Twelve hours after Vice President Richard Nixon promised the American Legion convention in Miami a "quarantine" of Cuba, Washington last week slapped Havana with the most severe trade embargo imposed on any nation except Red China. Under penalty of a $10,000 fine and ten years' imprisonment, the U.S. barred from Cuba, which traditionally buys 70% of its foreign goods in the U.S., two-thirds of all American imports. Only medicines and nonsubsidized foods, such as canned goods, may still be shipped. Prohibited were machinery and parts, including autos and trucks (worth $27 million in 1959), industrial machinery ($18 million), electrical machinery ($27.3 million), in effect all the cogs and -wheels essential to keep Cuba's U.S.-oriented machinery running.
Though the embargo would undoubtedly evoke more Cuban cries of "economic aggression," the U.S. explained that it was acting in self-defense "against the discriminatory, aggressive and injurious economic policies of the Castro regime" and cited a painful history of examples: outrageous taxes and surcharges on U.S. goods, seizure of U.S.-owned property, nonpayment of overdue bills for previous imports. To those who argued that the move would drive Cuba even deeper into the Soviet camp, Commerce Secretary Frederick H. Mueller had a crisp reply: "Too bad. After all, we've been the ones who've been pushed around lately."
Private Support. As Washington admitted, the embargo would only "harass" Castro, it would not topple him. Tipped off by repeated leaks, the Cubans had anticipated the move, had rushed in shiploads of spark plugs, carburetors, fuel pumps and other auto parts, quantities of tin plate, newsprint and chemicals, oil refining and agricultural machinery. While Washington planned to police U.S. shippers to see that they did not transship to Cuba via neutral nations, it had no plans to pressure neutral governments to prohibit such transshipments. Major Latin American governments privately accepted the U.S. move, but, as the U.S. knew, the hemisphere chiefs of state would be wary to do so publicly, fearing Castro's popularity among their own people.
Western European nations were fully prepared to fill the Cuban trade gapand reap the rewards. As overall U.S. trade with Cuba fell 20% to $435 million in 1959, British exports to that country rose 68% to $42 million, with most of the increase in machinery. And Canada's Prime Minister John Diefenbaker made his nation's position crystal clear: business as usual (see below).
Cash Before Carry. What will hurt Cubans more than the embargo is their lack of ready cash. Britain, Canada and other prospective suppliers would expect prompt payment. Last week Economic Czar Ernesto ("Che") Guevara admitted that there was little cash left.