national law mandating that a 51 percent share of any business is co-owned with a foreign investor, Cuba ensures its citizens are served by industry, rather than exploited by it.
I am always amazed by how much the Cuban government does for its people, especially with such limited resources. While I disagree–for many reasons–with state-run economies like Cuba’s, the social successes that guarantee everyone has access to health care, quality education, and housing are extremely impressive.
During our delegation’s visit to the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples (ICAP), an organization that builds international relationships to establish bonds of political and economic cooperation, we met with ICAP representative Juan Carlos Vaillán about Cuba’s future.
In talking about Cuba’s economic struggles and the hope of continued economic growth, Senor Vaillán related the island’s struggle to his own family history. He is of African decent, the grandson of enslaved grandparents, and the son of revolutionaries. He is also a well-educated man with a good job, and his children have opportunities that his grandparents could not have dreamed of.
I believe the words of Ella Baker, the great African-American civil rights and human rights activist: “The struggle is eternal.” But seeing the progress, as is witnessed in the stories of many Cubans and the nation as a whole, there is a hopefulness in Cuba’s struggle that they can rebuild and flourish if we stop denying them the opportunity.
 Amnesty International, “Annual Report 2011: Cuba,” amnesty.org (accessed Dec. 19, 2012)
 American Association for World Health, “Denial of Food and Medicine: The Impact of the UNITED STATES Embargo on the Health and Nutrition in Cuba,” www.cubasolidarity.net, Mar. 1997
 Hidalgo and Martinez, “Is the United States Embargo on Cuba Morally Defensible?,” 109-110