Disintegration of Political Obstacles Leading to a Lift of the Cuban Embargo

October 13, 2016

The US-Cuba embargo, installed in the early 1960s, has been in place for over 50 years. Its ultimate goal of destroying Fidel Castro’s reign has not been accomplished, and its  motivation, fear of a worldwide expansion of communism and a Soviet-aided Cuban military attack on the US have diminished. As Castro passes, the major source of US/Cuban political obstruction will, too. In terms of the US ending the embargo, we can ask ourselves, what are we waiting for? In the coming pages I will argue that due to the gradual removal of diplomatic obstacles between the two countries, the US/Cuban embargo will be lifted sooner rather than later. As Cuba continues to dissolve its strict socialist model, Cuban-American sentiment shifts, the Cuban American National Foundation weakens and international pressures for cooperation strengthen, a change in the half-century old policy will be both desired and beneficial.

Goals of the Total Embargo on Cuba

The total embargo on Cuba was put in place on February 7th, 1962. It was imposed through the combination of the Foreign Assistance Act, Executive Order 3447 and the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917 (Lamarani 24). It was later expanded upon with the passing of Helms-Burton, outlawing the import of products containing Cuban materials and condemning ships with commercial relations with Cuba by prohibiting them from docking at US ports. The goals of the embargo were extremely clear at the time of its installment: to change the course/nature of the Cuban government and to punish the Cuban economy for its interaction with the USSR (Lamarani 69). Today, less than one-in-seven Americans find removing Castro a “top American priority” (Bourque). It is clear that Cuba is not a threat to the United States in military or economic terms although Fidel Castro is still essentially integrated in the government. The Cold War ended over two decades ago, as has the supremacy and existence of the Soviet Union. There is no longer fear of the USSR launching a global “red wave” with Cuba and Fidel Castro at its side. As Shari-Ellen Bourque, author of “The Illegality of the Cuban Embargo in the Current International System” points out, “[Castro’s] days of encouraging red-revolution throughout the hemisphere are over.” Cuba and its current government do not endanger US security and national interests. In conclusion, in response to the embargo’s described goals, as Chief of US Interests Wayne Smith said, “all of these goals have long since been accomplished” (Bourque).

Deviation from the Socialist Model

The United States has criticized the Cuban government for taking away economic and political liberties of its people through their socialist and communist systems. Although one-party rule is unbroken, the pure socialist system has begun to disintegrate, incorporating new economic freedoms for entrepreneurship, foreign investment and private property rights. The Cuban government has been “flirting” with capitalist, economic intent since before the Special Period of the 1990s. For example, in 1982, the government passed Decree Law 50, permitting up to 50% of state-run companies to be owned by foreigners (Jatar-Hausmann). During the 1980s, the Cuban government also legalized the sale and construction of personal residences. The introduction of “quasi-private” property rights did not have outstanding popularity during this time, however (Bourque).

The conditions changed in the 1990s, when 80% of Cuba’s trade was eliminated by the collapse of the USSR. With a government deficit of 40% of GDP in 1993, the Cuban government had to make changes to its economic system (Jatar-Hausmann). They opened up all export sectors to foreign direct investment (excluding sugar), negotiated free trade agreements, created incentive programs for farmers, permitted self-employment and legalized the holding of foreign monies on the island (Xianglin and Ortega Breña).  By 1996, one could be self-employed in nearly 40 occupations, the majority of them in the services industry.  In an effort to further decrease government deficits, the Cuban government created an income tax imposed on the self-employed and eliminated a considerable amount of jobs in public industries.  In fact, they released a goal to have 50% of GDP in private hands when Raúl Castro steps down in 2018 (Sweig and Bustamante).

The “lineamentos” between the two economic systems have allowed a middle class to emerge; a group anthropologist Dr. Concetta Russo of the University of Milan calls “cuentaposistas.” These Cubans have income with which they can now buy cars and homes without dependence on the state. It is clear that Cuba is not yet a “post-socialist” society because this middle class is still quite small, but is nonetheless steadily growing. With these shifts away from socialism to a more capitalist system, economic freedom has increased, but so has inequality. It is clear that the criticism of the Cuban government forbidding economic freedom for its populace is no longer valid.

Changes in Cuban-American Sentiment

The initial wave of immigrants that fled to Florida in 1959 was generally associated with the bureaucracy under Batista and was very anti-Castro. These political exiles formed a strong front against the revolution and supported the US cause to bring distress to the island nation. This generation of Cuban-Americans, now in their late 80s and 90s, is dying off, as is their desire for the Cuban people to fail. The majority of US citizens find the policy of the embargo “ineffective, cruel and anachronistic” (Lamarani 66). A CNN poll in April of 2009 reported that 64% of the US population opposed the sanctions against the island nation. Several US presidents have expressed disapproval of the policy as well, including Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.

In search for evidence of whether Cuban-American feelings about US policy toward Cuba and the Cuban people have changed, one can look to a presidential candidate’s proposed policy and see how the vote of the Florida population responds. University of North Carolina political science professor Lars Schoultz analyzed this in the elections of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Bush tightened policy by the reduction of family visits and the restriction of remittances; with these policies he publicized a goal of wanting “Cubans to someday experience the same rights and freedoms as Americans do” (Schoultz). He won the state of Florida in 2000 and again in 2004. In 2008, Obama proposed to relax the policy by increasing family visits and removing the limits on remittances imposed by Bush. He, too, won Florida, in 2008 and again in 2012. It is evident that more liberal foreign policy toward Cuba is no longer detrimental to winning the state’s votes.

In the International Migration Review, Eckstein and Barberia describe, “Post-1980 emigrants (who constitute approximately half of all Cuban-Americans) have come primarily for economic reasons. They want to help, not break with, island kin. From their moral viewpoint, politics does not stand in the way of family.” Many politicians have feared removing the embargo due to the political repercussions from the peninsular state. The Cuban-American viewpoint has dramatically changed for the majority since the triumph of the revolution; it is no longer such an obstacle, but possibly a great enthusiast, in making changes to US-Cuban policy.

Weakening of the CANF

The Cuban-American National Foundation (CANF), founded by Cuban exiles in 1981, has attempted to seek revenge against Castro and his revolutionary supporters through political means. They received aid from the Reagan Administration to create Radio Martí and were responsible for the approvals of the Torricelli Act and the LIBERTAD solidarity act. After the Elian Gonzalez incident, the CANF gained monumental political power and support among Cuban Americans. Schoultz explains, the “CANF’s goal was to influence US policy toward Cuba, and it did so the old-fashioned way, with campaign contributions and bloc voting.”  As advocates of the CANF gained a foothold in the US political system, they pursued policies that strengthened the embargo, an “anachronism kept alive by Florida politics” (Lamarani 68).

The Foundation used to be a huge ethnic community with significant financial resources provided by wealthier Cubans who fled the island in the early 1960s.  Although policies have been approved in favor of the CANF in the past, its domination in the political sphere has plummeted.  As proof of this decline, President Obama has been able to pass several acts increasing charter flight frequency and completely removing remittance limits with Cuban-Americans in Congress (Smith).  The underlying reason behind the breakdown of CANF power is attributable to two main causes. First, the main goal of the Foundation lacks support, as explored in the previous section of this paper.  The majority of Cuban-Americans do not want to tighten the embargo and no longer advocate CANF programs. Second, there have been few conflicting events to fuel popular support for CANF endeavors: immigration has slowed and radical policies concerning Cuban relations are few (Smith).  Without a sturdy support base of Cuban-Americans strongly opposed to the Cuban government and its initiatives, the CANF will continue to weaken and its strength as an obstacle to the removal of the embargo will as well.

Continued Strengthening of International Pressures

Since its installment, the total embargo against Cuba has received substantial international criticism and pressure advocating its removal. It has been reviewed and condemned by thousands of experts of international law. Bourque claims, “This extension and imposition of domestic beliefs (deemed American foreign policy) onto other foreign states violates international law as well as US domestic law.” In her article she paraphrases international law, which provides the inalienable right that a country has the right to determine its own economic, social and political systems free of interference from other nations.

Although there are exceptions to this law, the Cuban embargo fits none of them.

The embargo also violates the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade; “nations will not interfere with the free flow of trade of other member nations” (Cain).  Cuba is not a member of GATT, but because the embargo condemns third party countries that are members, it is in direct violation. The international community began showing support and sympathizing with the Cuban government as soon as serious economic reforms began in the 1990s (Xianglin and Ortega Breña). Latin American nations, many in support of free trade zones with Cuba, have unanimously voted to lift it (Sweig and Bustamante).

In 2011, 185 of 192 countries of the UN General Assembly condemned the embargo against the island country (Lamarani 74). Last year, 188 nations, some being extremely close allies of Washington, condemned it, and only three nations, including the United States, to vote favorably (“General Assembly Renews Call for End of US Embargo Against Cuba”). For the 22nd consecutive year, in 2013, Cuba will once again pose the question to the UN. Although voting has repeatedly favored Cuba, thus far, the UN has been unable to force a resolution with a real impact in altering the status quo. Nonetheless, nearly all UN member nations have been showing consistent support for Cuba.  As the number of nations in the international community opposed to this legislation climbs, the US will continue to feel pressure against continuing it and would clearly see support from international community if it pursued its removal.

Castro’s Descent from Cuban Politics

The embargo had the explicit goal of removing Fidel Castro from power. It is inevitable that Fidel and Raúl will descend from Cuban politics. In 2006, Fidel handed the reins to his younger brother Raúl, officially stepping down from the head of government. Raúl Castro has been making changes in Cuba’s economic system, as discussed above, allowing for a public-private hybrid to emerge. It has been announced that in 2018, Raúl too will step down, and this time the successor does not have the family name (Rajo). Who’s to say that the chosen leader-to-be, Miguel Diaz-Canel, won’t continue the transition away from polarized-leftist economic policy?  The “pink tide” of leftist politicians has swept Latin America, which would leave a left-leaning Cuba in good company. Although it is uncertain whether the removal of the Castros from the political sphere will bring democracy to Cuba, it is evident that the most radical times of socialism and the age of Castro rule are “fading into the sunset” (Schoultz).

Concluding Remarks

In summary, the goals of the Cuban embargo, removing Castro and the role of the USSR, have long since expired.  Since the establishment of the total embargo, the political bases on which it stands have begun to weaken and crumble: the Cuban government has deviated from its socialist model and begun to provide economic liberties, the collective Cuban-American sentiment toward the island is no longer antagonistic, the Cuban American National Foundation has lost its popular support, international pressures have amplified and Fidel and Raúl are on their way out.

What has held back generations of US politicians from lifting the half-century old legislation has begun to fall away, creating space for political and economic progress. After analyzing the circumstances, one can’t help but wonder why the United States finds such advantages in trading with China, a one-party, communist, pubic-private hybrid economy and utterly rejects trade with Cuba, a shockingly similar, yet more geographically-advantageous trading partner. In Cuba and also in Miami, the line has blurred between revolutionary and counterrevolutionary. The dynamics on the island and among the world audience are changing, yet American policy remains stagnant.  As the political obstacles fall away, the American government will soon lift the Cuban embargo not only because its initial initiatives are no longer profitable, efficient or internationally-supported, but also because the effects of removing this old, imperialistic policy will bring about economic and political progress to the entire hemisphere.


Works Cited

Bourque, Shari-Ellen. “The Illegality of the Cuban Embargo in the Current International System.” Boston University International Law Journal 13:191 (1995) 191-228. Web. 8 Oct. 2013.

Cain Jr., Jerry W. "Extraterritorial Application of the United States' Trade Embargo Against Cuba: The United Nations General Assembly's Call for An End to the US Trade Embargo." Georgia Journal of International and Comparative Law. 24 (1994): 379. 8 Oct. 2013.

Eckstein, Susan and Lorena Barberia. “Grounding Immigration Generations in History: Cuban Americans and Their Transnational Ties.” International Migration Review 36.3 (2007): 799-837. Web. 8 Oct. 2013.

“General Assembly Renews Call for End of US Embargo Against Cuba.” United Nations News Centre, 13 Nov. 2012. Web. 8 Oct. 2013.

Jatar-Hausmann, Ana Julia. "Through the Cracks of Socialism: the Emerging Private Sector in Cuba." Cuba in Transition 6 (1996): 202-218. Web. 8 Oct. 2013.

Lamarani, Salim. Cuba: A Historical and Legal Perspective on the U.S. Blockade. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2013. Print.

Rajo, Carlos. “Analysis: Castro Brothers’ Successor May Inherit a Very Different Cuba.” NBC News, 2 Mar. 2013. Web. 8 Oct. 2013.

Russo, Concetta. "Living Like Nikanor The ‘Paradox of Transition’ in Contemporary Cuba." Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences 4.9 (2013): 727. Web. 8 Oct. 2013.

Schoultz, Lars. "Benevolent domination: The ideology of US policy toward Cuba." Cuban Studies 41.1 (2010): 1-19. Web. 8 Oct. 2013.

Smith, Jonathan C. “Foreign Policy for Sale? Interest Group Influence on President Clinton’s Cuba Policy.” Presidential Studies Quarterly 28.1 (1998): 207-220. Web. 8 Oct. 2013.

Sweig, Julia E., and Michael J. Bustamante. "Cuba after Communism: The Economic Reforms That are Transforming the Island." (2013). Web. 8 Oct. 2013.

Xianglin, Mao and Mariana Ortega Breña. “Cuban Reform and Economic Opening: Retrospective and Assessment.” Latin American Perspectives. 34.6 (2007): 93-105. Web. 8 Oct. 2013

About Author(s)

dmscalise's picture
Danielle Scalise
Danielle Scalise is a senior undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh pursuing degrees in Economics and Political Science, with a minor Spanish and certificate in Latin American Studies. She took part in the Pitt in Cuba program in the spring of 2013 and is currently an intern for Panoramas. Danielle is attending Georgetown Law in the fall where she will study international economic law pursuing a career specializing in US/Latin American trade relations.