Trading With The Enemy
The Cuba Embargo

By Michael I. Niman
Blue Dog Press, May 17th, 2001


My first trip to Cuba was in 1987; a UB sponsored sojourn to the forbidden island “behind the iron curtain.”  The odyssey began at the Toronto Airport as we boarded a vintage Russian made IL 62.  The plane, forbidden to fly over the US, headed to the Atlantic Ocean and then made a sharp right turn, depositing us in Havana’s Jose Marti airport at about midnight.  I looked out the window at the dimly lit terminal.  I expected to see troops, statues of Lenin, maybe the curtain itself.  What I did see was the biggest Visa, as in Visa CardÔ, symbol that I had ever seen, above the words, “Welcome to Cuba.”  So much for communism.

Guerillas Drink Coke

Once leaving the airport, however, we saw no more Visa billboards.  Actually there were no billboards touting any product other than the official “revolutionary” ideology of the communist party.  Cuba was still a rare advertising and commercialism free zone.  At the time I really didn’t appreciate how rare this ad-free experience would prove to be.  The following year, as a journalist based in Costa Rica, I hitchhiked and finally when the roads turned to trails, hiked deep into the highlands of Guatemala looking to escape American corporate culture.  But alas, a half-day’s walk beyond the last electric wires, in “guerilla” territory, beyond the reach of government, Coca Cola and Pepsi were still slugging it out, with Coke reigning supreme.  Malnourished campesinos would spend a day’s wages for a warm bottle of Coke, el sabor de la vida Norte Americano (a taste of North American Life).  Guerillas drank Coke.

Cuba was different.  Havana is one of the world’s most vibrant cities, yet it didn’t have a single commercial billboard.  People would travel to Cuba for the sole purpose of experiencing a landscape free of commercial clutter, a culture free of consumerism. 

Rebellious youths would scrawl the names of US and British rock bands onto walls and into fresh concrete as symbols of resistance to state controlled media and culture.  AC/DC and The Beatles reigned in a sort of camp stab at that ever elusive concept of hippness.  Next to them were peace and anarchist symbols and English words such as “punk” and “metal,” dangling devoid of context.  That was 14 years ago 

La Vida Nike

Today all this graffito of resistance seems to have morphed into one symbol, the omnipresent Nike swoosh.  It’s not just on walls and in the cement, but it’s embroidered by hand onto shirts and hats, stenciled onto car windows and on the backs of Chinese-made pedal-cab bicycle taxis.  La Vida Nike has taken Cuba by storm.  American culture, which in essence is corporate consumer culture, has taken a beachhead in Cuba and seemingly is there to stay.

But let’s back up.  Cuba became commercial free when their government nationalized most foreign businesses in the early 1960s, establishing a so-called communist economy and earning the ire of eight successive US presidents.  The Havana Hilton was re-christened The Habana Libre. United Fruit and Meyer Lansky’s crime syndicate were both driven from the island.  The US State Department, ever quick to protest the foreign investments of United Fruit and private businesses people such as Lansky’s mob, isolated Cuba with a comprehensive economic embargo that exists in tact to this day.

Put simply, Americans cannot travel to Cuba, trade with Cuba or invest in Cuba.  What was supposed to financially starve the Cubans into submission instead pushed them into the fold of the other economic force on the planet, the Soviet Bloc. 


Being shunned by the global capitalist powers for a generation, however, really didn’t hurt Cuba.  It instead allowed them the space to develop into something unique in this hemisphere.  Without easy access to western banks and development loans, for example, Cuba evaded the debt crisis that has been crippling the economic development of almost every other third world country in the hemisphere.  Likewise, without the abundance of a consumerist society bestowed upon one small segment of the population, Cuba escaped the criminal culture that follows alongside inequitable distribution of wealth.

The proverbial shit hit the fan, however, in 1989 with the breakup of the Soviet Union and the destruction of the Eastern European economic bloc, Cuba’s primary trading partner.  Suddenly Cuba was without oil, spare parts for cars, trucks and busses, and also without a market for it’s major exports such as sugar.  Thus began the “special period.”  Resourceful Cubans wielded old Eastern European busses together into massive trailers, each holding 300 passengers and being pulled by South American Ford truck tractors 

Today Cuba has adapted to the special period not only with mechanical ingenuity, but with economic compromise as well.  Cuba, once again, is open for business and courting capitalist investment.  Only they’re courting investment on their terms.  The government remains a 51% partner in most major enterprises on the island.  Investors are happy with these terms since they are basically investing in an island-wide monopoly.  Without the competition of a free marketplace Cuba offers firms such as Spain’s Sol Melia hotel chain, a company that controls one third of Cuba’s upscale hotel rooms, a safe predictable business climate.  Currently the European Union and Canada have replaced the Soviet’s as Cuba’s primary trading partners.  All that’s left of the Russians, Cubans are quick to point out, are rusting Lada cars and a host of hideously ugly hotels and apartment complexes, remnants of Soviet era development and aid projects. 

And with the capitalists back in town come the billboards as Cuba is once again adorned with multinational corporate “art” touting a consumerist message.

Let Them Smoke Marlboros

With a 5.6% economic growth rate, Cuba’s economy is booming, to the benefit of the Cuba’s leaders who are forever pleased to thumb their noses at their American tormentors, and also to the profit of international investors who are reaping big returns from Cuba’s mixed economy.  Left out of this party are Cuba’s closest neighbors, American businesses still forbidden to trade “with the enemy.”

While the front door is closed, however, the back door is wide open.  US law prohibits small business from trading with Cuba, yet brand name American products are now omnipresent in Cuba.  Tourists are chauffeured in Ford vans.  Restaurants now serve Coke and Budweiser.  Stores sell Marlboro, Winston and Lucky Strikes.  Marlboros cost $2.50, while a pack of Luckys go for $1.50, a difference that reflects the superior recognition of the Marlboro brand name, not a difference in wholesale cost.  

The presence of American products is the result of the global economy and the multinational positioning of so-called “American” corporations.  Cuba’s Coke, for example, comes from the Coca Cola Company of Mexico.  U.S. cigarettes are imported through third countries.


The US State Department, while rhetorically committed to their arcane embargo, also recognizes the potential of the Cuban market.  Under pressure from US based corporations, they have been punching big-business friendly loopholes through their own regulations.  Starting in 1995, for example, the Clinton administration allowed US corporations to spend money in Cuba registering trademarks, with an eye toward securing a foothold in the Cuban market.  To date companies such as Hard Rock Café, Nutrasweet, Heinz, Gillette, Sbarro, Clairol, Radisson, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Warner-Lambert, Calvin Klein, Playboy, Alamo-Rent-A-Car, Conagra, Zippo, MCI, Sara Lee, Monsanto, Pizza Hut, UPS and the Wrigley’s gum people have all stepped up to the plate, registering their Cuban trademarks.  US law currently allows business executives “who wish to identify commercial opportunities” in Cuba to visit the island.  In the year 2000, over 3,400 American corporate executives traveled to Cuba “on business.” While State Department loopholes allow large corporations and investors to position themselves in the Cuban market, however, small-scale American entrepreneurs are still barred from business dealing with Cuba

Cuban products are also showing up here in Buffalo.  “The Cuba Store,” owned by a Vancouver based Canadian investment company, recently opened shop in Buffalo, selling shlocky mass-produced Cuban Art at their Elmwood Avenue location.  Art falls under the cultural exchange provision of the current State Department trade regulations, hence, oil paintings of 1955 Chevrolets are legal.  Sugar and cigars, however, are verboten. The Cuba Store’s parent company, tied in with Canada’s AVC Venture Capitol Corporation, specializes in helping American investors cash in on Cuba’s booming hotel industry by directing legal “secondary investments” in Cuba via “third country companies” such as Sol Melia.  .

Like the tailfins that still adorn the vintage American cars plying Cuba’s highways, the anti-Cuban embargo is a Kennedy-era dinosaur.  There is no “soviet threat” in this or any other hemisphere.  The embargo is the legacy of dead men and defunct ideologies.  In the long run it has served to strengthen the Cuban government and allow Cuba to develop a modicum of economic independence not otherwise found in the third world.  In short, it’s a loser.  It only hurts American business interests, throwing the booming Cuban market, 90 miles from the US coast, wide open for European capitalist domination.  The US is trading with Viet Nam.  We’re trading with China.  Isolating Cuba makes no sense in the 21st Century.

Cuba Travel

Trading with "The Enemy"

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Copyright 2001 Michael I. Niman