The U.S. Cuba Embargo: Making Diplomacy Impossible

By Arturo Lopez-Levy · 5 Dec 2013

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Picture: Escape Style
Picture: Escape Style

Just before Thanksgiving, Cuban-American families who had hoped to spend the holidays with their Cuban relatives got some bad news.

On November 26th, Cuba suspended consular services — including the issuing of passports and visas — at its interest section in Washington. The move came after the Buffalo-based M & T Bank announced this summer that it would stop providing Cuba with banking services in the United States. The Cuban government could not find another bank to take its place.

When President Barack Obama called earlier this year for U.S. relations with Cuba to be “updated,” this is probably not what he had in mind.

The reduction in services — and the resulting obstacles for traveling — flies in the face of recent efforts to improve relations between the two countries. President Obama has loosened travel restrictions for Cuban Americans, permitted remittances, and promoted educational, cultural, and religious exchanges with the island. The closure of Cuba’s consulate goes in precisely the other direction, upending much of this work.

Behind the scenes, the U.S. government is seeking to address the immediate crisis by finding another bank to provide services so the consulate can open again. But because of harsh U.S. sanctions against Cuba, banks are hesitant to do business with the island for fear of running afoul of U.S. law. Instead of seeking a superficial fix, the United States needs to lift its trade embargo on Cuba or at least remove the country from the state terrorism list. The time has come to normalize economic ties, improve political relations, and allow financial transactions to function regularly.

De Facto Embassies

In the absence of diplomatic relations and official embassies, Cuba and the United States have “interest sections” that house the countries’ consulates. Officially part of Switzerland’s embassies (although in practice operating independently from them), these offices grant visas and handle other personal records and procedures. The interest sections began in 1977, during the Carter administration, in an effort to re-establish some of the bilateral connections that had been severed in 1961.

Both governments appreciate the benefits interest sections provide. Cuba’s mission in Washington provides it with critical access to the U.S. political scene and the Cuban-American community abroad. Likewise, the U.S. government values its office in Cuba. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice held that the Havana office allowed Washington to remain informed, provided a venue for positive interaction with Cuban society, and facilitated discussions about issues of mutual interest with the host government. In her book No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington, she went so far as to propose that the United States institute a similar “interest section” model in its relations with Iran.

Moreover, the interest sections provide crucial services to citizens. Cubans in the United States rely on the consular services for travel to the island. Other Americans have been able to engage in new opportunities for cultural and educational exchange.


But the U.S. government’s own policies are frustrating the Obama administration’s stated goals of improving ties with Cuba, closing off even this limited point of contact.

The current problems come on the heels of a gradual opening of relations between the two countries. Both President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have recognized the significant positive changes occurring in Cuba and say they want to encourage them. Speaking before the Organization of American States shortly before the consulate closure, Kerry stressed the U.S. commitment to allowing certain travelers and remittances to Cuba. He said U.S. citizens visiting Cuba benefit the country by acting as “ambassadors of our ideals, values, ​​and beliefs.”

But throughout the U.S. government, a punitive, Cold-War-era approach to Cuba remains firmly ensconced. The Helms-Burton Act, which beginning in 1996 intensified the U.S. embargo toward Cuba, still restricts visits to and from the island. Moreover, Kerry’s own State Department continually refuses to remove Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list, despite providing no reasonable justification for keeping it on.

Instead of using taxpayer money to pursue real terrorists, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) has stepped up sanctions on financial transactions with Cuba. The policy has caused a panic among banks, leaving them unwilling to risk servicing the Cuban interest section’s account and leading to the current suspension of diplomatic services. So while Kerry is asking others in the hemisphere to support his demand for political change in Cuba, U.S. policies are working against the economic, social, and political liberalization that has already taken place.

In Miami, the suspension of Cuba’s consular services has reverberated throughout the Cuban-American community, where émigrés have long complained about the Cuban government’s own limitations on their travel to the island. Instead of opening political space for Cuban Americans to press for changes in Cuba’s policy toward emigrants and their families, the U.S. crackdown on Cuban financial transactions crowds out constructive dialogue between the island and its diaspora. Several voices from the Cuban-American community, including Congressman Joe Garcia (D-FL), have advocated for a revision of the current policy.

Following Words with Actions

During his recent trip to Miami, President Obama spoke about the need for a “more creative” policy toward Cuba. The reforms he has instituted point in the right direction. But they’re not nearly enough. In the prime of his second term, Obama should back up his criticism of the current policy with something far more substantial. It’s time not only for words, but for actual deeds.

The State Department has said that it’s trying to find a bank willing to work within the restrictions dictated by its Cuba policy. That’s better than nothing. But Obama should seize the opportunity to take a much bolder step. The United States has not documented Cuban involvement in any terrorist activity in over 20 years. The State Department should therefore remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism — and it should begin to wind down the U.S. embargo, a dinosaur of a policy that dates back to the Cold War.

Either of these actions will immediately decrease the financial restrictions that act as disincentives for banks to deal with Cuba. Only then can the acute problem be solved and the long-term effort toward better relations with Cuba be advanced.

Lopez-Levy is a PhD Candidate at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies of the University of Denver. You can follow him on Twitter @turylevy.

This article originally published by Foreign Policy in Focus is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution licence.

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6 Dec

US-Cuba Relations

Although I am happy to see such a piece on the SACSIS website, as a resident of South Africa who is saddened by the very minimal news and in depth coverage of Latin America locally, I have to admit it is important yet decidedly conservative.

Rather than a moderate stance that somehow assumes a balanced and non-hierarchical relationship between the two states, the author would do himself more justice if he properly contextualized the historical relationship between the US and Cuba, and therefore the current relationship and state of affairs, which I know he is aware of.

I think it is paramount to demand the following:

Immediate end to the US Blockade of Cuba (it is not a mere embargo, but the UN has classified it as a Blockade; please see UN General Assembly resolutions on the demand for an immediate end to the extreme and inhuman blockade).

Immediate end to the ahistorical and manipulative act of listing Cuba on the list of "state sponsors of terrorism" (not because no registers of acts have happened in 20 years, but because Cuba NEVER carried out any acts of aggression or support of aggression towards the United States or any of its population at home or abroad). This listing is hypocritical given US aggression that is ongoing against Cuba.

Immediate release of the remaining "Cuban Five" who still remain in prison in the United States, having been unjustly and grotesquely imprisoned. The world never ceases to demand all of their release! Mandela and former Robben Islanders recently released a statement of demand for the release of the 5, which was sent to President Obama.

Acknowledgement of the historical and ongoing aggression by the US against Cuba, which has caused the current state of affairs: From 1898 to Playa Giron to the Missile Crisis, Helms-Burton Act, the Blockade and the US government silence around Miami-based terror groups whose only mission is to wreak havoc in Cuba and cause "regime change." The aggression is uni-directional and multifaceted. All end to this aggression must be the starting point for any and all normalization of relations, as well as the recognition of a deep historical wrong that is continued today.

An end to media manipulation and the promotion of misinformation about Cuba across the globe.

Recognition by US government of all US citizens' right to travel to Cuba and relaxation of the punitive legal frameworks and intimidation this implies.

These are some minimal starting points for a human engagement with Cuba. The Cuban state has the right to the same dignity and respect for sovereignty afforded to most other nation states by the United States, and to be free from constant aggression.

The author mistakenly calls the current US policy a Cold War hangover. I would have to disagree, this is no Cold War hangover, it is a long-standing policy in order to not allow any examples of people or countries that take a different road than neoliberal capitalism. The Cold War framing is extremely Eurocentric, and does not see the larger context of the US aggression towards Cuba with or without the existence of any "Communist Bloc", US support for the apartheid regime and its support for and carrying out of violence across the global South that would crush any movements that attempt to unsettle the status quo of racism, colonialism, apartheid and capitalist terror. These policies were not and are not Cold War policies. Rather, they are examples of the kinds of institutional logics and rationalities at play in a state that imagines itself as the nadir of what human society should look like, as somehow above the rest of the world and ready to impose its will by any means necessary. These are imperialist policies, not Cold War policies.

US drone warfare is related to its aggression towards Cuba. US prison system is directly related to the continued existence of Guantanamo, of US occupation of Afghanistan, institutional racism and so on...

Let's not forget on this day that we honour Mandela, the flesh and blood experience of Mandela and the many unnamed and unhonoured who fought with him. Mandela was classified until recently on the US list of terrorist supporters. Mandela was denied entry to Miami, because he had visited Cuba to thank Cuba for its support of the anti-apartheid struggle. The US was a supporter of apartheid and of apartheid's devastating war in the southern Africa region, from Namibia, Mozambique, to Angola, Zimbabwe and beyond.

Mandela visited Cuba as his first trip out of Africa after his release from prison. This was a symbolic gesture as well as a real, material one. Cuba was the one country that had without fail supported the anti-apartheid movement. Sadly, the US cannot say the same. And yet we accept the violent irony of the US blockade against Cuba and the many quiet aggressions that US carries out with impunity, always asking for small measured acts rather than serious measures of immediate end to aggression that can begin to allow space to grapple with the US's long-standing historical wrongs against peoples across the globe. Obama has inherited the logics, rationalities and policy imperatives of the anti-black, blood-stained oval office, and would need to carry out drastic reversals in order to begin to address the many wrongs that he is deeply embedded in.

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