Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Time To Move On: Ending the American Embargo on Cuba

By Nate JaraPublished April 21, 2014

The Cuban embargo has been a staple of American foreign policy for half a century, and yet it hasn't produced any noticeable results. It's time to reconsider our foreign policy stance towards our neighbor in the Gulf.
By Nate Jara, 4/21/14

In ten years, the American embargo on Cuba will be old enough to apply for Social Security. American trade restrictions on Cuba have prolonged since 1958, when the Eisenhower administration enacted an arms embargo in response to a rebellion against the Fulgencio Batista regime, only to later be upgraded to a full-scale embargo by President Kennedy in 1963. What have these sanctions accomplished? In effect, nothing. The embargo on Cuba is nothing more than a relic of the past, a product of a time gone by, when communism was the greatest threat to American security and gas cost $0.30 a gallon.

The embargo has undoubtedly failed in its stated mission — namely because most other states abandoned their sanctions on Cuba long ago. Last October, 188 nations gathered at the United Nations to publicly condemn the embargo, leaving Israel as the last US ally to continue to support it. A member of the WTO, Cuba engages in trade with many other third parties, or enough to ensure the Castro regime is never in danger of crumbling. Historically, economic sanctions have demonstrated that, in practice, they disproportionately hurt civilians more than the targeted regime, and Cuba is no exception. The Cuban people continue to suffer from a shortage of food, water, and medical supplies that has resulted in the spread of disease and malnutrition. If anything, the Cuban embargo has only allowed the Castros to strengthen their regime by scapegoating the United States as the sole cause of Cuba's economic woes.

The American economy has suffered as well. The US Chamber of Commerce estimates that the embargo costs the US economy about $1.2 billion every year. These kinds of losses need a substantial justification if the embargo ought to be continued, but I've yet to hear one.
The most common arguments in favor of the embargo suggest that the embargo must stay in place in order to force Cuba to change course in terms of its track record on human rights and state sponsorship of terrorism. In 1982, Cuba was designated by the State Department as a state sponsor of terrorism, a designation it shares with only three other states: Iran, Sudan, and Syria. Frankly this is ridiculous, as anyone familiar with the human rights violations of any of these nations would recognize that Cuba's failure to sever ties with guerrilla organizations in South America in no way warrants the same punishment as Sudan's funding of the genocide in Darfur, or Assad regime's brutal response to the civil war in Syria. Not to mention that this argument conveniently ignores our own history of supporting terrorism in South America, as the United States single handedly initiated coups in Guatemala, Brazil, and Chile that deposed democratically elected leaders while also supporting the Contras in Nicaragua that are guilty of human rights violations themselves.

But even if we ignore this discrepancy and say that the United States should not do business with states that commit human rights violations, where is the bill to place an embargo on China? China has a well-known record for human rights violations, ranging from the absence of any semblance of workers' rights to the complete eradication of the freedom of the press. This idea that the United States has a firm stance against human rights violations is hollow at best, and seems to be trotted out only when it is politically convenient.

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that we will observe any progress on this issue in the near future. It is no secret that both the Republicans and Democrats are reluctant to oppose the embargo despite all of these problems because of how crucial the votes of Cuban Americans are. Concentrated in Florida, a key battleground state in every presidential election, neither side wants to commit to opposing the embargo for fear of handing their opponents the Cuban American vote and thus Florida, a state that has the power to individually determine the outcome of an election, as we saw in 2000.

The push to remove the Electoral College system (the only reason Florida has so much power) is growing, but not fast enough. If we're lucky, we might drop it in the next ten years, which delays any hope of ending the embargo on Cuba into the distant future. Meanwhile, innocent Cubans continue to suffer from an increasingly ridiculous, unnecessary, and ineffective embargo that has no hope of ever achieving any meaningful change in Cuba.