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The most important sentence in Obama's Cuba speech

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The US-Cuba deal is a huge — and overdue — change in the relationship between the two countries. It will mean the US opens an embassy in Havana, and relaxes banking restrictions against the country, and makes it easier for Americans to travel and do business there. In return, Cuba will release Alan Gross, alongside 53 other political prisoners, and expand access to the internet across the country. (Here's a list of everything in the deal.)

But what's missing from the agreement is huge: the embargo. America's broad embargo against Cuba remains an unwise reaction to the Cold War that should long ago have been lifted. Sadly, it will survive this deal. But perhaps not for long.

The most important sentence in President Obama's statement was this one: "I look forward to engaging Congress in an honest debate on lifting this embargo."

President Obama's full speech on Cuba

It's not yet clear what this will mean, or if Obama can get congressional support for lifting the embargo. Early signs weren't exactly promising:

But Obama's comments show the president wants this deal to go much further than it does — he wants it to go where it logically should go, which is all the way to the end of the embargo and travel ban. As my colleague Matt Yglesias wrote, the embargo is a badly designed policy — and US policymakers know it. If you were crafting an embargo from scratch, this is exactly how you wouldn't do it:

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.

In addition to being bad policy, the embargo against Cuba has propped up the regime. As Yglesias writes, "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."

It's time to lift the embargo entirely. And it's clear, from his statement, that Obama knows it. The question is whether he can get Congress to go along.

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