In 1960, the United States placed an embargo on most exports to the Republic of Cuba in an attempt to thwart the expansion of Soviet influence in the West. During the Cold War, the embargo played a critical role in doing just that, preventing the spread of Communist ideology in the Western Hemisphere. However, times have changed. Communism is no longer an imminent threat, and Cuba does not represent a major threat to U.S. national security. In fact, the embargo only serves to hurt the United States’ international standing and cripples Cuba’s already weak economy. Obama has taken steps toward thawing the Cuba-U.S. relationship by removing Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terror and reestablishing diplomatic relations, but the U.S. has yet to take action to weaken the embargo.
The United Nations General Assembly has repeatedly called for an end to American sanctions against Cuba. Last year’s resolution demanding the U.S. lift its embargo was one of twenty-four consecutive attempts by the international community to force the U.S. to change its policies. Because the U.S. has refused to comply with such demands, other nations have begun to turn their backs on us, particularly those in Latin America who view such actions as unilateral and imperialistic. Lifting the embargo would send a strong signal to these nations that the United States wants to build a new relationship with the region, one that is not based on the imposition of American ideologies. Establishing a new relationship with Latin America is critical to combat hemispheric issues such as drug trafficking and deforestation because such issues require multilateral cooperation. Stronger relations would also afford the U.S. key allies in international institutions because Latin American nations would be more willing to vote for policies and resolutions that benefit American interests.
Another reason to lift the embargo is to aid Cuba’s transition from total state control to a mixed economy. Cuba’s president, Raúl Castro, has committed to gradually reforming his country’s economy between now and when he passes the torch on to his likely successor, Miguel Díaz-Canel, in 2018. However, the embargo severely impedes the transition. Because Cuba has no experience with a market economy, Castro’s reforms are targeted in all the wrong places, rendering them totally ineffective and potentially counterproductive. If the United States were to establish a normal trade relationship with Cuba, it could provide technical assistance and market expertise to the Castro regime to make the transition effective. When the U.S. provided such assistance to China and Vietnam when both nations were undergoing similar processes, their transitions were successful. Cuba is no different. Lifting the embargo and establishing normal trade relations would also enable American foreign direct investment in Cuba’s economy, which would provide the regime with access to the dollar to be able to sell its exports competitively on the global market. This would provide a major boost to Cuba’s dying economy. Absent U.S. involvement in the transition, Cuba could potentially collapse into a state of total chaos, which could have major security implications on the United States. The policy of gradual reform is proof that the regime is still reluctant to cede total authority over its citizens, which means the transition is unsustainable absent U.S. involvement, and Cuba will revert back to a totally state controlled economy. Such a crackdown would cause Cuban citizens to backlash, potentially triggering a major civil war on the island.
It seems like the main concerns that those against lifting the embargo have are based on Cuba’s human rights violations. After all, the Castro regime has not been the paragon of promoting human rights. But there are two problems with this. First, it’s inconsistent foreign policy: human rights violations haven’t stopped us from maintaining trade relations with perpetrators like Saudi Arabia, China, and Russia. Second, it’s hypocritical. Cuba has plenty of human rights issues, but it’s not like the U.S. is perfect either. Problems with the criminal justice system, immigration, and alleged war crimes are all examples of our own violations. I don’t buy the slippery slope argument that opening up relations with a human rights violator legitimizes other regimes to continue violating human rights.
The embargo against Cuba is a relic of the Cold War and hurts the U.S. more than it helps. The United States would be smart to lift the embargo and reap the benefits of stronger relations with Latin America and a market-based Cuban economy. Not taking action will only weather away U.S. international standing and could create a nasty situation just ninety miles off the coast of Florida.