President Kennedy instated the U.S. embargo against Cuba 52 years ago in order to unseat its infamous dictator, Fidel Castro. Since its enforcement, however, it has only served as a tool of repression in the regime. Rather than influencing policy, social, or economic reform in Cuba, the embargo has only further isolated Cuba and prevented the U.S. from generating economic presence and influence in the region. In addition, it has allowed Fidel and his brother, Raul, to blame Cuba’s tepid economy on the U.S. Rather than enforcing an embargo that has questionable relevance and effectiveness in modern times, the U.S. should move towards normalizing relations with Cuba through engagement and an open, amicable dialogue, as well as towards addressing the aspirations of the burgeoning younger Cuban population.
Among the primary reasons for lifting the embargo revolve around its questionable effectiveness and defunct purpose. Not only has the embargo failed to dislodge Castro after 52 years, but it has enabled him to use it as a tool to justify his authoritarian rule and political and human rights abuses. Removing the embargo may actually spur change in Cuba in a variety of ways. First of all, opening the floodgates of trade could potentially hasten the collapse of Cuba’s system. China, for example, is a model for the prosperity and social reform that can come from solidifying trade relations with the U.S.
For some time, China was a lot more repressive than Cuba, and yet the U.S. normalized trade relations with Beijing in 1979 based on the assumption that trade will hasten reform and democratization. Undoubtedly, this has worked to some extent. China now serves as one of the U.S.’s largest trading partner, and its citizens now enjoy greater economic and social independence than 15, or even 10 years ago. A large part of Chinese citizens’ prosperity comes from importing American goods: US companies alone exported $140 billion in goods to China and Hong Kong in 2011, and China now serves as the largest growth market for U.S. goods and services.
Why does the U.S. not believe that similar reforms could be achieved in Cuba, if we lift the embargo? It seems contradictory to argue that trade would induce better behavior and change in a regime like China, but will achieve the opposite in Cuba.
Thus, similar to the situation in China, the U.S. would undoubtedly garner more influence and play a key role in mobilizing economic and social change in Cuba. Money not only from American tourists, but also from American businesses who have agricultural and oil interests in the country and want access to the Cuban market, would flow into the economy. As a result, conducting trade with Cuba could potentially serve as the first step in improving relations with the government. A relationship between Cuba and the U.S. would be more concretely formed, and the U.S. could leverage its influence to move towards reconciliation, or at least towards advising reforms in the country. For too long, the Castro brothers have used the embargo as an excuse for their misrule in Havana; by eliminating the embargo, Cuba would have no choice but to open up in some regard.
Thus far, there have been steps to easing tensions between both countries and facilitating a discussion between President Obama and the Castros. Obama took some tentative steps in 2009 to ease the embargo by allowing Cuban-Americans to visit the island. Some telecommunications companies have also been allowed to establish licensing deals in Cuba. However, Obama has not made the Cuban embargo a primary focus of his administration since taking office.
Although such attempts at opening communications between Cuba and the U.S. are good, more definitive steps and policy actions must be conducted in order to abolish the embargo. More than failing in its attempt to dethrone the Castros, it has had a detrimental effect on the Cuban people themselves, aggravating the dire poverty in which most of them live and preventing them from assimilating into the modern century. As such, the U.S. should focus on remedying the living situation for Cuban citizens. By keeping the embargo in place, it only enhances the backward state of Cuba and prevents its people from participating in economic relations and experiencing a taste of freedom.
There is no guarantee that lifting the Cuban embargo will result in a better relationship between the U.S. and Cuba, or succeed in changing Cuba for the better. But if done cautiously, with thought, deliberation, and effort, such a move can hardly make things worse.
Contact Veronica Añorve at vanorve ‘at’ Stanford.edu
Over half a century ago, Cuba’s brutal dictator Fulgencio Batista was ousted by the equally brutal triumvirate of Che Guevara and the Castro brothers. In February of 1962, President Kennedy announced the total embargo against the Castro’s Cuba that has, thanks to the LIBERTAD (or Helms-Burton) Act of 1996 codifying it into U.S. law, survived both the end of the Cold War and the dawn of the current millennium.
Realistically speaking, it shouldn’t have done so. The hard truth of what the Cubans call el bloqueo (“the blockade”) as it stands today is that it failed. We followed the same logic as Janis Ian in Mean Girls: we hoped that, by cutting off their resources, we could overthrow the Castro brother’s dictatorship. If the rest of the world had followed suit, the embargo alone might have worked to encourage Cuba towards the freedom that José Martí and others sought as the Nineteenth Century drew to a close. Instead, we have found ourselves nearly alone when it comes to the embargo.
So after half a century, the embargo has left us with nothing to show but an obsession with how wet refugee’s feet are, scared little boys with assault rifles in their faces, and an innocent old man rotting away in jail. So with the Wet Foot, Dry Foot policy, Elián González, and Alan Gross in mind, many in the media and in politics have begun to call for the end of the embargo once and for all — much to Fidel Castro’s joy.
That is precisely the wrong move to take if we actually want to help the Cuban people become free. Instead of abandoning the idea of embargo, we must strengthen our pressure on the Castro regime and bolster our support of the Cuban people.
The fault of the embargo’s failure to destroy the Castros lies chiefly on our shoulders. By relying almost exclusively on a unilateral embargo, we created a policy doomed to failure. We built a wall with neither the mortar to hold it up nor the guards to patrol it. And as such, whenever we have extended an open hand to the Castro brothers and sought to negotiate change, they have met our kind hearts with defiance, repression, and death.
Even as far back as 1980, when the Mariel Boatlift brought about 125,000 refugees across the ninety-mile Straits of Florida, the Castro regime tried to poison their image in the United States by sending over 2,700 criminals along with the refugees — except the ones its sheltering from justice, like Joanne Chesimard (aka Assata Shakur). Fast forward to 1996, when Raúl Castro (then head of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, now ‘President’ of Cuba) ordered his troops to shoot down the planes of humanitarian group Brothers to the Rescue following Clinton’s overtures towards Fidel Castro. The regime there clearly sees any attempt we make towards ‘better’ relations with them as a tacit acceptance of their repressive government — and as an excuse to become worse.
So, instead of trying to be nice (and coming across as kowtowing) to the Castros, we need to move in the opposite direction by actually implementing the embargo to its full strength. The LIBERTAD Act of 1996 includes language (Title III) that allows US nationals and corporations to sue foreign entities that traffic in property stolen from them by the Castro regime when it took over in 1959. It also allows for us to impose sanctions on international companies that operate in both the U.S. and Cuba, essentially forcing them to choose between the vast U.S. market and the tiny one of Cuba. But, those segments of the law keep getting suspended by every president that has overseen the LIBERTAD Act.
Before anything else, that tradition of suspension needs to end.
Following that, our attention should turn from the embargo to the situation of refugees trying to escape the prison of the Castros’ Cuba. Instead of Clinton’s inane Wet Foot, Dry Foot farce, we should take a more compassionate approach with the refugees (or balseros who flee on namesake rafts). Like Emma Lazarus’ inscription on the Statue of Liberty proclaims, let’s lift our lamps beside the golden door of the Florida Keys and grant refuge to any balsero that makes it outside the territorial waters and contiguous zone of Cuba, defined as 24 nautical miles from the Cuban shore. Once outside that zone, our Coast Guard should step in and rescue as many refugees as we can from the Castros’ clutches. By necessity, that means more patrols closer to Cuba, and much more implicit pressure on the regime.
The critics of the embargo are right in one way: enough is enough with the status quo. But instead of abandoning the Cuban people to their fate, we must instead work to help them gain freedom. And the way we do that is by taking a page from Teddy Roosevelt’s book: instead of big talk, let’s show the Castros a bit of Big Stick.
Contact Johnathan Bowes at jbowes ‘at’ Stanford.edu.