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Police stand guard near the National Capitol building in Havana, Cuba, July 12, 2021 (AP) Police stand guard near the National Capitol building in Havana, Cuba, July 12, 2021 (AP)

Police stand guard near the National Capitol building in Havana, Cuba, July 12, 2021 (AP)

Gabrielle Settles
By Gabrielle Settles July 19, 2021

Cuba can trade with other countries. But here’s some context

If Your Time is short

  • Experts and evidence shows that Cuba can and has traded with other countries. 

  • While the nuances in the U.S. embargo can make it difficult for foreign companies to trade with Cuba, there is no evidence that they can’t.

Amid news surrounding protests in Cuba, a widely shared Facebook post asserts U.S. sanctions on Cuba restrict the country from trading with other countries, too.

"People are either unaware or being purposely obtuse about the U.S. blockade on Cuba," reads the post, a screenshot of a tweet. "Do you realize it doesn’t just mean they can’t trade with the U.S.? Cuba can’t trade with ANY country or ANY company whatsoever, threatening other people who may want to help."

The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)

Experts who spoke to PolitiFact said the claim is wrong, misinterpreting some of the nuances of the U.S. embargo on Cuba. Cuba does trade with multiple countries, but the embargo can make it difficult for any foreign companies to do business in the country.

Protests flared in Cuba on July 11, when thousands of citizens went to the streets to call for action over shortages of food and medicine, protesting for freedom against the Cuban government. The Associated Press reported that the protests were the largest since Fidel Castro’s presidency. The number of people detained by the government is not clear, but   Cubalex, an attorney group tracking arrests, estimated that as of July 19, 108 people were in detention, 78 people had been freed and 284 people’s whereabouts were in the process of being verified. President Miguel Díaz-Canel blamed the U.S. government’s sanctions for the country’s economic troubles.

Jose Gabilondo, associate dean for accreditation and reporting and professor of law at Florida International University, said that while critics of the U.S. embargo tend to use the word "blockade" to describe the program, the official term for the sanctions is "embargo," according to the Office of Foreign Assets Control under the U.S. Department of the Treasury. That’s because the U.S. is not physically obstructing Cuba to prevent people or goods from leaving — which is what "blockade" means.

"There are many people who consider that the U.S.-Cuba sanctions program violates public international law, so they see it as an illegal program," Gabilondo said, "and they see it as illegal because the Cuba sanctions that are imposed by OFAC apply very broadly, not only to U.S. companies but also to foreign companies that are domiciled in other countries. So many people think that the sanctions amount to an illegal blockade."

The history of the U.S. embargo on Cuba

The U.S. initiated its embargo on trade with Cuba nearly 60 years ago, after Fidel Castro’s regime rose to power, and overthrew the country’s U.S.-backed government. Castro’s government increased foreign relations and trade with the Soviet Union, increased taxes on U.S. imports and nationalized American-owned properties. In response, President John F. Kennedy called for a complete economic embargo in 1962, prohibiting all trade of goods and services between the U.S. and Cuba and imposing strict travel restrictions.

Twenty years later, President Ronald Reagan designated Cuba as a state sponsor of terror following its support of Marxist movements during the Cold War. The Obama administration lifted the designation in 2015, along with relaxing some restrictions, including on American travel to the country. The change meant Americans could legally bring home Cuban cigars and rum. It also permitted Cuban pharmaceutical companies to do business in the U.S. 

The Trump administration reimposed sanctions on Cuba and increased financial and banking restrictions on the country. On Jan. 11, 2021, days before Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration, the Trump administration put Cuba back on the list of state sponsors of terror.

Cuba is permitted to trade with many other countries

Augusto Maxwell, an attorney at Akerman LLP and chair of their Cuba practice, said the first part of the claim isn’t accurate. Cuba can trade with other countries of its choosing — if those countries are willing as well. Some of Cuba’s trading partners include China, Spain, the Netherlands, Canada, Mexico and Brazil, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity. Venezuela was one of Cuba’s key trade partners until its ability diminished amid its own economic turmoil. Cuba’s main exports include rolled tobacco, raw sugar, nickel, liquor and zinc. Top imports include poultry meat, wheat, soybean meal, corn and concentrated milk. 

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It’s worth noting that the OEC also lists the U.S. as one of the countries that exports goods to Cuba. Poultry counts for 90% of American shipments to the country, according to the Federation of American Scientists.

"It’s really to favor U.S. farmers and agricultural interests. (Cuba) was a very important market for U.S. farmers," Gabilondo said. "So even though the sanctions generally prohibit trade, there are some exceptions."

Maxwell said, despite these trade relationships, the U.S. embargo does have an impact on what goods Cuba receives from other countries. For example, if any trading good contains 10% of U.S. created content, it must go through U.S. law in order to be exported into Cuba. 

"When you think of complicated things like airplanes or oil drilling platforms or scientific or medical equipment, sometimes those things are caught up in that 10%," Maxwell said. "And so U.S. law does not allow that to be exported to Cuba even though 90% or 89% was produced in France or Canada, or something like that."

Maxwell further pointed out that foreign companies that are owned or patrolled by the U.S. might be reluctant to engage in business with Cuba. The Helms-Burton Act allows U.S. nationals to sue entities that do business involving property that was confiscated by the Cuban government. The rule didn’t go into effect until 2019, when the Trump administration gave it the green light.

"Every president since (1996), Clinton, Bush and Obama, had suspended the rule. President Trump enacted it," Maxwell said. "And so in the last two years there’s been about 35-40 lawsuits filed from different folks for allegedly trafficking in Cuban properties." 

Lillian Guerra, professor in Cuban and Caribbean history at the University of Florida, called the claim "patently false." She said that things began to change for Cuba when the Soviet Union collapsed.

"One by one, as Cuba adopted the reforms of 1991 and the Latin American dictatorships and right wing regimes fell, the ‘unilateral’ nature of the U.S. embargo that kept them in line and froze Cuba out of direct trade with its barrio, collapsed," Guerra told PolitiFact. 

Guerra further stated that multiple countries have a company in Cuba, including China, Brazil, the Netherlands, Spain, France, Italy and Canada.

Our ruling

A Facebook claim stated that the U.S. embargo on Cuba blocks the country from trading with any country or company whatsoever.

Embargo is the official term used by the U.S. government to describe the sanctions on Cuba. An expert pointed out that the term blockade is used by someone who believes the sanctions to be illegal due to its broad reach.

Experts and evidence shows that Cuba can and has traded with other countries. While the nuances in the U.S. embargo can make it difficult for foreign companies to trade with the country, there is no evidence that they can’t.

We rate this claim False.

Our Sources

Associated Press, Cuba confirms 1 man dead during anti government protests, July 13, 2021

Facebook Post, July 12, 2021

Associated Press, EXPLAINER: Causes of the protests in Cuba, July 14, 2021

Interview with Cubalex law group, July 19, 2021

US Department of the Treasury, Cuba Sanctions, accessed July 19, 2021

Council on Foreign Relations, U.S.-Cuba Relations, July 13, 2021

The American Presidency Project Proclamation 3447 – Embargo on All Trade with Cuba, accessed Jul 16, 2021

U.S. Department of State, State Sponsors of Terrorism, accessed July 16, 2021

Reuters, Obama eases restrictions on Cuba, lifts limits on rum and cigars, Oct. 14, 2016

PolitiFact, Trump has largely kept promise to reverse Obama’s Cuba policy, July 15, 2020

CNN, Trump administration names Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism, frustrating Biden's efforts to boost relations, Jan. 11, 2021

OEC, Cuba, accessed July 15, 2021

Reuters, Cuban trade with Venezuela plunges over two years, Aug. 15, 2017

U.S. News, If Venezuela Falls, So Does Cuba, Experts Say, July 11, 2021

Federation of American Scientists, U.S. Agricultural Trade with Cuba: Current Limitations and Future Prospects, May 14, 2021

Skadden, Under Helms-Burton Act, Entities With Business Ties to Cuba Now at Risk of Lawsuits, accessed July 15, 2021

Phone interview with Jose Gabilondo, associate dean for accreditation and reporting and professor of law at Florida International University, July 19, 2021

Email interview with Lillian Guerra, professor in Cuban and Caribbean history at the University of Florida, July 16, 2021

Phone interview with Augusto Maxwell, attorney and chair of Cuba Practice at Ackerman LLP,  July 15, 2021

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Cuba can trade with other countries. But here’s some context

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