• Graham Diack

COVID-19 Spotlights the Need to Re-Evaluate American Relations with Cuba

A recent spike in COVID-19 cases amongst Cubans has further highlighted the human cost incurred by America’s strained relationship with its island neighbor. Virus-related staff scarcity paired with embargo-related shortages of critical supplies, such as COVID-19 tests, personal protection equipment, and beds in Intensive Care Units (ICUs), has caused real desperation amongst the country’s 11 million people. This pain, combined with Cuba’s recently announced sweeping economic reforms, has strengthened calls for America to re-evaluate its long-standing sanctions on the country.

The United States’ tone toward Cuba’s COVID-19 response efforts was made clear early when its embargo blocked Alibaba CEO Jack Ma’s donation of ventilators, test kits, and 100,000 facemasks to the country. The sanctions, originally laid out prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis, prevent any American company from executing or financing business dealings involving Cuba.


Although exceptions exist for food and medical aid, organisations have been increasingly hesitant to operate in Cuba due to the 2017 instatement of Title III of the Helms-Burton Act. This internationally-criticised law allows Americans to sue any person, regardless of nationality, who have “trafficked” assets previously confiscated by the Cuban regime. This most likely affected Columbia’s Avianca Airlines’ decision not to handle the aforementioned supply drop.

Even before the Act’s instatement, non-government organisations (NGOs) found the aid loopholes to be largely symbolic. Strict financial controls, inabilities to import non-medical supplies, and cumbersome operating permits have made the process of delivering aid to Cuba inefficient. Despite the United Nations’ claim that failing to suspend sanctions will cause a “higher risk of suffering” in Cuba, there has been no American effort to allow for more free-flowing aid.

President Trump cemented the tone set in April 2020 by re-designating the country as a “state sponsor of terrorism” in his final days of office. The designation adds insult to injury by shutting down travel between the two countries and preventing American-based Cubans from sending their families remittances, upon which 60 percent of Cubans rely and which totals US$ 3.6 billion (GBP£2.6 billion) annually.

This adds further strain to an economy that has lost an estimated US$130 billion (GBP£93.9 billion) over the embargo’s lifetime and inhibits the country’s public health system from sourcing supplies to fight a recent surge in cases. Doctors are operating in 77 percent-full hospitals, reusing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), and lack enough soap to work. The unsanitary conditions have caused many of the country’s medical professionals to contract the virus, taking them out of the field and compounding the need for international help.


The Trump administration’s redesignation and four years of steadily increasing sanctions have been a direct rebuke of President Obama’s 2015 attempt to normalise relations with the country. During the Obama-era “Cuban Thaw”, many travel restrictions were suspended, Cuba made steps towards liberalising their economy, and the US Embassy in Havana was reopened. Memories of the improving economic conditions during the “Thaw”, combined with the hope of a new administration, have seemingly kickstarted substantive action in the Cuban government. Within Biden’s first 100 days, Cuba has privatised 2,000 professions, 90 percent of its economy, in a departure from the country’s Communist roots. The country will also permit forms of foreign investment and repeal its two-currency system, allowing for more financial transparency in its accounting practices. According to Cuban President Diaz-Canel, these reforms are “putting the country in a better position to carry out the transformations demanded by the updating of our economic and social model”.

These steps towards America’s goal of bringing “a peaceful transition to a representative democracy and market economy in Cuba” may not be enough to overcome the domestic and international implications of returning to Obama-era policies. Cuba’s close relationship with Venezuela may impede American actions against the failed state, and political pressure from Cuban Americans may hurt the Administration’s 2022 aspirations. However, a shift in focus from politics to ethics may push America to agree with 77 percent of Latin America and re-establish relations with its neighbor.