It was bound to happen eventually: The United States and Cuba have decided to restore diplomatic relations after treating each other as enemy states since the 1960s.
Some are elated and some are despondent. Both sides can make a strong case.
I visited Cuba near the end of last year and returned home with mixed feelings about the US embargo. Cuba is in no way a strategic or military threat to the United States. If diplomatic relations hadn’t already been severed a long time ago, Washington would have no reason to suddenly sever them now. In that sense, the embargo is an anachronism, a leftover from a now-distant past and a different era of history.
On the other hand, Cuba has the worst human rights record in the Western Hemisphere. Allowing the regime in from the cold gives it a patina of legitimacy it has done nothing whatsoever to earn, and it exhausts whatever scraps of leverage the United States had to convince the island’s overlords to free their people and share power like most other governments in the region.
So is restoring diplomatic ties the right call? I have no idea. I thought I’d return home from Cuba and take a firm stand one way or another, but some things in politics and in life are ambiguous.
What follows are my thoughts as originally published in World Affairs in March, 2014, before this decision was made.
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For years now, the embargo has appeared to me as outdated as it has been ineffective.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.
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.
Click here to read the rest of the essay.