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End the Ineffective Cuba Embargo

The restrictions on Cuba do little to inspire democratic reform or to protect the United States. They do, however, impose huge economic and health problems on the Cuban people. After almost six decades, it is time for the embargo to end.


On February 7, 1962, President Kennedy authorized an embargo against Cuba, beginning an extensive blockade that would span 12 US presidents and nearly 60 years.

The Helms-Burton Act of 1996 set out to achieve two main goals: to “assist the Cuban people in regaining their freedom and prosperity” and to “provide for the continued national security of the United States in the face of continuing threats from the Castro government.” 25 years later, Cuban sanctions have accomplished neither goal, and, in fact, have worsened the conditions they set out to improve.

The act’s national security rationale falls flat today. According to a report by the Defense Intelligence Agency in coordination with the CIA, “at present, Cuba does not pose a significant military threat to the U.S. or to other countries in the region.”

The Cuban government has a history of repression; notably, during Fidel Castro’s nearly 50-year reign, thousands of Cubans were incarcerated for political dissent, and the administration carried out a litany of political executions against associates of Castro’s predecessor, Fulgencio Batista. The ending of Castro's rule did not end political persecution in Cuba. A recent protest drew a small crowd, showing dissenters of the Cuban government fear the political consequences of demonstrating. Recently, the Cuban government revoked the media credentials of five Spanish journalists.

Of course, this string of authoritarian tactics is primarily to blame for the lack of freedom in the country. The embargo is not, as the Cuban government likes to pretend, the source of all strife for the Cuban people, but if the goal of Helms-Burton was to provide freedom to Cuba it has certainly not succeeded - the Cuban people are no better off for U.S. involvement.

The embargo was created to inspire social unrest in Cuba and weaken Castro’s government through popular uprising. Though it succeeded in putting pressure on Cuba’s citizens, the ultimate goal of the embargo was unsuccessful, and the Castro regime has kept its power for decades—leaving Cuba with a dictatorship and civil unrest.

Not only has the embargo proven ineffective, it has been harmful to the Cuban people. The American Association of World Health opposed the act, stating “It is our expert medical opinion that the US embargo has caused a significant rise in suffering and even deaths in Cuba.” The embargo is exceedingly unpopular practically everywhere. In June, the UN General Assembly condemned the embargo for the 29th time; 184 of the 193 member nations opposed it. The embargo denies Cubans medicine, food, and technology.

It is especially imperative that the sanctions end now, as Cuba’s fight against the Covid-19 pandemic continues. US sanctions are detrimental to the fight. Though sanctions do not technically prohibit exports of medical equipment to Cuba, the application process is slow, and acceptance is uncertain and takes time, slowing exports of such essential medical tools as respiratory devices and testing kits. Even if an application is approved, many companies avoid associating with sanctioned countries such as Cuba.

The embargo also affects the United States—the US Chamber of Commerce opposes the embargo and maintains that it costs the US $1.2 billion a year in exports. Lifting the embargo would improve the lives of Americans as well as Cubans. If the embargo is lifted, the US would make $105 million in exports within a year, potentially creating 1,418 new jobs. American industries such as transportation and tourism would also benefit. Beyond its impact on Cubans, the embargo is a failure to US citizens.

President Obama saw the problems with the embargo and implemented his 2014 “Cuban Thaw,” a step toward improving US-Cuba relations, as travel restrictions between the two countries lightened. Solutions outside the embargo have been proposed, including providing US internet to Cubans. President Trump rolled back Obama’s policies, removing ambassadors and tightening travel and business restrictions. Though viable solutions are sparse and contentious, the first step to improving the conditions of the Cuban people is ending the harmful, unpopular, and ultimately ineffective embargo.

Molly Dugdale is a freshman at American University studying in the School of Public Affairs. She is a staff writer at American Agora.

Image courtesy Ed Yourdon, Creative Commons

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