“When we share our deepest beliefs on an attitude of mutual respect, then we can both learn and make the lives of our people better.”
–President Obama on relations between the United States and Cuba.
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Just recently, President Obama has been the first United States President in nearly ninety years – since President Calvin Coolidge in 1928 – to visit Cuba to discuss reestablishing a working relationship.[i] Why the rocky relationship? The United States and Cuba went through a rough patch in their relationship about fifty years ago during tensions from the Cold War.[ii] There was the whole Bay of Pigs[iii] incident, the Cuban Missile Crisis[iv], and Fidel Castro’s rise to power and declaration of Cuba as a Communist State[v], to name a few reasons. But what had the biggest impact on the relationship, and is probably the largest obstacle to moving forward in resolving past differences, is the embargo the United States placed on Cuba in 1960 that still remains effective today.
The U.S. Embargo
The embargo, known as “el bloqueo” or “the blockade” to Cubans, “consists of economic sanctions against Cuba and restrictions on Cuban travel and commerce for all people and companies under US jurisdiction.”[vi] In the early 1990s, two more pieces of legislation tightened sanctions, expanding the embargo to restrict foreign subsidiaries of U.S. companies to engage in trade and business with Cuba.[vii] Despite these restrictions, the country managed to maintain its economy with financial assistance from the USSR.[viii] However, “when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, so did its financial assistance to Cuba, which caused the economy in the island nation to decline by 35-50% between 1989 and 1993.”[ix]
Between the time the embargo became effective until now, the U.S. has been on an administrative roller coaster, with some presidencies easing restrictions and others creating harsher ones.[x] For example, under the Clinton administration, an agreement was entered, following a devastating hurricane, allowing U.S. companies to sell food to Cuba for humanitarian reasons.[xi] However, under the George W. Bush administration, harsher restrictions increased penalties for violation.[xii] The slackening and tightening of restrictions made it very hard for people in the United States to send money or visit their families in Cuba, leading to a call for previous, more lax restrictions.[xiii]
The embargo continues today, with pros and cons to each side of the argument. Those who are in favoring of maintaining the embargo, including the U.S. government, hope to see the sanctions bring about a change in the country – more democracy and improvements in human rights.[xiv] During Obama’s visit to Cuba, he made clear that “without progress on freedom of speech and freedom of assembly…human rights issues would remain a ‘very powerful irritant’ to the ‘full flowering of a relationship’ between the two countries.”[xv] For example, hours before Obama landed in Cuba, “Cuban authorities arrested more than 50 dissidents who were marching to demand improved human rights.”[xvi]
However, there are many people who oppose the embargo and hope to see it lifted. When the United States expanded the embargo in the 90s, U.S. allies, including Canada, France, United Kingdom, and Mexico, disapproved of the expansion.[xvii] Today, this disapproval has disseminated to nearly the entire United Nations. “In 2012, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez spoke to the UN General Assembly about ‘the inhumane, failed and anachronistic policy of 11 successive US administrations.’”[xviii] Those in favor of lifting the embargo also believe that the influx in the Cuban economy could be a key factor in establishing change in democracy and human rights within the country.
Forgo the Embargo?
I find it quite counterintuitive that prohibiting travel to a country and severely suppressing its economy is a solution for improving human rights and bringing about democracy. The United States is reluctant to raise restrictions on Cuba, a country that currently poses less of a threat, if any, than that of Iran, a country whose restrictions were recently just lifted. When nearly the entire assembly of the United Nations disapproves of continuing this embargo, it should call for the United States to take a serious look at the harm it is causing one country, and the possible benefits that could be derived from both countries.
During his trip to Cuba, President Obama indicated a desire to normalize relations between the two countries. “’I affirm that Cuba’s destiny will not be decided by the United States or any other nation…. Cuba is sovereign and rightly has great pride, and the future of Cuba will be decided by Cubans, not by anybody else.’”[xix] His suggestion of a more hands-off approach to Cuba could be a step in the right direction for lifting the embargo, but with a presidential election on the horizon, Cuba may have to endure another administration with differing views.
[i] President Obama visits Cuba, CNN (March 22, 2016).
[ii] Background: Should the United States Maintain Its Embargo against Cuba?, ProCon.org (last visited March 24, 2016) http://cuba-embargo.procon.org/#background.
[iii] The Bay of Pigs, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum (last visited March 29, 2016) http://www.jfklibrary.org/JFK/JFK-in-History/The-Bay-of-Pigs.aspx.
[iv] Cuban Missile Crisis, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum (last visited March 29, 2016) http://www.jfklibrary.org/JFK/JFK-in-History/Cuban-Missile-Crisis.aspx.
[v] Bryan Logan, How Fidel Castro Rose To Power And Ruled Cuba For 5 Decades, Business Insider (Jan. 13, 2015).
[vi] Supra, note 2.
[xiv] Jon Schuppe and Tim Stelloh, Obama on Cuba: Differences Remain but Change in Sight, NBC News (March 21, 2016).
[xvi] Alan Gomez, Cuba Arrests Dozens of Human Rights Protesters Before Obama’s Arrival, USA Today (March 20, 2016).
[xvii] Supra, note 2.
[xix] Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Damien Cave, Cuba Meeting Between Obama and Castro Exposes Old Grievances, The New York Times (March 21, 2016).