The world woke up on Wednesday morning to the surprising news that the US and Cuba are in talks to normalize relations. That raises the prospect of an end to the US embargo of Cuba, the longest-running joke in American foreign policy, and something that can't come to an end a moment too soon. Designed over 50 years ago to somehow try to starve the Cuban population into overthrowing the Castro regime, it has failed, disastrously, and somehow allowed Cuban Communism to outlive its Soviet sponsor by a generation.
But even though everyone in the American government knows the embargo is stupid — and has known this for years — powerful domestic political incentives have prevented meaningful change.
Unrealistic goals, flawed design
I remember about a year ago sitting at a dinner where the featured speaker was a senior US diplomat involved in Iran policy. In response to skeptical questions about the Obama administration's approach to Iran, he laid out the case that economic sanctions could work. The Iran measures, he said, were textbook examples of effective sanctioning — they were broadly multilateral in terms of who was imposing them, they were targeted at things the regime especially cared about, and they were limited in their aspirations.
"So what about Cuba?" I asked.
It was a bit of a jerk question. The diplomat in question simply wasn't in a position to admit the obvious corollary. But the Cuba embargo is wholly unilateral, meaning no other country joins us in imposing it. It's also completely untargeted, hitting essentially all sectors of the Cuban economy. And most of all, it's utopian in its goals targeted not at specific aspects of Cuban policy but at the very existence of the Cuban regime.
In essence, America's Cuba policy is a textbook case of an embargo that makes both the United States and the target country somewhat poorer without any realistic hope of accomplishing its goals.
A counterproductive strategy
The best the diplomat could do was say that if you really want to understand why the embargo never seems to go away, you have to understand that every previous effort by Democratic administrations to thaw relations has been swatted away by the Castros.
Yet this is the ultimate perversity of American policy: the embargo actually helps the Castro government stay in power. Communism, you see, turns out to be a pretty bad approach to economic growth. That's part of why Communist regimes in Eastern Europe collapsed, and why nominally Communist regimes in China and Vietnam have substantially shifted economic policy to maintain growth and legitimacy. Having the superpower next door decide that our official Cuba policy is to try to make Cuba impoverished offers a convenient excuse for Cuba's own economic failings.
An end to the embargo may make everyday life for Cuba's citizens easier, and it will certainly clarify that Cuba's economic destiny lies with Cuba's government.
Admitting you've made a mistake
One of the hardest things to do in life is admit that you've made a mistake, and that's true for countries as well as individuals.
Most of all, it seems to be an impossibility for the mainstream Cuban-American political community which has organized for decades around the embargo policy. The people at the Cuban American National Foundation and their allies in Congress really, really, really don't want to admit what's obvious to everyone else — this policy hasn't worked, and trying it out for another decade or six is ridiculous. Communism is bad, democracy is great, and the Cuban regime should reform. But the embargo isn't bringing reform any closer, and may even be an impediment.
It's time for a change. And it sounds like President Obama knows it. In his statement today, he said, "I look forward to engaging Congress in an honest debate on lifting this embargo." The question is whether Congress can admit its made a mistake.