When The Michigan Daily hired me to write a biweekly column, I promised myself I’d never become one of those self-important student writers, adopting an unqualified opinion on issues I had little experience with or treat recently acquired esoteric knowledge as something that our student body should know and care about. The thing is, in researching the U.S. embargo on Cuba for a term paper, I’ve become convinced that the outdated policy is not only irrational but also a clear example of the inherent dangers in both electoral politics and our lingering Cold War mentality. I’ve grown increasingly aware that while the embargo may have little impact on the average American — aside from depriving us of the world’s finest cigars — its continued implementation has had major repercussions for the health and well-being of the Cuban people.
For the past five decades, the United States has imposed an economic, commercial and financial embargo on the nation of Cuba. The embargo comprises thousands of laws, including strict travel restrictions and U.S. Treasury-enforced penalties on international banks’ doing business with Cuba — all intended to topple Castro’s longstanding communist regime. As 50 years have passed and Castro’s government remains in power, it’s clear that the embargo has been unsuccessful in its stated intent. And yet the policy persists.
The nature and aim of the embargo have changed considerably since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Once a Soviet-allied nation only 90 miles off the coast of Florida, Cuba can no longer be seen as the major threat it once was. The embargo, then, is not upheld today for purposes of Cold War containment. The economic quarantine can also not be seen as having any legitimate potential to end the communist regime, as nearly 200 other nations allow trade with Cuba, bringing useful foreign currency into a nation that we are attempting to starve. Instead, the embargo is maintained as an alleged moral stance against the Cuban government’s repressive, undemocratic tendencies.
This justification, however, does not hold up within the context of overall U.S. foreign policy. Despite numerous accounts of human rights violations, the United States trades with Venezuela, Vietnam and China. Additionally, American citizens are permitted to travel anywhere else in the world, including Iran, Burma and North Korea. The fact that Cuba is singled out among these blatantly more threatening and repressive nations is clear proof that the embargo and travel restrictions are not based on logic but Cold War ideologies.
A 1998 report from the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency echoed this assertion, finding that, “Cuba does not pose a significant military threat to the U.S. or to other countries in the region.” The international community has been even more vocal in its opposition, condemning the embargo annually for 22 straight years, with the most recent UN General Assembly vote coming in at a lopsided 188-2, with only Israel joining the United States in support.
Unfortunately, but perhaps expectedly, electoral politics play a major role in our continued insistence on maintaining a largely unpopular policy. Though the intensity of their opposition has waned since Fidel Castro handed control to his brother Raúl Castro, the elderly generation of Cuban exiles — many of whom lost enormous wealth and land during the communist revolution — has been staunchly averse to normalizing any relations with a Castro-led government. As these Cuban-Americans make up a sizable community in the historically critical swing-state of Florida, many politicians have sidestepped the issue for fear of alienating an important voting bloc.
Ignoring the ineffectual policy has had major implications for the social and economic rights of the Cuban people. Though certain restrictions on American exports have been eased in the past decade, access to medical technology and other necessities remains extremely limited within Cuba. In 1997, the American Association for World Health released a comprehensive report on the subject, finding that the embargo “contributed particularly to malnutrition affecting especially women and children, poor water quality, lack of access to medicines and medical supplies, and limited the exchange of medical and scientific information due to travel restrictions and currency regulations.”
While the arcane policy has had little success in bringing an end to the Castro regime, it has been widely effective in crippling basic human rights for much of the Cuban population. Some may excuse the embargo as a matter of Cold War inertia, sure to end once the aging exiles lose their political pull or the memory of the Cuban Missile Crisis fades from our nation’s collective consciousness. But there is no justification for this calamitous destruction, and no apology should be issued for a policy that harms innocent people. The enduring existence of the Cuban embargo is unacceptable, and its abolition is long overdue.
Jake Offenhartz can be reached at email@example.com.