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The Embargo of Cuba
A Contemporary Debate Bilaterally Undergirded by Selected Ideas from Western Political Philosophers

by Daniel Krook • April 1999, POLS 105 • Trinity College

The forty year conflict between the United States and revolutionary Cuba has always been characterized by philosophical disagreements. Despite the United States' role as undisputed hegemon of the West, both sides of the argument that these countries defend about economics, human rights, and property can be understood by the observer knowledgeable in Western political philosophy. It is also often the case that these two states both invoke the names and ideas of Marx, Locke, Rousseau, and others for their own diametrically opposed purposes so that one wonders if they are talking past each other in the way that they both use the same philosophers at times to buttress their arguments. Why then, do there still exist seemingly irreconcilable differences between the countries? This paper will show how Cuba and the United States use Western philosophical arguments to undergird their respective viewpoints, but often are selective in the different aspects of individual political philosophers. Thus, they disagree not because they are strict ideologues with conflicting political views and therefore have no common philosophical ground, but instead because they cut and paste ideas from Western political thought for their own ends.

Inventing Three Conflicts
The first rift in opinion that arose in the history of the US-Cuba quarrel was forged during the Cold War. The United States, leader of the liberal democratic cause in the post-World War II era, first implemented an embargo against Cuba because the administration of Fidel Castro had chosen to limit the large ranches of latifundistas, or large landholders, and nationalize certain industries and utilities. The actions were taken by Cuba, with promised remuneration, so as to redistribute land to the large numbers of hungry peasants in the Cuban countryside and to transfer the large holdings of foreign corporation owners back into the hands of Cuban nationals.1

The resistance of the American government to such radical policy, while necessary to alleviate many of Cuba's historical problems, was fueled by fears of losing lucrative economic structures. In addition, no small qualms about the nature of the revolutionary government were had because many of the Cuban nationalist goals began to resemble socialist rhetoric, with its foundations in Marxist thought. The ideas of Karl Marx revolve around the malleability of man into something better than he is today. He had felt that if the material conditions, man's environment, were to change, the essential nature of man would follow. Thus, he proposed the idea of communism as a better state of existence that would come about with the elimination of capitalist social structures of his, and our, present time. He had also suggested that private property be abolished because this was at the root of exploitative relations between individuals. Cuba wanted to bring about the 'new man' prophesied by Marx and the equitable and cooperative distribution of land.2

What is unexpected, though, is the degree to which Marxist goals have been achieved and advanced in the United States. The following are listed in the Communist Manifesto of Karl Marx as the measures to be followed in a Marxist revolutionary state:

...In the most advanced countries, the following will be pretty generally applicable.
1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes
2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.
3. Abolition of all right of inheritance.
4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.
5. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the State, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.
6. Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State.
7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.
8. Equal liability of all to labour. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.
9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country, by a more equitable distribution of the population over the country.
10. Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children's factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, &c., &c.3

The measures indicated by italics are the measures which have been implemented to a large degree in the United States according to our in class discussions (March 18, 1999). This shows us that, while the United States condemns Cuba for administrating its government along a Marxist-Leninist path, the US itself follows many of Marx' prescriptions. Likewise, the Cuban government is fond of self righteously tossing out epithets labelling the US as 'bourgeois capitalist neo-imperialists' with policy contrary to the humanitarian aims of Marx, yet it overlooks many of the United States' steps towards this ideal.

The second philosophical disagreement that is maintained between the Castro and Clinton regimes is based on the concepts of, and prioritization thereof, human rights. Peter Schwab, in a recent book sympathetic to the Cuban view, states that

An underlying precept of the Western perspective of human rights, which emphasizes individual and political rights, is that these rights are natural, "prior to and supreme over the sovereignty of the state," and as such are held to be universally applicable, which infers unquestioning acceptance by all nations; this leads to the rejection out of hand of divergent human rights assumptions based on non-Western ideological values. As John T. Wright explains, the Western concept of human rights is based on the philosophical writings of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Baron de Montesquieu.4
"No concession," Schwab adds, "is made to the notion of the primacy of the group and the submission of the individual to the group."

While I believe that Schwab exaggerates on occasions, he does a good job of chronicling how and why the US and Cuba differ on the issue of human rights. It is also true that while both Cuba and the US subscribe to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which suggests a foundation in some common ground on Western perceptions of fundamental rights, they continue to mutually berate the other's human rights record.5

Chronologically, the third justification posited by the United States for the continued existence of the embargo is that of property rights. We have discussed how the US and other democracies are Lockian societies who hold that the accumulation of private property is legitimate as long as one leaves as much and as good for all others. Furthermore, these nations have crises with mobilizing their individualist societies for war and therefore work to guarantee the existence of other Lockian societies the world over (March 4, 1999).

Cuba and other socialist states, on the other hand, are committed to the abolition of private property and its transfer into communal holding.

Therefore, it is ironic that the United States and Cuba maintain their present stances on the Helms-Burton Act of 1996. This act passed by the United States is meant to discourage foreign investment in, and trade with, Cuba by third party countries. Ostensibly, the argument is that by trading with Cuba, these other countries are "trafficking in stolen American goods. In reality, the US, it seems, is trying to keep third countries from taking advantage of business opportunities in Cuba in an atmosphere free of competition from American companies.6

What makes this ironic is that the United States, a Lockian democracy, in light John Locke's definition of the source of legitimacy to claiming private property: "As much land as a man [we can substitute "state" here] tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the product of, so much is his [its] property." is trying to claim property lost almost 40 years ago.7 The Cuban claim to this land, while a little more understandable as it was a reclamation of national territory, can also be seen as bizarre, considering its ideological rejection of private property and its Marxist commitment to the borderless proletarian struggle.

Thus we see that while the United States-Cuba conflict seems clear cut along ideological lines, we find that they do indeed agree on the ideas of many Western political philosophers. Looking into this conflict justified by fabricated theoretical differences is important to the study of the ideas of political philosophy, so that we see how states incorporate selected elements from a variety of thinkers and therefore may have levels of common agreement that aren't immediately obvious. From this we might conclude that states act not according to a strict ideological or philosophical plan, but instead follow policy in their own interest and often only justify it through the quotations of political theorists. One look only at Europe's desire to trade with Cuba and the liberalization of United States' trade policies towards China and Vietnam to confirm this observation in the case of the US embargo of Cuba.


1. Louis Perez Jr. Cuba and the United States: Ties of Singular Intimacy, 1997. pp 238-243.
2. See Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto, many publishers; and Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, Socialism and Man in Cuba, New York: Pathfinder Press (1965) 1989, for the theoretical foundations of this project and the measures envisioned for their implementation in Cuba.
3. Marx, in Robert C. Tucker, ed. The Marx-Engels Reader, New York: W.W. Norton 1978. p. 190.
4. Peter Schwab, Cuba: Confronting the U.S. Embargo, New York: St. Martin's, 1999. p. 2.
5. For example, see the speech by Cuban foreign minister Carlos Lage to the 55th Meeting of the UN Human Rights Commission in March of 1999. It can be found in March 28th's edition of "Granma International."
6. Schwab, page 50.
7. John Locke, in C.B. Macpherson ed. Second Treatise of Government, Indianapolis: Hackett (1690) 1980. p. 21.

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Helped organize November 1956 Santiago de Cuba uprising; leader of July 26 Movement in Oriente Province and member of its National Directorate; fighter in Rebel Army; president, Federation of Cuban Woman since 1960 founding; currently member of Communist Party Central Committee and Political Bureau.