Cuban women on a medical brigade in Kenya
Pin It

First published on

Right to live without a blockade: the impact of US sanctions on the Cuban population and women’s lives,’ Oxfam, May 2021

The US blockade against Cuba, according to the most recent annual report submitted to the United Nations General Assembly, cost Cuba the equivalent of $5,570.3m between April 2019 and March 2020, up $1.2bn from the previous year. The Cuban government estimates that over six decades, the US blockade has cost its economy a total of $144,413.4bn. On 23 June, as it has done every year since 1992, 184 members of the UN General Assembly voted for a resolution calling for an end to the blockade; only the US and Israel voted against. During the Trump presidency, the US imposed 243 new sanctions, actions and measures on Cuba, 55 of these during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Oxfam’s timely 92-page report explores the effects of the blockade, specifically in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic and the intensification of sanctions imposed under Trump, and particularly its impact on women. It comes as Cuba is facing its worst economic crisis since the Special Period, and the US is capitalising on this to foment unrest. Oxfam has worked in Cuba since 1993 with ‘stakeholders, communities, cooperatives, partner organisations, and allies’.

Impact on women

78% of Cuban women were born under the blockade. The report states that ‘the rights of Cuba’s most vulnerable – women, children, older adults, diverse populations, and people with disabilities – have suffered the brunt of the harm over the last 60 years.’ Oxfam asserts that the blockade ‘reinforces the patriarchal system … affecting women in their private lives, as they carry the heaviest burden of reproductive labour and efforts to sustain daily life’.

Cuban women play a leading role in crucial sectors, accounting for 71% of medical professionals, 60% of education workers (including the heads of 14 out of 22 of Cuba’s universities), 84% of laboratory personnel and 53% of those working in the Science and Technological Innovation System. During the pandemic women have been at the forefront of Cuba’s Covid response. They make up 2,738 of the 4,941 healthcare professionals who took part in 56 medical brigades in the first year of the pandemic, and the majority of healthcare workers deployed on Cuba’s medical missions more widely.

The Cuban revolution has made huge strides for women’s liberation, but the report shows how the blockade deepens historic inequalities. Despite the 1975 Family Code which enshrined into law men’s responsibility for a fair share of domestic labour, Cuban women still carry out the vast majority of household tasks, made more difficult by the lack of resources due to the blockade. According to Oxfam, during the pandemic Cuban women carried the burden of home schooling, and sterilising and disinfecting surfaces and masks. The Cuban state remains committed to the liberation of women: the Federation for Cuban Women has created a National Program for the Advancement of Women, which has been approved by the Council of Ministers, and is understood to be the Cuban state’s official ‘agenda to foster gender equality in Cuba’.

Ending the blockade ‘a moral duty for humanity’

The Oxfam report focuses on the blockade in the context of Cuba’s response to the pandemic, acknowledging how detrimental this is for the world’s most oppressed people: ‘Oxfam is calling for a people’s vaccine that is free and accessible as soon as possible to everyone, everywhere. Cuba has developed five vaccine candidates, which are in late-stage trials as of this writing. These vaccines, in addition to protecting its own population, could soon help many other countries, save lives, and help stem the pandemic’s spread. Yet the island’s access to equipment and materials to speed up mass vaccination is obstructed by the US embargo’.

The blockade also severely effects Cuba’s food production capability: ‘the sector had access to only 71% of the diesel fuel approved for the year; only 7.4% of the area needing irrigation received it; and a lack of fertilizer affected between 15% and 45% of cultivated land’. Allowing Cuba to improve food production would boost ‘family income, the national economy, food security… and sustainable environmental management’.

The report shows how the blockade thwarts the attempts of the Cuban state to provide for the most vulnerable, for example limiting access to gluten-free products for those with coeliac disease, or treatments for HIV that Cuba provides for free to those living with the disease. The blockade even prevents the import of reader software programmes, canes and braille typewriters for the visually impaired. During the pandemic, the blockade lost Cuba a donation of diagnostic kits, ventilators and masks valued at $1.7m.

End the US blockade, defend socialist Cuba

There is valuable material in this report, in which even a bourgeois NGO recognises that the blockade ‘runs contrary to the most urgent need today: saving human lives’. However, it is inevitably limited by its focus on the private sector as the key to women’s liberation. Oxfam plays down the fact that it is the Cuban socialist state that has improved the lives of the working class, and advanced women’s equal participation in society. As the report itself notes, the Cuban state sector has the most gender balanced workforce (45.7% women) compared to the private sector (33.9% women), non-state sector (18% women) and non-agricultural co-operatives (16.5% women). In this period of deepening capitalist crisis, after more than a year of the imperialist states allowing the ‘bodies to pile high in their thousands’, Cuba remains a shining example of what is possible through socialist revolution.

Cassandra Howarth