The United States’ opposition to the spread of communism abroad bears a long and complicated political history. Even today, long after Cold War tensions thawed, U.S. policy toward communist regimes such as China, Cuba and North Korea indicates that some hostilities have not entirely melted away. In particular, U.S. policy towards Cuba is still mired by residual antagonism towards revolutionary leader Fidel Castro’s communist regime that arose in the late 1950s. More than 50 years later, the notorious Cuban embargo that began in 1958 has remained in place with few adjustments since its original implementation.
The Cuban embargo, which makes economic engagement between Cuba and the U.S. nearly impossible, has taken up more than its fair share of controversy. Originally, the intention of the policy was to display the United States’ opposition to the Cuban revolution and Castro’s subsequent communist regime, which had become violently oppressive towards its own citizens (Human Rights Watch provides a decent background on the repression thousands of Cubans faced during the country’s revolution.). The United States’ decision to maintain the embargo after more than 50 years has been criticized at length both at home and abroad. The United Nations has repeatedly condemned the embargo, asserting that it causes needless harm to ordinary Cuban citizens who are powerless over their political situation and suggesting that it may even violate international law.
After all these years, then, the question remains: Has the embargo worked? The best answer is both yes and no, depending on which definition of success we’re working with.
If the only goal of the embargo is to demonstrate the U.S.’s dissatisfaction with Cuba’s human rights abuses and corrupt political system, then the Cuban embargo has likely achieved what its policy designers intended. Barring nearly all exports and investment between Cuba and the U.S., the embargo sends a massive political signal. There is no uncertainty about the United States’ disgust toward the Castro dictatorship and its willingness to oppress its own citizens.
If the goal of the embargo is to achieve material change within the country of Cuba, however, the results are harder to identify. Other countries that sought to challenge or oppose the U.S. — notably Russia and Venezuela — also filled the gap left by the U.S.’ cessation of diplomatic negotiations. Venezuelan oil flowed in like a lifeline to the struggling Cuban economy and provided an essential life raft for the Castro regime. Cuba’s heads of state recognized fairly quickly that the United States was not essential to the island’s economic future. And thus, like the embargo, Cuba’s one-party system has remained intact with little to no visible change.
But outside of domestic politics within the United States, it is difficult to say whether the country remains the same as the one the U.S. accused of being a dictatorship in the 1960s. Raul Castro, who took control after his brother Fidel ceded power following several secretive hospitalizations, initiated broad economic reforms that allowed Cuba to thrive despite the U.S.’s embargo. Liberalization efforts encouraged a fledgling private sector (which now employs 12 percent of the country’s workforce) to grow robustly alongside trade with new allies like Nicaragua in the 1970s and 1980s. Recently, Cuba’s health care industry has flourished with results that parallel or exceed the U.S. in infant mortality, life expectancy and average health care expenditures per year despite a notable lack of resources compared to wealthier democratic countries. New changes to the Cuban Constitution allow for some private ownership of property. All in all, Cuba is proving itself to be shifting away from state-owned enterprises and towards privatization — a small but definitive shift away from communism. Because Cuba’s political growth since the 1960s has been complex, the lack of real variation in the U.S. embargo seems concerning. The president’s recent political strategy towards Cuba is even less reassuring.
It seems that the embargo is likely to stay given President Donald Trump’s hardline policies, which include tightening Obama-era travel exceptions to the embargo and discouraging U.S. foreign investment into Cuban firms or products. However, the president’s strategy towards Cuba has doubled down on the embargo’s original intentions and has shown a firm resistance to a genuine diplomatic relationship. In 2017, the Trump administration also pulled nearly two-thirds of the U.S. embassy staff from Havana, and as a result the embassy’s functions came to a sluggish halt. Policymakers, as the half-empty embassy would suggest, are choosing not to focus on U.S.-Cuba relations.
And they have their reasons to think that way. It is easy to dismiss Cuba as a small and insignificant country in the context of international politics — countries like Russia, China and Iran often dominate newspaper headlines. But Cuba plays a startlingly large role in international relations, and the country has often become tightly enmeshed in larger disputes between rival powers. This year alone, Russia loaned millions of euros to the Cuban military as a message of goodwill. And Oriente — the region containing Cuba’s eastern provinces — is facing economic stress and potential collapse as a result of U.S. sanctions towards Venezuela as the country experiences mass civil unrest.
Whether or not the Cuban embargo’s results in 2019 are in line with its intended goals from 1958, U.S. policymakers should revisit economic policy towards Cuba. Given the changing of the guard since Fidel Castro’s death and much of the country’s recent economic liberalization, current U.S. policy towards the country is largely outdated and reflective of Cold War hostility that passed its expiration date long ago. While many claim that the embargo has succeeded in demonstrating U.S. democratic resolve and leadership, the failure to reconsider U.S.-Cuba relations will only further isolate Cuba and push the country towards an increasingly hostile and dangerous relationship with the U.S.
Allison Pujol can be reached at email@example.com.