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7 reasons to end the Cuba embargo

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

President Obama's plan to resume diplomatic relations with Cuba won't end America's decades-long embargo on Cuba, but it will reduce it, and it is an historic first step toward ending the 50-year-old embargo and the US-Cuba enmity behind it.

Here's the thing about the embargo: it is, without a doubt, an utterly failed policy at every level. Its goals were to topple Cuba's government or at least improve its behavior; even after many decades, it did neither, but instead has succeeded at hurting ordinary Cubans — and worse. Here are seven reasons why the embargo is outdated, counterproductive, and well past its expiration date.

1) Even the US government admits the embargo doesn't work

Raul castro may day

Raul Castro at a May Day parade in 2013. (Sven Creutzmann/Mambo/Getty Images)

The core argument for the US sanctions regime in Cuba is simple: putting economic pressure on the government should help the opposition and promote democratic reform. This has failed to happen.

Internally, the US government admits as much. "We see very little evidence that the mainline dissident organizations have much resonance among Cubans,"Jonathan Farrar, then the top US diplomat in Havana, wrote in a 2009 cable revealed by Wikileaks.

A 2009 Senate review sponsored by former Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) came to the same conclusion. "Staff concluded that a sudden collapse of the [Castro regime] is unlikely given the institutionalized nature of the regime," they found. US efforts to bolster the opposition directly, including building a Cuban equivalent of Twitter and infiltrating Cuba's hip-hop scene, have mostly backfired. There's just no evidence that the embargo is empowering Cuba's opposition.

2) Sanctions failed to cripple Cuba's economy

Cuba GDP 1972-2011 correct

(World Bank/Google)

The idea was that the embargo would so devastate Cuba's economy that the government would buckle, either voluntarily surrendering to US demands or collapsing outright. Instead, the embargo has done just enough damage to make life harder for Cubans.

There's no doubt that American sanctions have hurt Cuba's economy — meaning ordinary Cubans. And Cuba isn't a wealthy country. But as the above chart shows, Cuba has still managed to maintain fairly positive economic growth for most of the last 40 years.

The big exception is the early '90s. The collapsing Soviet Union cut off its economic assistance to Cuba's Communist government in 1991. This, together with some other factors, tanked GDP growth. At the time, CIA analysts predicted that Cuba's government would buckle under the heavy pressure. But it didn't. Pressure clearly isn't breaking the Cuban economy — or, consequently, its government.

3) The embargo has probably killed Cubans

cuba hospital

A physician talks to the mother of a girl at the Cardiological Pediatric hospital William Soler in Havana, Cuba on December 30, 2010. (AFP PHOTO/STR)

Despite failing to appreciably damage the Communist government's political standing, the embargo hurt ordinary humans. In fact, it likely killed them.

In a review published by Science in 2010, two Stanford researchers took a look at the embargo's effect on Cuban health. "Although establishing causality is difficult, US trade sanctions altered the medication supply and likely had focal, serious consequences on Cubans' health," they write. Here's why.

After the 1992 Cuba Democracy Act limited US medical exports into Cuba, Cuban imports of medical devices dropped dramatically. "Before [the act], Cuba imported $719 million worth of goods annually, 90% of which was food and medicines, from US subsidiary companies," the Stanford team writes. "Between 1992 and 1995, only $0.3 million was approved for sale by US subsidiaries."

After that, Cuba experienced a number of disease outbreaks linked to low medical supply, including fatal ones. "Medication shortages were associated with a 48% increase in tuberculosis deaths from 1992 to 1993; the number of tuberculosis cases in 1995 was threefold that in 1990." They found no major increase in Cuban imports of US medicine from 2001 to 2010, when the US relaxed some restrictions on aid to Cuba. That means Cubans may still be suffering as a result of US restrictions on medical exports.

4) The embargo hasn't improved Cuba's human rights record

cuban dissidents

Cuban opposition members rally in front of a Havana church. (Carlos Batista/AFP/Getty Images)

Even if the sanctions didn't topple the Cuban government, you might hope that they would have convinced the Cuban government to rein in some of its worst human rights abuses. But there's no evidence of that.

As Matt Yglesias explains, Cuba's human rights record is — by any standard — still horrendous. Freedom House ranks Cuba as the only unfree country in the Western Hemisphere, as a result of widespread arrest and detention of dissidents and strict press censorship.

Punishing Cuba for these abuses might be a reason to maintain the embargo, if there were any evidence that US sanctions actually limited the abuses. But there've been sanctions for 50 years, and Cuba is still deeply repressive.

5) 97 percent of world governments openly oppose America's policy

Cuban diplomat Felipe Perez Roque, then Cuba's Foreign minister, introduces a resolution condemning the US embargo at the UN in 2008. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Cuban diplomat Felipe Perez Roque, then Cuba's Foreign minister, introduces a resolution condemning the US embargo at the UN in 2008. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

One way that sanctions are supposed to put pressure on the target country is by internationally isolating it. But US sanctions have utterly failed to cut off the Cuban regime.

The UN General Assembly has voted 23 times to demand the US to end the Cuba embargo. In 2014, 188 countries voted in favor of a resolution titled "Necessity of Ending the Economic, Commercial and Financial Embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba." There are 193 countries in the entire UN.

Moreover, "Europe, Asia ,and Latin America are increasing trade with and investment in Cuba," Bruce Jentleson, a Duke University professor and former senior adviser at the State Department, wrote in an email. Cuba is in no sense a pariah state.

6) Cuba isn't a state sponsor of terrorism anymore

farc peace talk Cuba

A panel at peace talks between the Colombian government and the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC in Spanish) in Havana on December 15, 2014. (Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images)

The US government designated Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism in 1982, which imposed financial penalties on the Cuban government. At the time, the US accused Cuba of supporting the Spanish Basque terrorist group ETA and the FARC militants in Colombia.

Though the US continues to label Cuba a terrorism sponsor, that's just transparently untrue. According to the State Department's most recent annual review of terrorism worldwide, "there was no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups."

"Cuba's ties to ETA have become more distant, and that about eight of the two dozen ETA members in Cuba were relocated with the cooperation of the Spanish government," the report reads. And "throughout 2013, the Government of Cuba supported and hosted negotiations between the FARC and the Government of Colombia aimed at brokering a peace agreement between the two." That doesn't sound much like a state sponsor of terrorism.

7) The American public wants the embargo gone

Finally, it might make sense to keep the Cuba embargo if the American public supported harsh punishments for Cuba by overwhelming margins. But that's not true. Even Cuban-Americans, the group with the most reason to support the embargo, are becoming more open to ending the embargo.

A 2014 Atlantic Council poll asked Americans nationwide about four key parts of the embargo: restrictions on US businesses working in Cuba, restricting US citizens's ability to spend dollars in Cuba, travel restrictions, and allowing Cubans to access US high-speed internet and telecom infrastructure. In all four cases, a majority Americans supported relaxing restrictions on Cuba.

The Atlantic Council poll also found bipartisan report for normal diplomatic relations with Cuba: 60 percent of Democrats and 52 percent of Republicans supported normalization.

Cuban-Americans, historically the backbone of support for the embargo, appear to be changing their tune as well. A 2014 Florida International University poll's results are displayed in the below infographic: they find a majority of Cuban-Americans oppose maintaining the embargo.

FIU infographic poll cubans

Results of a 2014 poll of Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade county. (Florida International University)

It's only one poll, of course, and historically Cuban-Americans have supported the embargo. But the generational findings in the poll are significant: they show younger Cuban-Americans are far more open to ending the embargo than the 65+ generation with more direct memories of the revolution and flight from Cuba. As times change, it looks like Cuban-American public opinion is changing too.