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Mark Entwistle is a former ambassador of Canada to Cuba.

While the public’s attention has been focused elsewhere, the Trump administration has been pressing ahead in its attempt to crush a fellow sovereign state in the Americas: Cuba.

I am no apologist for the government of Cuba, and I believe the Cuban state, like all others, is accountable to all of its citizens. When I was Canada’s ambassador to Cuba, we had robust conversations with the Cubans on human rights and political reform in order to better understand each other. We certainly disagreed on some matters.

Cuba may not be top of mind in the face of so many pressing global issues, but the way in which the United States and Cuba deal with each other is a litmus test for larger issues: peace and stability in our hemisphere, how countries manage conflict, and the limits of the extraterritorial reach of domestic law (known in “diplomatic-speak” as bullying).

The Trump administration has torqued the U.S. trade and investment embargo against Cuba to unparalleled levels with a series of recent measures. The aim of some measures is to stir uncertainty among foreign companies, including Canadian ones, doing wholly legal business in Cuba. The efforts will effectively work to cripple investment and commerce in Cuba, and throttle the Cuban economy.

An element of U.S. embargo law was activated for the first time in April, 2019, which effectively handed over to certain Cuban Americans the ability to use the U.S. justice system to conduct lawsuits. As an unexpected consequence, several main targets of this exercise have been American companies doing legal business in Cuba. Having purposefully stirred a hornets’ nest, the Trump administration facilitated a legal assault on America’s own corporate citizens.

Other measures injure the well-being of everyday Cubans directly. For example, remittance transfers from the U.S. and elsewhere to recipients in Cuba have been choked by the Trump administration. Approximately 56 per cent of all Cubans depend on this money from family overseas.

The Trump administration’s approach to Cuba is characterized by a seemingly willful misunderstanding of how Cuban society is structured, in which the state provides many services to the population. There is an absence of concern from the White House about the effect of these heightened sanctions on individual Cubans.

The remittances are life-changing money transfers. Most of them pass through a Cuban financial entity belonging to a military holding company, before ending up in the pocket of the plumber or office worker who is waiting anxiously for the funds. If the remittance is blocked for political purposes, that money will simply never get to the pocket for which it was intended by a loving family member or friend.

The Trump administration has rationalized that its current intensification of an economic offensive against Cuba is necessary because of Cuba’s relationship with Venezuela. However, that narrative posits that Cuba can somehow control the behaviour of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, the entire Venezuelan military and Venezuela’s national institutions, as though Cuba is a marionettist pulling the strings of a puppet. The idea strains credulity; Venezuela’s leaders are hardly thinking of Cuba when making their own policy decisions.

Each new sanction from the U.S. affects real people inside Cuba, especially during a global disease pandemic. This is not an abstraction, though it may seem that way for American policy makers safely ensconced far away in Florida or Washington.

Every time the White House celebrates economic damage to a foreign or Cuban company, it means individual Cubans lose their jobs and the essential livelihoods of entire families are effected. When remittances do not arrive, people in Cuba do not have the option of a backup plan. They are collateral damage in an American campaign to pressure their government regarding Venezuela, with no discernible endgame in sight.

By contrast, by the end of May, Cuba had sent 2,000 doctors and nurses to 23 countries battling COVID-19. Despite condescending criticisms from Washington, citizens and local dignitaries in the town of Crema in Italy applauded and cheered for a Cuban medical unit that had assisted with their pandemic response.

Cuba is far from perfect – but what country is? Cubans face many serious daily challenges, to be sure. But domestic politics inside Cuba itself will adjudicate the choices Cubans get to make for their futures. Setting aside the questionable goal of regime change in Cuba being pursued by the Trump administration, the additional hardship caused to the Cuban people along the way seems a high and unfair price to pay.

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