How should the U.S. support change in Cuba? Lift the embargo.

It’s time to call the Cuban government’s bluff. Ending the embargo would help the country’s embattled private sector, giving its people hope for a non-Communist future.


Photo: Yamil Lage / AFP / Getty Images

It was déjà vu all over again at the UN General Assembly: Cuba’s foreign minister denounced the U.S. trade embargo—or “blockade”—as a “massive, flagrant, and systematic violation of human rights,” which constituted nothing less than an “act of genocide.” Not so, the U.S. delegation countered, “[we are] one of Cuba’s principal trading partners,” authorizing not only humanitarian assistance but also “billions of dollars worth of exports,” including “food and other agricultural commodities, medicines, medical devices, telecommunications equipment, consumer goods, and other items.”

U.S. diplomats are correct: there is no blockade. Cuba’s Communist government is free to trade with most of the world and has been allowed to purchase U.S. agricultural goods since Congress loosened U.S. sanctions more than two decades ago.

But they are wrong to argue that trade restrictions support the United States’ broader effort to advance human rights and democracy in Cuba. Sanctions help cement the status quo, not change it. And they are an economic lose-lose for both countries.

The Embargo’s Harms

U.S. farmers lose a nearby market of 11 million people whose food imports total about $2 billion each year. Cuba loses access to its closest large-scale agricultural supplier.

After relaxing the embargo in 2000, the U.S. saw agricultural exports to Cuba surge from USD $5 million in 2001 to $685 million in 2009. Sanctions allow only cash-in-advance transactions or complicated third-party financing, however. So the Cuban state diversified its suppliers, buying rice from Brazil and Vietnam, wheat from the EU, and dried milk from New Zealand.

Nonetheless, the U.S. embargo is a much-needed propaganda win for Cuban leaders. It’s been decades since the island’s threadbare regime could present itself as a model revolution. Far from achieving economic independence, the Communist state has long been a charity case, relying on Soviet subsidies, Venezuelan oil discounts, and Chinese debt forgiveness.

Thanks to the embargo, however, Cuban leaders can play victims on the international stage, consistently winning passage of UN resolutions condemning U.S. sanctions. To questions about censorship, political prisoners, and police brutality, the Cuban nomenklatura can reply, What about the U.S. blockade? The island’s leaders frame repression as a necessary response to U.S. aggression, forestalling any effective regional or international response to Cuban human rights abuses.

U.S. hardliners, meanwhile, perform their own charade. “There is zero reason to delude ourselves into believing that ‘engagement’ will get the tyrants in Havana to change their ways,” wrote Senator Marco Rubio, as President Biden entered office in January 2021, warning the new administration not to end up on the “wrong side of history.”

After nearly six decades of a comprehensive economic embargo, there is zero evidence, in reality, that disengagement will weaken the Cuban state. History suggests that Cuba will get by with the help of authoritarian friends, who care little about human rights or civil liberties but a great deal about undermining U.S. interests.

In recent years, China has emerged as a leading benefactor. President Xi Jinping has promised Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel that China will “continue to support Cuba in defending its national sovereignty,” according to the Chinese network CGTN. “China and Cuba are good friends, good comrades and good brothers, bound by shared ideals and beliefs.”

Contrary to the rhetoric of President Xi—and that of Senator Rubio—far deeper ties bind the Cuban people to the United States, a relationship based not only on ideals and beliefs, but also on history, culture, and heritage.

A Path Forward

Engagement with Cuba is not an abstract policy option, it is a fact. Almost half of Cuban Americans send funds to family members on the island, according to recent polling. A majority of Cuban Americans want airlines to resume flights and strongly support policies designed to improve the well-being of Cubans on the island.

They also want to see a democratic Cuba in their lifetimes.

Removing the embargo would further that dream. The United States should isolate the Cuban government, not its people, by ending ineffective sanctions that divide our democratic allies and hinder concerted international action to condemn the island’s dictatorial government.

Let Cuba import U.S. goods under normal commercial terms so its people can enjoy the largesse of U.S. capitalism. Will the Cuban state skim off some of the rewards? Of course. But ordinary Cubans will reap most of the benefits and know that the United States is ready to alleviate the misery caused by decades of socialist mismanagement, now compounded by the devastation that COVID-19 has wrought on the tourism industry.

Only Congress can fully lift commercial sanctions, but the Biden Administration can remove Trump-imposed restrictions on remittances. Cuban Americans should be allowed to help their relatives gain independence from the Cuban state by setting up the small private businesses grudgingly permitted under recent economic reforms.

Above all, the Biden Administration should lift restrictions on travel. Americans are the “best ambassadors for freedom in Cuba,” the White House declared in January. So let U.S. tourists spread U.S. values—along with U.S. dollars—among the island’s fledgling capitalists, by eating at privately-owned restaurants, hailing gypsy taxicabs, and buying souvenirs from independent artists and artisans.

It’s time to call the Cuban government’s bluff. Ending the embargo would help the country’s embattled private sector, giving its people hope for a non-Communist future. And it would remove an outdated, counterproductive policy that has served mainly to mask the regime’s unremitting repression.

Mary Speck is an analyst of U.S. relations with Latin America. She has reported from Mexico, Central America, Colombia, and Cuba. Most recently she served as executive director of the bipartisan Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission.

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