US sanctions disinformation: beware the wolf in sheep’s clothing

Michael G. Kozak is the Acting Assistant Secretary for the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. As the most senior US public servant responsible for trade with Cuba you would expect him to know exactly the value of US medicines and medical equipment exported to Cuba. After all, he has to sign specific permits for each product exported. He recently tweeted[1] that the United States had authorized the export of “billions of dollars” of medicine and medical equipment to Cuba since 1992. Washington’s charge d’affaires in Cuba, Mara Tekach, repeated this claim in a video broadcast on social media on 07 April 2020[2].

These US claims are demonstrably false. In an analysis of published US government export figures undertaken by Cuba Support Group Ireland[3], the value of all exports to Cuba between 2002 and 2006, a period of relatively stable trade, was found to be $6.4billion USD. Of this, less than 3% was for non-food products. Applying this representative 3% share to the total value of all authorised US exports to Cuba between 1992 and 2020, the total value of exports for non-food products over that time period amounts to considerably less than $200million USD. 

According to US press reports for the period, most of this €200million was for construction-related products[5] purchased to aid in the recovery from a series of devastating hurricanes which struck Cuba in that period. 

Clearly, $200million does not come close to the “billions of dollars” the State Department claims, even if roof sheeting is counted as medical equipment.

The Cuban view

Calling out the State Department’s attempted deception, Doctor Lázaro Silva, vice president of Cuba’s Medicuba organisation denied the US statements and challenged the Assistant Secretary to back up his statement, saying:

“I invite you to publish the evidence that the U.S. has been selling medicines to MediCuba, as MediCuba is the sole importer of medicines [into Cuba]”  

At time of writing, the US State Department had failed to respond to the Medicuba vice president’s challenge.

Documented history of blockade impacts

The US State Department should have better briefed the acting Assistant Secretary before he made his embarrassing public statement. They will have been aware of a 1997 report[4] produced by the American Association for World Health which confirms an entirely different reality. 

Entitled, “Denial of Food and Medicine – The Impact of the U.S. Embargo on health and nutrition in Cuba” the AAWH report found that: 

“… the embargo contributed particularly to […] lack of access to medicines and medical supplies, and limited the exchange of medical and scientific information due to travel restrictions and currency regulations.”

The AAWH report also found that: 

“.. a humanitarian catastrophe has been averted only because the Cuban government has maintained a high level of budgetary support for a health care system designed to deliver primary and preventive health care to all of its citizens… Even so, the U.S. embargo of food and the de facto embargo on medical supplies has wreaked havoc with the island’s model primary health care system.”

U.S. Exporters and the Embargo Laws

The American Association for World Health specifically investigated the issue of authorised exports of medicines and medical equipment and found that despite the fact that sales of medicines and medical equipment to Cuba may be authorized by the U.S. government, 

“We find that major medical manufacturers in the USA do not in fact export their products to Cuba. Indeed, they report various “chill factors” that keep them from taking advantage of this possibility. Among these are the labyrinth of changing U.S. regulations and their interpretation, licensing requirements and the complex application process, time lags, the uncertainty of final authorization, often based on active discouragement by government offices, and stiffened penalties for embargo violations.” 

The Association also found:

“… considerable confusion among United States manufacturers in the medical supply field about current U.S. legislation, and a unanimous reluctance to engage Cuban import firms in conversation, much less contracts.” 

The AAWH undertook a survey of 12 pharmaceutical and medical equipment manufacturers based in the United States for their study and found that:

“… none sells or had recently sold products directly to Cuba and that none had ever applied for a license to do so. In the vast majority of cases respondents stated that it was their understanding that the U.S. embargo either prevented or discouraged sale to Cuba. In fact, representatives of six of these companies had the mistaken understanding that the U.S. embargo prohibits all medical sales to Cuba.

The 2000 Trade Sanctions Act

Under the Clinton administration, the US Congress passed the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act (TSRA), which started to relax the enforcement of the economic and trade embargo and allowed the sale of agricultural goods and medicine to Cuba for humanitarian reasons. Since 2002, the USA has been an important supplier of food and agricultural products to Cuba. 

However, under the TSRA, exports of food and agricultural products to Cuba remain regulated by the Department of Commerce and require an export licence. Although the TSRA contemplates the export of medicine, every export of medicine required that: 

“… the President of the USA certify, through on-site inspections approved by the President, that all components of a shipment of medical products to Cuba were used for the purpose intended.” 

The USA maintains a small staff in their embassy in Havana and there is no evidence of it having ever assigned them such certification duties, certainly not on the scale that would be required to certify “billions of dollars of medicines and medical equipment”.

Indeed, in a 2008 review of the embargo, the Resident Coordinator of the United Nations reported as much to the UN Secretary-General:

“Goods, services or technologies produced by the United States or covered by United States patents or containing any element produced or patented by the United States are not available to Cuba. This includes medicines, medical equipment and other products under the category of humanitarian assistance, even when such products are purchased through multilateral cooperation.”


What is the world to take from the fact that the US government’s main policy maker on Cuba is so embarrassed at his government’s blockade policy that he attempts an easily disproved, ham-fisted distraction from the genocidal truth? 

Three conclusions are clear: 

  • Incompetence runs deep throughout the entire Trump administration. 
  • Covid19 has revealed the barbaric nature of the US sanctions policy to the whole world. 
  • Sanctions are a threadbare diplomatic disguise for a policy that amounts to illegal warfare against a civilian population.

Under the global spotlight of pandemic, it will take a lot more than sheep’s clothing to hide the naked evil that drives US policy on Cuba.


  3. Cuba Support Group Ireland: US exports to Cuba 1992-2020 
  4. AAWH report: 
  5. Zinc roof sheeting, lumber, tools and wire to the value of $6.3 million approved in 2005