Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

U.S.- Cuba Relations: Are We Really Changing Old Ways?

By Alex GugliuzzaPublished November 5, 2015

Written by Alex Gugliuzza, 11/05/2015 In light of the U.N. General Assembly voting to condemn the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba, positive relations between the two countries seem to be taking steps backward. Despite President Obama's urge to Congress to lift the embargo and near unanimous U.N. approval of this measure, American officials nonetheless voted against the U.N. resolution.
October 27th marks another year for the United Nations General Assembly, which voted on an  annual resolution, titled "Necessity of Ending the Economic, Commercial and Financial Embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba." Unsurprisingly, 191 of the assembly's 193 members  voted in favor of the resolution, with just the U.S. and Israel voting no. The U.N. has condemned the Cuba embargo for the 24th consecutive year. The vote was the first since the U.S. and Cuban leaders agreed to restore diplomatic ties last December, and the U.S. had considered taking the unprecedented step of abstaining.

When first passed in 1992, the resolution received 59 yes votes, three no votes  and 71 abstentions. This shift to near-unanimous support shows the widespread international disapproval of the U.S.  embargo on Cuba.

The frigid relationship between Cuba and the U.S. has gone on more than 50 years and has roots in Cold War hostilities.  Talks between the U.S. and Cuba started in June of 2013 and were facilitated by the Canadian government and the Vatican. The most significant step towards normalizing relations was presented in President Obama's January 2015 State of the Union Address, when he asked  Congress to begin to lift the embargo. "Our shift in Cuba policy has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere; removes a phony excuse for restrictions in Cuba; stands up for democratic values; and extends the hand of friendship to the Cuban people. And this year, Congress should begin the work of ending the embargo," he said.

The White House has some authority  to liberalize trade and stabilize relations. In April 2015, the President made history by meeting Raúl Castro in a one-on-one meeting.  The countries have since released political prisoners in a show of goodwill. The President also has exercised his  jurisdiction in the private sector, allowing for expanded commercial sales and exports of goods and services to Cuba. While the President has taken all the right steps to normalize relations with Cuba, only Congress can lift the trade embargo.

President Obama acknowledges, "I do not expect the changes I am announcing today to bring about a transformation of Cuban society overnight," but argues that "through a policy of engagement, we can more effectively stand up for our values, and help the Cuban people help themselves as they move into the 21st century."

The October 2015 U.N. General Assembly meeting marked  the first year the resolution had any hope of approval by the U.S. Despite significant moves of normalization by the White House and positive feedback from  the American people, the U.N. resolution voting results convey a lack of immediate progress in improving relations. U.S. officials decided to cast a "no" ballot because the text of the resolution shows almost no changes from previous years and failed to "reflect the significant steps that have been taken and the spirit of engagement President Obama has championed," according to Ronald Godard, U.S. senior adviser for Western Hemisphere‎ affairs.

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez declared in a statement that "the blockade is a flagrant, massive and systematic violation of the human rights of all Cubans; it is contrary to International Law; it has been described as a crime of genocide." Rodriguez pointed to total economic losses of $1.1 trillion to Cuba over 53 years due to the embargo.

Repairing the icy relationship between two starkly different countries must involve a willingness to have an open discussion on human rights, democratic reform, and making changes for the better. Cuba is infamous for human rights abuses, oppression of basic human freedoms, food shortages, and outdated technology, to name a few. After two decades of restrictions, the embargo has failed to fix the problems it was originally created to fix: regime change and foreign investment deterrence.  Cuba continues to pursue communism with the Castros still in power and nations all over the world continue to trade with Cuba. "Approximately 4,500 companies from over 100 countries import to, export from, provide services to, or have investments within Cuba," including some of America's closest allies.

A history of hostility and isolation only perpetuate such issues, not improve them. Current policies preserve the mistrust and outdated approaches that come from a history that occurred before many of us were born. Lending a hand of friendship shows that the Unites States respects the autonomy of Cuba but also fosters dialogue that can inspire change.  It is up to Cuba to engage in political and social reform, but giving support and trust through humanitarian and economic assistance can only encourage such reform.

The urge to lift the Cuban embargo has been met with ardent opposition by the GOP and some democrats. Congress has significant decisions to make, but there's a reason almost all the world's nations recommend a new, amicable approach on Cuba.