Foreign Policy / Latin America / Politics / Sanctions

Is It Time to Lift the Cuba Embargo?

Appearing before the Council on Foreign Relations last month, Hilary Clinton took a decisive stance opposite that of the administration as she called for an end to the half-century old U.S embargo against Cuba. “The embargo is Castro’s best friend. It provides Castro an excuse for everything,” Clinton stated, arguing that the embargo now serves the Castro regime more than it serves U.S. interests.

Clinton explained that if the U.S. normalizes relations with Havana, the regime can no longer blame Cuba’s structural economic problems on the embargo. In short, the embargo’s termination would be a catalyst for change, expediting both economic and political reforms in the island nation.

President John F. Kennedy first established economic sanctions on Cuba on February 3, 1962, three years after the Cuban Revolution and Fidel Castro’s subsequent nationalization of all U.S. holdings.

The embargo’s stated aim was to reduce “the threat posed by [Cuba’s] alignment with the communist powers.” The conditions for terminating the embargo include the legalization of all political activity, the release of political prisoners, a commitment to free and fair elections, and respect for human rights, among other measures.

Fifty years later, the embargo is still in place, and continues to be a subject of debate among policymakers.

American public opinion, on the other hand, seems to be increasingly leaning in one direction. A 2012 survey of more than 1,000 U.S. adults revealed that 62 percent believed the U.S. should re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba. However, Cuban-Americans, who reside predominantly in Florida, remain split over easing restrictions on Cuba. Their opinion is particularly important for policymakers, as they represent a key voting bloc in a swing state. It remains to be seen how this will play out during the next election period.

As Cuba has undergone various economic developments lately, the politics of the embargo are worth reexamining.

Most recently, Raul Castro has implemented some new, albeit limited, reforms to modernize the economy. These included the decentralization of the agricultural sector, relaxation of restrictions on small businesses, and expanded access to consumer goods like DVD players and microwaves.

Some analysts points to these as a promising sign, and an opportunity that the U.S. should seize to improve its relationship with Cuba.

“While there is no automatic linear relationship between market-oriented economic reform and political liberalization, political theory and recent history suggest that one trend tends to reinforce the other, especially in the Western Hemisphere and in the long run,” according to economist Richard E. Feinberg.

However, the suggestion that increased trade with the U.S. will automatically “democratize” Cuba does not necessarily hold water. For example, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, who had been Cuba’s primary source of financial assistance and annual subsidies, Cuba successfully found new trading partners. China, Spain, and Brazil are currently Cuba’s top 3 export and import destinations. Additionally, Cuba’s tourism industry continues to be highly profitable, accounting for nearly 10 percent of the country’s GDP in 2013.

And yet Cuba remains a dictatorship, denying political liberty to its people and persecuting those who dissent. As of 2013, Cuba had 510 prisoners per 100,000 residents, comprising one of the largest prison populations per capita. The Castro regime still maintains an iron grip on Cuban citizens, restricting their access to tourist resorts and beaches to minimize their interaction with foreigners, among other things.

In this environment, where the gains of trade accrue mainly to Cuba’s political elite rather than the masses, it remains unclear whether normalizing trade and easing travel restrictions would effectively lift the Cuban people out of poverty and political oppression.

Still, Clinton and many others are right that the embargo is an outdated policy. It is unrealistic to think that the U.S. will hold on to it indefinitely. The President and previous administrations have done well in updating the terms of the embargo, such as easing travel restrictions for Cuban Americans and allowing them to send remittances to their families.

At the same time, Cuba now faces an uncertain political future as Raul Castro, at 82-years old, is set to step down as president in 2018. It is unknown who his successor will be and how this will influence U.S-Cuba relations.

Before completely lifting the embargo, the U.S. should wait for a signal from the current or future Cuban leadership that they are committed to embracing not just economic reforms, but political ones too.