Letter from Cuba: To Embargo or Not

Aside from the Arab boycott against Israel, American sanctions against Cuba have lasted longer than any other embargo in the modern era.

The sanctions were imposed in stages in the early 1960s after Fidel Castro began economic warfare against the United States by nationalizing private US property on the island. Cuban communism survived the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, so in 1993 the purpose of the embargo was modified by the Cuban Democracy Act, stating that it will not be lifted unless and until the government in Havana respects the “internationally accepted standards of human rights” and “democratic values.”

For years now, the embargo has appeared to me as outdated as it has been ineffective. The Chinese government, while less repressive nowadays than Cuba’s, likewise defies internationally accepted standards of human rights, yet it’s one of America’s biggest trading partners. And the embargo against Cuba gives the Castro regime the excuse it desperately needs for its citizens’ economic misery. As ever, it is all the fault of the Yanquis. Cuba’s people are poor not thanks to communism but because of America.

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After spending a few weeks in Cuba in October and November, however, I came home feeling less certain that the embargo was an anachronism. The ailing Fidel Castro handed power to his less ideological brother Raúl a few years ago, and the regime finally realizes what has been obvious to everyone else for what seems like forever: communism is an epic failure. Change is at last on the horizon for the island, and there’s a chance that maybe—just maybe—the embargo might help it finally arrive.


“I fully support the embargo and the travel ban,” Cuban exile Valentin Prieto says, “and am on record calling for it to be tightened and given some real teeth instead of allowing it to remain the paper tiger it is. The United States of America is the bastion of democracy and liberty in the world. Not only should we not have normal relations with repressive regimes, it is our moral obligation to ensure, by whatever means possible save for military action, that we in no way promote, fund, assist, ignore, or legitimize said repressive regimes.”

Professor Alfred Cuzán at the University of West Florida offers a counterpoint. “One argument in support of keeping the embargo,” he says, “is that it gives the United States leverage to force the Castros to make liberalizing changes. I think that argument has some merit. And Cuba did confiscate and expropriate American property. But I don’t think the embargo is effective. The regime can still get whatever it wants from Canada, from Europe, and so on. The US embargo is something of a myth.”

He has a point. The United States is Cuba’s fifth-largest trading partner after Venezuela, China, Spain, and Brazil. Cuba gets more of its products from the United States even now than from Canada or Mexico. Sanctions are still in place—Cuba cannot buy everything, and it must pay in cash—but the embargo is hardly absolute.

The United States, however, purchases nothing from Cuba. Americans are for the most part prohibited by US law from traveling there. You can’t just buy a plane ticket to Havana and hang out on the beach. You have to go illegally through Mexico or book an expensive people-to-people tour through the mere handful of travel agents licensed to arrange such trips by the US Treasury Department. Journalists like me are exempt from these regulations, but I am still not allowed to buy Cuban rum or cigars and bring them back with me.

The embargo does harm the Cuban economy—after all, that’s the point—but the bankrupt communist system inflicts far more damage, and in any case the decision to break off economic relations was made not by the United States but by Fidel Castro.

“Cuba is ninety miles across the Florida Straits,” said Professor Cuzán, “and was increasingly integrated in the American market for a hundred years. Then Castro severed economic and commercial ties completely and shifted the entire economy toward the Soviet Union. That was insane. Then he tried to forge cultural ties with the Soviet Union and force Cubans to learn Russian. It was a crazy project and it ruined the country.”

Cuba isn’t yoked to Moscow any longer, now that the Soviet Union has ceased to exist, but its economic system is still mostly communist. The government owns all major industries, including what in normal countries are small businesses like restaurants and bars, so the majority of Cubans work for the state. Salaries are capped at twenty dollars a month and supplemented with a ration card.

I asked a Cuban woman what she gets on that card. “Rice, beans, bread, eggs, cooking oil, and two pounds of chicken every couple of months. We used to get soap and detergent, but not anymore.”

Doctor and hospital visits are free, but Cuba never has enough medicine. I had to bring a whole bag full of supplies with me because even the simplest items like Band-Aids and antibiotics aren’t always available. Patients have to bring their own drugs, their own sheets, and even their own iodine—if they can find it—to the hospital with them.

Cuba is constantly short on food too. I was told in October that potatoes won’t be available again until January. That can’t be a result of the embargo. Cuba is a tropical island with excellent soil and a year-round growing season perfectly capable of producing its own potatoes. But the potato shortage is no surprise. I saw shockingly little agriculture in the countryside. Most fields are fallow. Those that still produce food are minuscule. Cows look like leather-wrapped skeletons. We have more and better agriculture in the Eastern Oregon desert, where the soil is poor, where only six inches of rain falls every year, and where the winters are long and shatteringly cold.

I heard no end of horror stories about soap shortages, both before and after I got there. A journalist friend of mine who visits Cuba semi-regularly brings little bars of hotel soap with him and hands them out to his interview subjects.

“They break down in tears when I give them soap,” he told me. “How often does that happen?” I said. “A hundred percent of the time,” he said.

I too brought soap with me to the island—full-size bars from the store, not small ones from hotels—but I didn’t want to make people cry wherever I went, so I left them discreetly for hotel staff, waiters, taxi drivers, and so on. And I tipped everyone as generously as I could since the government refuses to pay them.

None of this economic impoverishment is the result of American policy. The United States is hardly the world’s only soap manufacturer, for instance. Cuba can buy it from Mexico. Or Canada. Or the Dominican Republic. Cuba can make its own soap. It fact, it does make its own soap. The reason the country does not have enough is because the government historically hasn’t cared if the little people can’t wash. Soap is just one item among thousands that is strictly for the elite, for the “haves,” and for those lucky enough to find some in the shops before it runs out.

In a non-communist country where such a basic product is in short supply, somebody would mass-produce it and sell it. Soap-making doesn’t require nuclear physics. You can make it at home. Google “soap recipe” and you’ll see how easy it is. But Cuba is a communist country where private commerce is banned. If you make stuff and sell stuff, you might become “rich” and “bourgeois,” and the authorities will send you to prison.

That’s why Cuba is poor. Lifting the embargo would have little or no effect on such tyrannical imbecility.


Cuba is ruled by a group of old men who fear change more than old men almost anywhere else in the world, with the possible exceptions of North Korea, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. The regime trembles at the sight of a smartphone. It shuts down liberal blogs as if they’re the propaganda organs of terrorist organizations. If dissidents are unlucky, they’re tossed into jail. If they’re lucky, they are put under total surveillance with guards standing watch over their homes and cameras pointed at their windows and doors, recording everything and everybody brave or reckless enough to go in or come out.

Despite all that, Cuba is beginning to change. Communism always reverts to capitalism eventually, and it’s just barely starting to happen in Havana now that Fidel is too feeble and frail to stop history. Cuba is, in Matthew Arnold’s famous formulation, between two worlds, one dead and the other struggling to be born. The creaking Marxist-Leninist system is still firmly in place, but simple professions like that of hairdresser are being privatized, and the government is planning a communist-free trade zone at the Mariel port.

Some of the biggest changes on the island so far have taken place in the tourism industry, which replaced subsidies from Moscow as Cuba’s largest foreign source of income. Waiters, chambermaids, and taxi drivers are still paid a pitiful twenty dollars a month, but they’re doing relatively okay compared with everyone else because tourists tip them in hard currency. These people are allowed to keep the extra money, which is considerably more than twenty dollars a month. They’re not rich, but they are the new “haves” because they make contact with the global economy.

Plenty of people around the world who work inside the global economy are poor, but everyone who works outside of it is poor. Egyptians who make only two dollars a day (and they account for roughly half of the population) are still three times richer than just about everybody in Cuba. Residents of the slums of India—who live in worse conditions than Cubans, for sure—are likewise stranded outside the global economy, but at least they aren’t prohibited by law from upward mobility.

Not that the global economy is some kind of utopia. The bottom of the international capitalist system is a nasty place. You do not want to be there. According to a grim report on sweatshop conditions in the leftist magazine Dissident Voice, some Chinese laborers make a paltry sixty-four cents an hour. That’s the floor in communist-turned-capitalist China. Yet in Cuba, the state-imposed maximum is sixty-seven cents a day.

The worst-off Chinese work in conditions of near-slavery, but it’s even worse for the Cubans. This was all summed up in a brief bit of dialogue by the main characters in Lucy Mulloy’s outstanding 2012 film Una Noche about three young Cubans who flee the island by raft to Florida. One character warns another not to think they will find paradise in Miami because they’ll end up with crappy kitchen jobs just like they had in Cuba since they don’t speak any English. The character’s friend replies, “At least they’ll pay us.”

Havana could become one of the world’s finest cities again if it weren’t communist. Old Havana was rightly declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982, in part perhaps to nudge Fidel Castro into making sure it isn’t completely destroyed by neglect. But the capital is larger than Old Havana. Some 2.2 million people live there and they don’t all live in the old city. Classical European architecture stretches for miles away to the south and east of the old town. It’s in a sad state of advanced decrepitude now, but I’ve seen cities in Europe—especially Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzegovina—recover from worse.

Some day Havana will most likely recover as well. Every day I thought about what it would look like with no embargo and no travel ban, with free enterprise and political liberalism. Havana would be the jewel of the Caribbean and possibly even the hemisphere. It would experience an extraordinary boom in the tourism industry, some of it at the expense of Florida and Mexico.

The path forward for Cuban prosperity is obvious: bring as many people as possible into the global economy, and specifically the American economy. The people want it, clearly. They’re sick to death of being cut off from the greater North American region they had always belonged to before Castro. Even if they’re exploited and paid a mere sixty-seven cents an hour—and I’d like to see Cubans make much more than that—they’d still earn eight to ten times what they’re getting right now.

Any decent person should want to see political liberalization alongside economic liberalization, but a limited amount of progress can be made without it. The Chinese Communist Party figured out how to do it. China hasn’t caught up to the West, but it’s way ahead of where it was when Mao Zedong micromanaged the country into famine.

But what’s left of the US embargo might put a major crimp in Raúl Castro’s plans to partially capitalize the economy. Going full China, where Cuba produces a massive amount of merchandise for American consumers, is not an option if the embargo is not lifted first.


Sanctions against Cuba would be lifted at once if the regime were to hold just one free election and adhere to the human rights norms in our hemisphere. Since that hasn’t happened, only one conclusion is possible: Cuba’s Communist Party would rather rule alone in a poor country than share power in a prosperous one. No matter what the United States does or does not do, Cuba will underperform until that changes.

The regime does want Cuba to prosper, but within limits. Otherwise its officials wouldn’t even consider economic reform. They would just plod along North Korean–style. Therefore, keeping the US embargo in place will sooner or later force them to choose prosperity or power. They cannot have both. The Communist Party might finally cry uncle. It’s possible. If so, the sanctions will finally produce their intended effect—the democratization of Cuba. But if not, the embargo will continue looking like a spiteful anachronism that pointlessly punishes Cuban citizens who have already been punished enough by their own government.

If the US were to unilaterally lift what’s left of the embargo right now, the standard of living for the average citizen would probably go up a little as a result of Raúl’s concurrent reforms. Cuba could become in time a Caribbean China—a clear improvement over what it has been since Fidel came to power. Yet Cubans would still suffer under a power-mad police state, and the US would have exhausted its leverage for nothing.

The question at this point is who will blink first.

Michael J. Totten is a contributing editor at World Affairs and the author of four books, including Where the West Ends and The Road to Fatima Gate.

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