Why The Cuban Embargo Must End
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Politics and Activism

Why The Cuban Embargo Must End

The path to a free Cuba begins with rescinding the embargo.

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Why The Cuban Embargo Must End
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For over 50 consecutive years, U.S. administrations have held policies that maintained diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions on Cuba. Obama has brought an end to that by restoring full diplomatic ties with Cuba, and by becoming the first sitting American president to visit in over 85 years. He has also reversed some of the restrictions on remittances and travel. However, the U.S. trade embargo seems unlikely to be lifted any time soon, despite its crippling effects on the Cuban economy, and its obstruction of a more open Cuban society.

For many people in the United States, the embargo— also known as el bloqueo in Cuba (and Miami)— is nothing more than an archaic, seldom-discussed policy that prohibits U.S. citizens from obtaining Cohiba Cigars and Cuban rum. For Cuba, its effects have been exhaustive. That was the point when it was first implemented in response to a memo in 1960 by a State Department official who proposed “a line of action that makes the greatest inroads in denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and the overthrow of the [Castro] government.”

The embargo has affected Cuban access to medical supplies, pesticides, and fertilizers from American companies, money from relatives in the U.S., and much more. The embargo, along with the fall of the Soviet Union, resulted in poverty and had devastating effects on the Cuban economy. Cuba had trouble improving crop yields because pesticides and fertilizers became unaffordable. Without gasoline or repair parts, it became impossible to maintain tractors, and as a result they were replaced by oxen. For this reason foods such as potatoes, pasta, and vegetables were eliminated from the nation’s ration book, otherwise known in Cuba as the libreta. Yes, the Cuban government was bureaucratic and often times indisposed to try and implement reforms, but the embargo by all accounts had a severe impact, especially in the economic crisis that came between 1990 and 1995. Around this period, the U.S. government actually increased the severity and reach of the embargo by signing into law the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992, and the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996. Both these laws imposed a large degree of American control over foreign companies and their ability to do business with Cuba, which resulted in harsh criticism from the international community.

The embargo was first imposed as consequence of Cuba’s ties to the USSR, but proponents of the embargo have modified their reasoning for it over the years. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the embargo was justified as retribution for Cuba’s support of revolutionaries in Latin America. Now, the embargo’s diminishing but boisterous supporters have rationalized it as a response to human rights violations by Cuba’s government. This seems especially hypocritical when it's legal to visit and do business in China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, Somalia, among many other more hostile countries, and countries that are run by far more repressive governments. This evolution of arguments for maintaining the embargo is indicative of a fundamental problem with the way that this embargo and similar sanctions have been discussed and used.

Legal barriers to trade, like embargoes and sanctions, are foreign policy tools that can be effective at pressuring countries to change certain policies that the U.S. government has a particular interest in. However, a common misconception is that embargoes and sanctions work by simply implementing them; that it is a way to label countries that the U.S. government dislikes. Ironically, to make trade barriers truly effective requires a legitimate process for removing them. When these trade barriers are implemented, they should have an ultimate goal that the U.S. government sets as an adequate change that warrants lifting them. Otherwise, target countries lose the incentive to change policy. Given Cuba’s recent reforms and progress, it is safe to say that the lifting of the embargo is long overdue.

Cuba began in 2011 to liberalize their economy, allowing for private enterprise in certain sectors, particularly those related to tourism. Under Raul Castro the Cuban government has made significant progress in creating a more capitalist economy, allowing small private ownership, and independent expenditures. This includes the right to sell and buy homes, create small restaurants, and even use your private car for a taxi business. In 2014, Cuba made a law to lower taxes on foreign investors and to organize the approval process of new projects to revitalize the economy. A few months ago Cuba and the European Union signed a deal normalizing their relations.

Lifting the embargo would speed up the process of restructuring the Cuban economy and send the message to international companies that they shouldn’t be wary of doing business with Cuba for fear of being fined by the U.S. Treasury Department. Moreover, the U.S. embargo should be lifted, seeing how its statutes require that officials block Cuba from access and membership to several international finance institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the World Bank. This undermines Cuba’s ability to trade and do business with other countries, which obstructs Cuba’s path towards economic liberalization. The embargo is counterproductive to a free and open Cuban society, and is practically unanimously opposed by the international community.

Because the embargo requires congressional approval to be rescinded, the probable outcome is that the U.S. won’t lift it anytime soon. It is a product of political strategizing. Both Democrats and Republicans have been afraid of alienating a large bloc of voters in Florida—an important swing state, nonetheless. However, these numbers seem to be changing, seen as how Obama won the Cuban-American vote in 2012, and new research by the Pew Research Center found that 66 percent of Americans are in favor of lifting the embargo. Despite this, for the time being, U.S. relations in Cuba will be largely dependent on Obama (and whoever comes afterwards) and his willingness to use the limited executive powers he has through federal regulations to ameliorate the effects of the embargo and hasten Cuba’s economic reforms.
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