Is the US embargo on Cuba a form of genocide?

What is genocide?

To answer this question, we must define what is meant by genocide. According to Oxford English Dictionary, genocide is "the mass extermination of human beings, esp. of a particular race or nation."

The Law

Under international law the legal definition is given in Article 2 of the UN Genocide Convention and covers a much wider range of crimes. Article 2 states:

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Item (c) would seem to be the most relevant in the case of the US embargo on Cuba. It tells us that, to prove the perpetrators of these sanctions are guilty of genocide, we do not need to prove  that any deaths were directly attributable to these sanctions. We are required only to prove that the perpetrators deliberately inflicted on the Cuban people conditions of life calculated to bring about the group's physical destruction in whole or in part. This is relatively easy to prove.

A Brief History

The US embargo first came into effect during the Kennedy administration in 1962. Thirty years later in 1992, shortly after the collapse of Cuba's main trading partner, the former USSR, the US regime moved in for the kill with intensified trade sanctions under its so-called Cuban Democracy Act, also known as the Torricelli Act. 

Four years later in 1996, with the Cuban people having  weathered the worst of the economic collapse and as defiant as ever, the US embargo was tightened further still with the introduction of the so-called Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, also known as the Helms-Burton Act.

Today, while there have since been limited openings in one-way trade in food and medicine, these two laws form the legislative underpinning of the US embargo, a master plan to wreck the Cuban economy and thereby deprive the population of many of the essentials of life. The all too predictable outcomes have been documented by various international humanitarian and human rights groups. 

From "The US attack on Cuba's health," Canadian Medical Association Journal, August 1, 1997:

In 1992 Cuba was in a severe economic depression, largely resulting from a loss of preferential trade with the Soviet bloc. Cuba turned to US foreign subsidiaries, from whom it received $500-600 million per year in imports -- 90% of which was food and medicine. The American Public Health Association warned the US government that tightening the embargo would lead to the abrupt cessation of this supply of essential goods and result in widespread famine. Indeed, 5 months after passage of the CDA [Cuba Democracy Act] , food shortages in Cuba set the scene for the worst epidemic of neurologic disease this century. More than 50,000 people suffered from optic neuropathy, deafness, loss of sensation and pain in the extremities, and a spinal cord disorder that impaired walking and bladder control.

That the US embargo has harmed the Cuban people has also been documented by the American Association for World Health. It performed a year-long review of the implications of embargo restrictions which included on-site visits to 46 treatment centers and related facilities, 160 interviews with medical professionals and other specialists, government officials, representatives of non-governmental organizations, churches and international aid agencies. Their 300 page report, "Denial of Food and Medicine: THE IMPACT OF THE U.S. EMBARGO ON HEALTH AND NUTRITION IN CUBA," dated March 1997, concluded:

After a year-long investigation, the American Association for World Health has determined that the U.S. embargo of Cuba has dramatically harmed the health and nutrition of large numbers of ordinary Cuban citizens. As documented by the attached report, it is our expert medical opinion that the U.S. embargo has caused a significant rise in suffering -- and even deaths -- in Cuba. For several decades the U.S. embargo has imposed significant financial burdens on the Cuban health care system.

Clearly then these sanctions were meant to kill. It was only thanks to the renowned fighting spirit of the Cuban people, and countless acts of international solidarity, that the death count was kept to a minimum. Despite these cruel sanctions, Cuba's health care system actually continued to improve and is widely regarded as the best in Latin America. This in no way, however, diminishes the criminal responsibility of the US regime.

In 2003, even Amnesty International, after years of dithering, was finally forced to concede in a report actually critical of Cuba that, yes, the US embargo is:

(a) "highly detrimental to Cubans' enjoyment of a range of economic, social and cultural rights...

(b) "has had a very significant negative impact on the overall performance of the national economy, diverting the optimal allocation of resources from the prioritized areas and affecting the health programmes and services...

(c)  "compromises the quality of life of the population, specifically the children, the elderly and the infirm...

(d) "is used to harm the most vulnerable members of society."

And how did the Bush regime respond to these shocking revelations at the time? Had it immediately lifted the embargo, it might be argued that these outcomes were unintentional. But the regime did just the opposite -- in 2004 they actually moved to intensify these cruel sanctions! Remittances and family visits were severely curtailed in hopes of cutting off an important source of hard currency and material support for Cuban families, along with unprecedented financial restrictions on payments for shipments of food and medicine bound for Cuba. The amount of food exported to Cuba from the US declined each year for several years immediately afterward.

In another report critical of Cuba in 2004 (and reiterated in March 2005), the UN Human Rights Commission, as well, was forced to concede  that, "It is also impossible to ignore the disastrous and lasting economic and social effects of the embargo imposed on the Cuban population over 40 years ago."

In January of 2005 (and 2006), Human Rights Watch reiterated that, "The U.S. economic embargo on Cuba, in effect for more than four decades, continues to impose indiscriminate hardship on the Cuban people."

In September, 2006, Christine Chanet, the Personal Representative of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, in another of her reports critical of Cuba, explicitly criticized the "severe restrictions caused by a disastrous embargo, exacerbated in 2004 by unbearable restrictions on the movement of persons and goods."

She also said that the US embargo, which she "deplores," was "not a path to democracy (sic), and should not continue." (UN HRC discussion)

In November, 2006, the Miami Herald gleefully reported:

The Bush administration's vow to enforce U.S. regulations is stifling Cuba's ability to operate in international markets...

U.S. companies are allowed to export agricultural products to Cuba, provided they receive cash payments before the goods are delivered. But even cash payments must move through banks, so the restrictions are giving U.S. corporations headaches...

''It's the hassle factor,'' said John Kavulich, senior policy advisor with the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, which tracks bilateral economic relations. "They've coupled rhetoric with enforcement, and it's worked!''

In January 2007, Amnesty International confirmed again that:

Amnesty International has called for the US embargo against Cuba to be lifted, as it is highly detrimental to Cubans' enjoyment of a range of economic, social and cultural rights, such as the right to food, health and sanitation -- particularly affecting the weakest and most vulnerable members of the population.


The genocidal intent of the Bush regime had never been more clear. Therefore, under the terms of the of the UN Genocide Convention, the US embargo does indeed appear to be a form of genocide.

Follow-up, March 2009

Amnesty International reiterates its condemnation of the US embargo two months into the mandate of the new Barack Obama administration:

Amnesty International urges the US government to lift the nearly five-decade long economic and trade embargo against Cuba as it is detrimental to the fulfillment of the economic and social rights of the Cuban people. It obstructs and constrains efforts by the Cuban government to purchase essential medicines, medical equipment and supplies, food and agricultural products, construction materials and access to new technologies.

Source: "Cuba and the Fifth Summit of the Americas," Amnesty International, March 2009

Follow-up, September 2009

By September 2009, very little seemed to have actually changed as far as the US embargo was concerned. Eight months into President Obama's mandate, it seemed to this writer that Amnesty International had all but called for the arrests of the perpetrators of these crimes against the Cuban people! Citing the continued blocking and constraining of vital imports of medicines, supplies and technology, Amnesty called called these cruel and inhumane sanctions "immoral" and demanded that it be "lifted without further delay":

The US embargo against Cuba is immoral and should be lifted. Itís preventing millions of Cubans from benefiting from vital medicines and medical equipment essential for their health.

Source: "President Obama should take lead in lifting embargo against Cuba," Amnesty International, September 2009

Amnesty International calls on the US Congress to take, without further delay, the necessary steps towards lifting the economic, financial and trade embargo against Cuba....

The UN General Assembly has repeatedly condemned the US embargo as contrary to the Charter of the United Nations and international law....

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has also reiterated its position regarding ďthe impact of such sanctions on the human rights of the Cuban people and, therefore, insists that the embargo be lifted...."

[E]xports of food and agricultural products to Cuba remain regulated by the Department of Commerce and require a licence for export or re-export. The export of medicines and medical supplies continues to be severely limited....

The restrictions imposed by the embargo help to deprive Cuba of vital access to medicines, new scientific and medical technology, food, chemical water treatment and electricity....

The impact of economic sanctions on health and health services is not limited to difficulties in the supply of medicine. Health and health services depend on functioning water and sanitation infrastructure, on electricity and other functioning equipment such as X-ray facilities or refrigerators to store vaccines. The financial burden and commercial barriers have led to shortages or intermittent availability of drugs, medicines, equipment and spare parts. It has also hindered the renovation of hospitals, clinics and care centres for the elderly.

Source: "The US embargo against Cuba: Its impact on economic and social rights," Amnesty International, September 2009

In addition to blocking essential imports, the US embargo also continued to impose a significant drag on the development of the Cuban economy, especially in the areas of agriculture and food production. According to at least one US agricultural expert, simply lifting the economic and financial restrictions imposed on Cuban farmers by the US embargo would have a dramatic impact on their production levels:

Cuban agriculture has such a big potential that if it were to be totally developed it could surpass the volume of production of the Free Trade Treaty [the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) presumed].

William A. Messina Jr., of the University of Florida's Agriculture Science Institute, said, that the communist island "has such good soil and it represents a challenge of such magnitude that, with the end of the embargo, the agricultural market impact on the continent would be larger that of the Free Trade Treaty.''

Source: "Cuba's agriculture shows promise," Miami Herald, September 29, 2009


Follow-up, September 2010

Amnesty International reiterates its condemnation of the US embargo:

[The US embargo's is] negatively affecting Cubansí access to medicines and medical technologies and endangering the health of millions. United Nations agencies and programs operating in Cuba, such as UNICEF, UNAIDS and UNFPA, have reported that the US embargo has undermined the implementation of programs aimed at improving the living conditions of Cubans.

Source: "Amnesty International criticises President Obama's decision on Cuba," Amnesty International, September 8, 2010


Follow-up, October 2010

On October 26, 2010 the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly again to condemn the US embargo. Only Israel voted with the US against the resolution. Israel trades freely with Cuba, so even this single vote cannot be seen as support for these cruel and inhumane sanctions. On this the US is truly isolated on the world stage. The only abstentions were the tiny US-island colonies in the South Pacific: Palau (pop. 20,000), Micronesia (pop. 110,000) and the Marshall Islands (pop. 60,000).


Previous | Next