The groundless comparison of the U.S. embargo with the anti-apartheid sanctions

Those on the far-right like to compare the U.S. embargo today to the anti-apartheid sanctions of the 1980's. (Never mind that, at the time, they wholeheartedly rejected any sanctions against South Africa!) If economic sanctions effectively brought democracy to South Africa, they argue, why shouldn't similar sanctions be used to bring "democracy" to Cuba? The comparison, of course, is completely groundless.

Under apartheid, the majority of South Africans blacks and people of mixed race were denied the vote in national elections. The national government was comprised exclusively of members of the white minority. Nonwhites were also denied access to adequate health care and educational opportunities. As a result of these and other injustices, there was a widespread, international movement of boycotts and sanctions against the South African apartheid regime. Public pressure was such that even the U.S. congress felt compelled to join this international movement despite President Ronald Reagan's veto. Let us now look at the vast differences between the situation in Cuba today and South Africa under apartheid.

Internal Opposition

There can be no doubt that opposition groups such as Nelson Mandela's Africa Nation Congress (ANC) represented the legitimate aspirations of the black majority. Without mass organizations like these, it is doubtful the apartheid regime could have been overthrown. They took a leading role in, among things, the international movement for anti-apartheid boycotts and sanctions.

On the US embargo on the Cuban people, Nelson Mandela himself clearly sees no connection between it and the anti-apartheid sanctions that he supported against his own country. On the contrary, in a speech at a banquet in honor of Fidel Castro, in September 1998, he said:

As the beneficiary of international solidarity that helped make it a member of the community of free nations, democratic South Africa is proud to be amongst the majority of nations who affirm the right of the Cuban people to determine their own destiny, and that sanctions which seek to punish them for having decided to do so are anathema to the international order to which we aspire.

Indeed, in the same speech, Mandela praised Cuba's role in Africa and that his country's newly won freedom was due, in no small part, to "Cuba's selfless support for the struggle to free all of South Africa's people and the countries of our region from the inhumane and destructive system of apartheid."

On the subject of alleged human rights abuses in Cuba, in an earlier address to a South Africa / Cuba solidarity conference in Johannesburg, 1995, Mandela said:

Many people, many countries, including many powerful countries, have called upon us to condemn the suppression of human rights in Cuba. We have reminded them they have a short memory.

For when we battled against apartheid, against racial oppression, the same countries were supporting the apartheid regime. A regime that represented only 14 percent of the population, while the overwhelming majority of the people of the country had no rights whatsoever. They supported the apartheid regime. And we fought successfully against that regime with the support of Cuba and other progressive countries.

They now want to be our only friends, and dare to ask us to renounce those people who made our victory possible. That is the greatest contempt for the morality and the principles which are the basis of our relations, not only with the various population groups in this country, but with the entire world.

What about the internal opposition in Cuba? According to the April 12, 2000 NBC News Report, CIA: Most Cubans loyal to homeland, the internal opposition movement there is very small and has almost no public support. It reports:

There is no indication, U.S. officials say, of any nascent rebellion about to spill into the streets, no great outpouring of support for human rights activists in prison. In fact, there are fewer than 100 activists on the island and a support group of perhaps 1,000 more, according to U.S. officials.

Also, according to an article, Dissidents Wage Lonely Battle in Castro's Cuba, in the Washington Post, July 16, 2000:

In a dozen interviews, political dissidents, other Cubans estranged from the state system and diplomats said they believe that as many as three-quarters of those who join opposition organizations are government agents or opportunists looking for a quick arrest so they can obtain refugee status from the United States as a "persecuted" person. According to one long-term dissident leader, there may be no more than 500 genuine opposition activists.

On the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the triumph of the Revolution, leading Cuban dissident, Elizardo Sanchez, was interviewed by Patricia Grogg of IPS. She wrote:

In his assessment of the last four decades, Elizardo acknowledged the existence of positive elements that should be preserved, and which have led ''the majority of the Cuban people to support the Revolution''....

Among the positive things, he mentioned literacy, agrarian and urban reforms, universal education and health care, and ''above all, the cultivation of a sense of solidarity among people'' and ''a reinforcement of the feelings of independence and national dignity that still endure".

While his praise is far from unqualified, this public support for the Revolution must be frustrating for dissidents in their up-hill struggle for the hearts and minds of the Cuban people who, it seems, have much to lose. They have only to look around at their Caribbean and Latin American neighbours to see this. 

It is little wonder that the Cuban dissident movement has so little public support when even Wayne Smith, former head of the US Interests Sections in Havana has said:

Since 1985, we [in the USA] have stated publicly that we will encourage and openly finance dissident and human rights groups in Cuba.... The United States isn't financing all those groups--only the ones that are best known internationally.

Those dissidents and human rights groups in Cuba--that are nothing but a few people--are only important to the extent that they serve us in a single cause: that of destabilizing Fidel Castro's regime.

Through those two policies--economic pressure and human rights--we want to force the overthrow of Fidel Castro and then install a transitional government that we like--to reinstate the people we want and, thus control Cuba once again.(1)

Many, if not all, of these dissidents seem to be little more than paid agents of US imperialism--the complete opposite of the case in apartheid-era South Africa.

And what opposition there is in Cuba is calling for the immediate and unconditional lifting of the embargo. (It seems they have some leeway in formulating their platform to suit local conditions.) This was clear from the U.S. press coverage of the recent visit to Cuba of Illinois Governor Ryan. On October 26, 1999, The Chicago Tribune reported:

While Ryan did hear about human-rights violations during the meeting [with prominent Cuban dissidents at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana], it was the pleas for ending the long U.S. embargo against Cuba--what Castro also wants-- that clearly made an impression on the governor.

This is consistent with the New York Times Op Ed by prominent Cuban dissident Elizardo Sanchez (mentioned in the above Tribune article) on April 22, 1997, almost three years prior. He wrote:

Unfortunately, American policy impedes the transformation we [the Cuban dissidents] seek. Efforts to pressure and isolate Cuba simply give the leaders a pretext to continue their repression and allow them to divert attention from their failures.

Although a questionable analysis, this it is clearly a call to remove all sanctions, not just certain portions of Helms-Burton as some embargo boosters would have it. Sanchez continues:

The vast majority of us on the island who oppose the Government believe that a dialogue and a relaxation of tensions between the United States and Cuba would better facilitate a transformation. Unfortunately, the Helms-Burton Act, which among other things mandates sanctions against foreign companies that do business in Cuba, makes it very difficult for the United States to take part in such a dialogue.

He concludes:

The basic responsibility for Cuba's future rests with the Cubans themselves. We must begin reforms that offer hope to all. But less rigidity on the part of the United States would do a lot to help that change begin.

And from that Washington-based, conservative think-tank, The Cato Institute, we have:

Usefully for Castro, the embargo also alienates the Cuban people. Cuba's leading human rights activist Elizardo Sanchez calls it "an odd way to demonstrate support for human rights." Cuba's Catholic bishops call it "cruel." And in the hundreds of interviews I have conducted across the island, I have never met a Cuban citizen who supports it.

Democracy and Human Rights

In South Africa, blacks and people of mixed race had no vote in national elections under apartheid. And opponents of the regime were systematically kidnapped, tortured and murdered by the South African police and military.

This is in marked contrast to Cuba which is a representative democracy where every citizen over the age of 16, with very few exceptions, has the right to nominate and vote for delegates to every level of government. (Fidel Castro was elected as delegate to the National Assembly. The National Assembly, in turn, elected him President of the Council of State the Cuban head of state.) Candidates are nominated not by any political party, but by the people themselves at open public meetings or by their elected representatives who themselves were nominated in this way. To guard against abuses voters have the right in national elections to reject any or all candidates by secret ballot, and call for a new election. It also costs nothing to run for even the highest political office in the land.

On other human rights issues, even according to the latest reports from Amnesty International (AI), the situation in Cuba is nothing at all like that in the apartheid regime in South Africa. You will find no accounts systematic murder and torture in Cuba. In fact, you will find that the situation today in Cuba, even according AI, compares favourably with many US allies in the Americas.

Adequate levels of health care and education are also fundamental human rights. In this regard, Cuba is seen by many people, including U.N. Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, and World Bank President, James Wolfensohn, as a model for the world.


The situation in South Africa under apartheid is no way comparable to that in Cuba today. Futhermore, South African-style sanctions would be completely unjustified. And given today's geopolitical realities and the lack of any effective opposition in Cuba, there is every reason to expect that such sanctions would quickly degenerate into the kind of U.S.-sponsored genocide that we have seen in Iraq over the past decade. To the ultra-right-wing Cuban exile community and their apologists, however, this would seem to be a price worth paying.


1. Hernando Calvo and Katlijn Declercq, The Cuban Exile Movement, Dissidents or Mercenaries p. 156, Ocean Press, 2000

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