This past February marked the 50thanniversary of Washington’s embargo against Cuba. The birthday, which went uncelebrated here and in the Caribbean, was a grim reminder of the persistence of one of Washington’s most egregious foreign policy blunders.
Enacted less than a year after President Kennedy’s ill-fated attempt to unseat Fidel Castro’s fledgling communist government at the Bay of Pigs, the embargo was designed with the express purpose of ousting Castro and his fellow revolutionaries from power. Renewed on a yearly basis under the aegis of the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917, the policy was last extended in September 2011 by President Obama, who stated, “I hereby determine that the continuation for 1 year of [the embargo] with respect to Cuba is in the national interest of the United States.”
But is it?
In the 1960s, when the embargo was young and the United States was in the throes of the Cold War, that Washington would seek to ostracize the newly installed communist government in Havana is understandable. Fidel Castro had, after all, just toppled the U.S.-backed Batista regime, and subsequently nationalized all American holdings on the island. And in October 1962, a scant eight months after President Kennedy’s embargo went into full effect, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. U.S.-Cuban relations remained rocky throughout the Cold War, and in 1996, ties were further marred by an incident in which the Cubans shot down two privately flown Cessna planes which had crossed into their airspace, killing the four Cuban Americans on board.
The Cuba of the 1960s, however, is not the Cuba of today. Since his assumption of the presidency in 2006, Raúl Castro has done away with many of the restrictions on the purchase of cell phones, microwaves, and other long-sought items previously prohibited under his brother’s rule. He has overhauled the system of compensation in all state-run companies to better reward the most productive employees, and has fired numerous government officials said to have been standing in the way of further economic reform. Raúl’s tenure has seen the privatization of portions of the economy so as to create and bolster a new “non-state” sector, as well as the release of the last of the political dissidents jailed in the 2003 Black Spring crackdown.
In 2010, Fidel Castro himself stated in an interview with Atlantic correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg that “the Cuban model doesn’t even work for us anymore.” After its publication, the aging ex-dictator claimed his comment was misinterpreted, but such a statement cannot be readily misunderstood, and the past few years have been telling. Cuba is less ideologically motivated today than at any point in recent history, and the Castro brothers have repeatedly stated their desire to achieve reconciliation with the United States.
Yet Washington, for its part, continues its irrational and imprudent support of a policy which over the past five decades has proven itself an unequivocal failure. The Castros are still in power, and Cuba is still militantly socialist—though no more so than China or Vietnam, with which the United States maintains relatively healthy diplomatic and economic ties. Havana’s record on human rights remains lackluster—but so, too, does Beijing’s and a score of other U.S. trading partners’. And Cubans still do not enjoy fully free elections—but neither do the Saudis or Russians, and the U.S. has no compunction about dealing with them.
Washington routinely associates with nations more oppressive and less democratic than its Caribbean neighbor, and yet with Cuba, it balks. Such a towering inconsistency, in light of the productive relationships the U.S. pursues with other questionably democratic societies and the wholly unproductive nature of its Cuba policy, cannot stand. And were it not for Florida’s position as a swing state and the influence of the many pro-embargo Cuban Americans who live there, it would not.
Washington’s stubbornness has cost the United States billions of dollars in lost sales, and has, by Havana’s own estimate, cost the Cubans upwards of $975 billion since the embargo’s inception. Though such a figure may be inflated, there can be no doubt that the U.S., whose economic size and close proximity make it a natural Cuban trading partner, is at least partly responsible for the island’s dearth of badly needed medical supplies and crushing shortage of building materials. Unfortunately for the United States, to combat shortfalls, Cuba has increasingly turned to countries like Venezuela, Russia, and China, which have all condemned the U.S. embargo—along with the entirety of the U.N. General Assembly, save Israel—and which have all been eager to peddle their goods and influence in the Caribbean. The United States, in both prestige and trading opportunities, is patently missing out.
President Obama has taken a step in the right direction by easing restrictions on travel to the island for Cuban Americans and certain student and religious groups. But if the U.S. would truly like to see an open Cuba, then it must go further. Considering the massive concessions it is prepared to make to such absolute pariahs as Iran and North Korea, it is long past time for Washington to end its 50-year tantrum. The Cold War is over; five decades of senseless stalemate is enough.
This analysis was prepared by Alexander Frye, Research Associate for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.