Skip to content
Cuba, sanctions, embargo, protests

Sanctions are the Fuel to Cuba’s Fire

The US embargo has worsened Cuba’s humanitarian crisis.

Words: Paul Carroll and Bonnie Klassen
Pictures: Alexander Kunze

With protests erupting across the island nation of Cuba in recent days, politicized takes on the situation have dominated the news cycle. Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel has blamed the economic and health crises in Cuba and the resulting protests on the US trade embargo. President Joe Biden has voiced support for the Cuban people’s right to peacefully protest, while his Press Secretary Jen Psaki has downplayed the role of US sanctions in fueling Cuba’s humanitarian crisis, laying the blame instead on Cuba’s “economic mismanagement.” The truth is more complicated than either side would have you believe.

With or without the US embargo, Cuba would be facing serious economic and health challenges due to the pandemic, just like the rest of the world. With an economy heavily dependent on tourism, the pandemic has hit Cuba particularly hard, contributing to an 11% downturn in the nation’s economy in 2020. Cuba’s economic crisis has also been fueled by Venezuela’s, which cut its subsidized oil shipments to Cuba by almost two-thirds in the wake of the collapse of its state-run oil company, contributing to Cuba’s power crunch and severing a key source of hard currency. Some also point to Cuba’s economic policies, such as its tight control over certain sectors of the economy as a source of its economic woes, though others debate the merit of these arguments, pointing instead to the impacts of Cuba’s long-standing economic isolation under the US trade embargo.

Whatever one’s views on the role of Cuba’s economic policies in its current crises, the impact of US sanctions has been unmistakably severe.


Regardless of the causes of Cuba’s suffering, the Cuban people have a right to protest, and President Biden was right to condemn the Cuban government’s brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters. As Amnesty International has documented, the Díaz-Canel government has employed internet blackouts, arbitrary arrests, excessive force, and forced disappearance, among other atrocious tactics, against protesters. These repressive policies should be universally condemned.

But try as it may to exert influence, the Biden administration does not have control over the actions of the Cuban government. It does have control over US sanctions however, and despite the administration’s claims to the contrary, sanctions have significantly contributed to the current economic and health crises impacting Cubans.

Whatever one’s views on the role of Cuba’s economic policies in its current crises, the impact of US sanctions has been unmistakably severe.

During the Obama years, Cubans enjoyed the economic benefits of detente with the United States, witnessing a 36% rise in US travel to Cuba and 14% jump in worldwide tourism between January and May 2015 compared to the same period in 2014. The Trump administration negated that progress, imposing a wide range of sanctions targeting tourism, remittances, oil imports, and more. According to one bed and breakfast proprietor in Havana, reservations plunged 40% to 50% in the wake of the Trump administration’s sanctions before the pandemic made matters even worse.

The US trade embargo of Cuba has long impacted Cuba’s revenues from tourism and remittances, created barriers to the import of food and medical supplies, and impeded its access to international banking platforms. The intensification of the blockade under the Trump administration exacerbated these problems, and the Biden administration has yet to reverse a range of Trump-era policies that are plaguing Cubans and nonprofit aid groups working to support them. In many cases, the materials being blocked are not simply “nice-to-haves,” but critical food subsistence and public health goods.

The Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), a Christian faith-based humanitarian, peace and development organization, has experienced first-hand the impact of US sanctions on its humanitarian programs in Cuba. In order to ship 14,000 kgs of canned meat to distribute among about 4,500 people in Cuba, where protein can be hard to come by, MCC spent months trying to get approval from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), whose staff had little experience navigating the complex web of regulations around transactions in Cuba. Although humanitarian shipments function under a general licence without excessive requirements, USDA staff expressed constant uncertainty about approvals for Cuba, leading to months of paralysis in procedures that should take days. These types of delays make it hard to coordinate the distribution of aid and undermine the wellbeing of Cubans who rely on aid programs, many of whom often go months without access to animal protein.

Beyond delays, the Trump administration’s decision to re-designate Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism during its final days in office made it even more difficult for the Cuban government, as well as businesses and nonprofits, to secure services from international financial institutions. This has led to higher costs, longer delays, problems with accessing accounts, and some banks simply refusing to do business with any Cuba-related entities. This in turn has made it harder for the Cuban government and nonprofit aid groups to import essential medical supplies and desperately needed food.


While there is a general humanitarian license for Cuba, in practice the ignorance and reluctance of government agencies involved in approving humanitarian aid to Cuba, the costs and delays associated with obtaining any specific licenses needed for certain transactions, and the reluctance of financial institutions to facilitate perfectly legal transactions in Cuba, all serve to significantly impede the delivery of humanitarian aid.

Shortly after taking office, the Biden administration began a review of US sanctions policy to determine whether sanctions are achieving their stated goals, and to address their unintended consequences, particularly with respect to humanitarian aid. Right now, Cuba is ground zero for those unintended consequences. Ending the trade embargo and rescinding broad-based sanctions against Cuba is the only way to change that, and doing so can be the first in a series of steps the Biden team can take to remove the obstacles created by sanctions in Cuba and elsewhere.

Whatever comes out of the review, sanctions are bound to retain a prominent position in US foreign policy. But as policymakers continue reckoning with a litany of unintended consequences and cascading impacts of sanctions, the administration can relegate some of the worst consequences to the past by abandoning broad-based sanctions, carving out comprehensive exemptions instead of narrow licenses for humanitarian aid, and embracing more transparency and accountability around sanctions.

Paul Carroll is the Director of the Charity & Security Network, a resource and advocacy center working to promote and protect the ability of nonprofit organizations to carry out peacebuilding, humanitarian, and human rights missions and to advance national security frameworks that support rather than impede this work.

Bonnie Klassen is the Mennonite Central Committee Area Director for South America, Mexico and Cuba. She has lived in Bogotá, Colombia since 1997, working with grassroots initiatives in Latin America. She has travelled regularly to Cuba since 2014.

Paul Carroll and Bonnie Klassen

Hey there!

You made it to the bottom of the page! That means you must like what we do. In that case, can we ask for your help? Inkstick is changing the face of foreign policy, but we can’t do it without you. If our content is something that you’ve come to rely on, please make a tax-deductible donation today. Even $5 or $10 a month makes a huge difference. Together, we can tell the stories that need to be told.