Trading Power: The Cuban Embargo’s Impact on Linemen

The Cuban embargo, which has been in effect since 1958, is one of the most enduring trade embargos in modern history. It is also extremely detrimental to the health and safety of the Cuban people.

Like many government policies, it began with a limited move — a ban on weapons sales during Fidel Castro’s revolt against the Batista regime. But over time, as Castro outlawed private enterprise and events like the Cuban Missile Crisis defined relations, it was expanded into a hard commercial, economic, and financial blockade that has withered Cuba’s economy and disadvantaged generations of people.

Much has been written about the embargo by foreign policy professionals and economists — but we come at it from a different perspective. We are linemen, and members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local Unions 77 and 1245. When your power is out, our brothers and sisters are the people who climb the poles and repair the infrastructure that powers hospitals, schools, water treatment plants and more. Our primary goal since we were founded in 1891 has been the safety of North American linemen and electrical workers.

As such, we have great respect and concern for the linemen and other electrical workers in Cuba. They perform highly-skilled work on electrical wires at heights that don’t forgive mistakes. It is dangerous and difficult, and it brings electricity to the population — power that is crucial to a nation’s economy, growth and health.

In other words, the linemen of Cuba do the same work we do in the United States — but with a fraction of the training and with equipment that is out of date. The 1950s cars lining the streets of Havana may be picturesque, but the outdated tools and equipment the linemen use there is not.

For these workers, the embargo has meant they have no access to American advances in electric distribution and transmission technology — some of which are the best in the world. Notwithstanding the extraordinary accomplishments they have made absent readily available technology, our brothers and sisters in Cuba are less safe than they could and should be due to limited access to our technology, equipment, and tools.

And the embargo has a secondary negative impact: it is driving Cuba, our neighbor, into the arms of our competitors, Russia and China. Cuba is a mere 90 miles from the United States, and has plentiful solar resources. But the solar parks there were installed by the Chinese and Russians. Chinese equipment and tools dominate the industry. The embargo is giving these powers a foothold.

We should be working to expand and solidify American influence near our borders — to facilitate peaceful relationships and cooperate on international issues. Instead we are turning our backs on 11 million men and women for whom life is already difficult. The embargo is standing in the way of prosperity and making their lives more dangerous — and it comes at a direct economic cost to the United States and directly benefits our rivals.

Linemen and electrical workers have dangerous and important jobs. Our concern for their safety has no borders. From our personal and professional standpoint, the embargo is increasing the danger for our brothers and sisters in the electrical industry.

We feel a kinship with our fellow workers in Cuba and with their union, and we regret that they are being victimized by a decades-old set of policies that has nothing to do with who they are or what they believe.

Former Secretary of State George Shultz has said that the embargo has made the Cuban people more impoverished without making a single one of them more free. From our perspective, it has created unnecessary hardship for our fellow linemen while improving the position of our geopolitical rivals. We urge a pragmatic, humanitarian reconsideration of the Cuban embargo. Lower the embargo to help the electrical workers of Cuba lift their communities.

Brady Hansen and Bob Gerstle

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Brady Hansen and Bob Gerstle are linemen and members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local Unions 77 and 1245, respectively.