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Ten Reasons to Lift the Cuba Embargo

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Back when I worked as a producer for Chicago Public Radio in the early part of the decade, we would periodically revisit the question of whether to do a show on Cuba. Every year, the same anniversaries would roll around -- Fidel Castro's 1959 overthrow of the U.S.-backed Batista government, President Kennedy's failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion -- and every year we'd invariably conclude that things really weren't changing enough to warrant an update.

What a difference a few years makes. As my colleague Luisita Lopez Torregrosa reported back in May, the Obama administration has been working quietly behind the scenes with the Cuban government on a host of bilateral issues. In May 2009, President Obama lifted travel restrictions for Cuban Americans wishing to visit their relatives on the island.

cuba trade embargoThis summer, that apparent thaw in Cuban-American relations accelerated dramatically. In June, the House Agriculture Committee voted to reverse a decades-long ban on U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba and to ease restrictions on the sale of American commodities there. In July, two senators followed suit by announcing a bipartisan bill that would also facilitate travel to Cuba, which they claimed enjoyed two-thirds support in Congress. And last week, the White House reportedly stepped into the fray again, with signals that the president would issue an executive order to further open existing travel opportunities for American students, teachers and researchers, possibly before Labor Day. For its part, Cuba released 52 of its 167 political prisoners in a July deal brokered by the Catholic Church, which many see as an important precursor for normalization of relations between the two countries.

It's not yet clear what all of this will amount to. The congressional bills still need to wend their way through several other committees, where they may face entrenched opposition to altering Cuba policy, especially on the long-standing trade embargo. And even the presidential order (if it comes) will only return Cuban policy to where it was under President Clinton after a decade of more severe restrictions under President Bush.

Still, all of this has lots of people speculating that there's a sea change afoot in U.S.-Cuban relations, one that has the potential to not only ease travel restrictions but possibly even overturn the embargo itself.

In that spirit, here are 10 reasons that lifting the embargo makes sense:

1. It's good economics. It's long been recognized that opening up Cuba to American investment would be a huge boon to the tourism industry in both countries. According to the Cuban government, 250,000 Cuban-Americans visited from the United States in 2009, up from roughly 170,000 the year before, suggesting a pent-up demand. Lifting the embargo would also be an enormous boon the U.S. agricultural sector. One 2009 study estimated that doing away with all financing and travel restrictions on U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba would have boosted 2008 dairy sales to that country from $13 million to between $39 million and $87 million, increasing U.S. market share from 6 percent to between 18 and 42 percent.

2. It's good politics. Supporters of the trade embargo -- like Cuban-American Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) -- have long argued that easing the restrictions would only reward Castro for the regime's ongoing repression of political dissidents. We need to keep up the economic pressure on Cuba, so this logic goes, in order to keep pressure on the regime to do something about human rights. But there's a long-standing empirical relationship between trade and democracy. The usual logic put forth to explain this relationship is that trade creates an economically independent and politically aware middle class, which, in turn, presses for political reform. It's not clear that this argument actually holds up when subjected to close causal scrutiny (although the reverse does seem to be true -- i.e., democratic reform creates pressure for trade liberalization). Still, it's difficult to disagree with the proposition that by enabling visiting scholars and religious groups to stay in Cuba for up to two years (as the presidential order would allow) rather than a matter of weeks (as is currently the case) we'd be helping, not hurting, democracy in Cuba. First, easing the current travel restrictions would allow for far deeper linkages between non-governmental organizations from both countries, which some see as a powerful mechanism for democratic reform. Second, because American visitors would be staying on the island longer, scholars and activists alike would gain much better insight into where the pressure points for democracy actually exist.

3. It's a double standard. Another reason to question the link between the embargo and human rights is that it's a double standard that flies in the face of U.S. foreign policy toward other high-profile authoritarian countries, most notably China. Stephen Colbert once quipped that Cuba is "a totalitarian, repressive, communist state that -- unlike China -- can't lend us money." Unless and until the U.S. pursues a consistent policy of sanctions against politically repressive regimes, the case against Cuba doesn't hold up very well.

4. It's out of date. To argue that U.S.-Cuban policy is an anachronism is putting it mildly. In an international climate marked by cooperation on issues ranging from terrorism to global financial crises, holding on to this last vestige of the Cold War foreign policy no longer makes sense. (Bear in mind that the young people now entering college were not even alive when Czechoslovakia existed.) Sure, there's still tension between the United States and Russia. But the recent renegotiation of the START agreement on nuclear proliferation reinforces the notion that the Cold War is no longer the dominant prism for understanding that bilateral relationship, much less the Cuban-American one.

5. It doesn't work. Of course, if the embargo were the last outpost of Cold War politics and it produced results, that might be an argument for continuing it. But scholars and analysts of economic sanctions have repeatedly questioned the efficacy of economic statecraft against rogue states unless and until there's been regime change. And that's because, as one scholar put it, "interfering with the market (whether using sanctions, aid, or other government policies) has real economic costs, and we rarely know enough about how the target economy works or how to manipulate the political incentives of the target government to achieve our goals."

6. It's counter-productive. Isolating Cuba has been more than ineffective. It's also provided the Castro brothers with a convenient political scapegoat for the country's ongoing economic problems, rather than drawing attention to their own mismanagement. Moreover, in banning the shipment of information-technology products, the United States has effectively assisted the Cuban government in shutting out information from the outside world, yet another potential catalyst for democratization.

7. It's inhumane. If strategic arguments don't persuade you that it's time to end the embargo, then perhaps humanitarian arguments will. For as anyone who's traveled to the island knows, there's a decidedly enclave-like feel to those areas of the economy where capitalism has been allowed to flourish in a limited sense (e.g. tourism) and the rest of the island, which feels very much like the remnant of an exhausted socialist economic model. When I went there in the 1990s with my sister, I remember the throngs of men who would cluster outside the tourist haunts. They'd hope to persuade visitors like me to pretend to be their escort so they could sneak into the fancier hotels and nightclubs, which they could not enter otherwise. Horse -- yes, horse -- was a common offering on menus back then. That situation has apparently eased in recent years as the government has opened up more sectors of the economy to ordinary Cubans. But the selective nature of that deregulation has only exacerbated economic inequalities. Again, one can argue that the problem here is one of poor domestic policy choices, rather than the embargo. But it's not clear that ordinary Cubans perceive that distinction. Moreover, when you stand in the airport and watch tourists disembark with bucket-loads of basic medical supplies, which they promptly hand over to their (native) friends and family, it's hard not to feel that U.S. policy is perpetuating an injustice.

8. There's oil there. Another reason to think that it might be time to reconsider our Cuba policy is this natural resource. Cuba has begun exploratory drilling in search of oil in its territorial waters, with some reports estimating the island could become a major oil producer -- and refiner -- over the next five to 10 years. In an era where geopolitical realities may make places like Venezuela and the Middle East less reliable sources of oil for the United States, we need all the friends we can get, particularly when they're right next door.

9. It's unpopular. According to the travel-service provider Orbitz Worldwide, 67 percent of Americans favor lifting the travel ban, and 72 percent believe that expanding travel to Cuba would positively impact the lives of Cubans. Orbitz has collected more than 100,000 signatures in favor of restoring travel to Cuba through its drive. And according to Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), one of the leading proponents of lifting the embargo, if a vote in Congress were taken secretly, the ban on travel and trade would most likely fall. In other words, the environment to lift sanctions may be ripe politically in a way that it wasn't even six months ago.

10. It restricts Americans' freedom of movement. Cuba is the only country in the world where Americans are restricted by their own government from visiting freely. Yes, that's right. It's easier to go to North Korea (from the American end of things) than it is to travel to our Caribbean neighbor. In a country whose "great American novelist" -- that would be Jonathan Franzen -- just published a national epic titled "Freedom," one need not underscore this irony.

Here's hoping that if I ever return to radio, we'll have more reason to run shows on Cuba in the future.

Follow Delia on Twitter.

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As a Canadian I have traveled to Cuba three times and have realized that tourists from every other country but the US are represented there. We see tons of tourists from the UK, all of Europe, and Canada. It is quite odd to go to a country and not see any Americans.
It is a beautiful country with warm and friendly people.
Americans are really missing out in this one.


February 15 2011 at 2:53 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

"Moreover, when you stand in the airport and watch tourists disembark with bucket-loads of basic medical supplies, which they promptly hand over to their (native) friends and family, it's hard not to feel that U.S. policy is perpetuating an injustice." I thought Delia's boyfriend Michael Moore was making millions telling us how wonderful Castro's Socialist medicine was, and how much better it is than American medicine. Even the NYTimes was running pieces on Cuba's burgeoning biotech regime. It should be that the (native) Cubans are handing their (visiting) relatives basic medical supplies, no? Or has this refugee from (left-wing) public radio got it wrong again?

September 08 2010 at 10:07 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I personally believe both Cubans and Americans [and the rest of the world, for that matter] would be better off if we would allow free trade and travel to and from Cuba. I can say first hand that the Cuban people are hurting; consumer goods are at a minimum. Some people only obtain laundary soap every six months. This is true for garments and so forth. There is an extremely large percentage of the population that is undemloyeed. Cuban medical doctors are some of the best trained in the world--they just do not have the equipment and medicine for their people. All in all, the Cubans are very kind and considerate people. They would welcome a change in the US foreign policy for them.

August 26 2010 at 11:08 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Ah yes! A good cuban cigar!

August 26 2010 at 8:10 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Embargos do nothing but strengthen the leaders of the countries that oppress their people. Fidel and Raul Castro could already be out of power if the Cuban people had had a taste of American goods and technology. Can you imagine how many millions could be made from car and computer sales alone?!

August 26 2010 at 7:24 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

What is the difference between China and Cuba when it comes to "human rights violations"? Simply stated, nothing! The only difference between both countries to the US is that Cuba can't lend us any money. Embargos, as well as UN Sanctions do not well have they worked on Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan and others?

August 26 2010 at 5:44 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
Lloyd E. Elling

It is way past time to allow US Citizens the freedom to travel to Cuba. The USA Men's National Soccer Team traveled to Cuba to play a competition many months ago against their national team and the only USA Soccer Fans to attend the match was done illegally by traveling to Cuba from another country. It is my choice to travel or not to travel to CUBA. End this Embargo and do it rapidly. My family and I are ready to travel to CUBA!

August 26 2010 at 5:15 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply

Dear Delia, President Carter tried to ease the embargo and Castro send the Mariel boatlift that emptied all of the jails and mental intitutions. President Clinton tried and Castro shot three planes down in the Florida straits. The embargo is the only excuse that Castro has. Castro will not let embargo be lifted as it is the only excuse that he has for the living conditions in Cuba. Meanwhile he is one of the richest persons in the world.

August 26 2010 at 5:10 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

#11 great cigars

August 26 2010 at 4:32 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

No, It's way past time to lift the embargo, We have given a message to the World that we will do things just because we can. Man up America and do the right thing now!!

August 26 2010 at 3:59 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply

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