The US launched its embargo against Cuba in retaliation to Fidel Castro’s declared allegiance to the Soviet Union. The embargo, though undergoing various transformations after its inception, remained official US policy until December 2014 when the Obama administration announced policy changes and planned to resume diplomatic ties in response to the release of Alan Gross.
A principal tenet of the embargo was to asphyxiate the Cuban economy until the Castro regime, economically destitute, would collapse in the face of US pressure. The embargo’s ultimate purpose, as articulated in Proclamation 3447–signed into law by President John F. Kennedy February 3, 1962–was a measure of “self-defense” to “reduce the threat” posed by the propinquity of communism in Cuba. The Cuban government, however, did not crumble as US policymakers had envisioned.
The embargo, during its long tenure, vacillated in its stringency. In 1978, the US consented to allow entry for Cuban emigrants fleeing the increasingly burdened Cuban economy. But, in 1982, 1985 and 1992 the US government withdrew its former concessions and re-imposed tighter economic sanctions. Then, in 1996, Congress passed the Helms-Burton Act, also known as the “Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act,” which recognized that the embargo would be lifted if Fidel and Raúl Castro stepped down from power, among other stipulations. In 2004, the Bush administration again tightened restrictions on Cuba.
The decades of economic sanctions and restrictions profoundly impacted both the Cuban economy and Cuba’s people. Cuba’s economy, under direct control of its government, experienced problems with a stagnant GDP rate that US sanctions only exacerbated. Until its collapse in 1989, Cuba received the preponderance of its international aid from the Soviet Union; the sudden disappearance of this reliable supply stream greatly weakened the Cuban economy and, as a result, it experienced [PDF] a “severe external shock.” Food shortages, as a result of the embargo, have caused malnutrition in the general population and precipitated [PDF] epidemics of nutrient-deficient diseases like neuropathy, deafness and spinal disorders. Until 2000, the US ban on exports of food or medicine led to further infrastructural issues, such as shortages of drugs and medical equipment, and caused more adverse health outcomes throughout the country, despite otherwise competent practitioners.
By impeding the flow of bilateral trade between the two countries, the US government also harmed [PDF] the domestic economy, albeit on a smaller scale. One study estimates that the loss from US sanctions during the period of 1993 to 1996 constituted somewhere between $15 to $19 billion. Cuba, by comparison, calculated losses in excess of $1.126 trillion over the duration of the embargo.