An Argument for Lifting the United States Embargo of Cuba

United States embargo of Cuba

American Military University

IRLS502 International Political Systems

Student: Peter Bakke

Originally created: 2006, reworked 


The United States has imposed an embargo on Cuba for the past 50 years. No other nation has incurred such long-standing punishment by the U.S. Why has Cuba, a nation approximately the size of the state of Virginia, aroused this long term enmity from the leader of the free world? Eleven U.S. presidents have presided over this sustained embargo, either unwilling or unable to change the status quo. Cuba’s political ideology offers a weak challenge to the liberal democratic and capitalistic tide that has swept across the world since the fall of the USSR in 1992. The economic cost of the embargo to Cuba has been estimated at $280 billion over the life of the embargo. The cost to the United States in potential trading revenues has been estimated at several billion dollars a year. Florida alone loses an estimated $1 billion a year in trade with Cuba (Weinmann 2004). Several Gulf port mayors have called for an end to the embargo in order to increase trade and create jobs in the United States. Despite pressures from some domestic corners and annual international pressure, the United States continues to enforce economic sanctions against Cuba.

Cuba has an annual GDP of $72 billion (CIA, 2012) while the Exxon corporation has annual revenues of more than $480 billion (Business Week, 2013). This comparison plus the discussion that follows will demonstrate that the sovereign nation of Cuba is neither an economic nor a political menace to the US. It is the thesis of this paper that US foreign policy towards Cuba, specifically the economic embargo, is likely driven by some other, non-economic and non-military, dynamic.

The US embargo has been unsuccessful in accomplishing its purpose of changing the Cuban regime. Accompanying this failure, the embargo has cast the U.S. in a poor light in the international community. This begs the question of why the U.S. continues to enforce a policy that has not worked for five decades, while at the same time bringing opprobrium from all corners of the international community. This international discredit has manifested itself at the United Nations, where the General Assembly has voted to condemn the Cuban embargo for 21 consecutive years by overwhelming majorities. The latest vote in November 2012, was 183 to 2 against the embargo (United Nations, 2012).

The primary argument of this paper is that domestic US politics is thwarting normal relations with Cuba. Specifically, the barrier to better relations with Cuba may be the result of presidential politics in the swing state of Florida. The 29 electoral votes of Florida are crucial to winning the US presidency. In order to win the state of Florida in the general election, one could argue that winning the Cuban émigré vote is a vital strategy for victory.

This presidential politics-foreign relations policy nexus is used by influential Cuban diaspora interest groups such as the Cuban Liberty Council, the American National Foundation, and other Cuban lobby groups (Sweig, 2003) to push their agenda, which has been identified as having two primary goals: 1) the return of nationalized assets to dispersed Cubans now living in the US and 2) to return to Cuba as its rulers. There are an estimated 800,000 Cuban Americans living in Florida, primarily in the “Little Havana” area of Miami. They are politically active and influential while tending to vote overwhelmingly Republican. George W. Bush was declared the winner (by a ruling of the US Supreme Court) in the state of Florida in the 2000 US election by a slim margin of 537 disputed votes, thus securing the presidency. Bush received over 80% of the Cuban American votes in Florida that November, well enough to help him offset Senator Al Gore’s advantage in the urban areas. Without this overwhelming majority of Republican Cuban American votes, Bush would not have beaten his opponent, former Vice-President Al Gore.  If Gore had been declared the winner of Florida’s electoral votes, he would have won the presidency.

The Cuban embargo is paradoxical when one looks at the US foreign policy history of the last 50 years. During a large segment of the Cuban embargo, the US engaged the Soviet Union, a mortal enemy. This interaction between diametrically opposed superpowers occurred during the apex of the Cold War. During the past few decades, the United States also has been actively engaging Communist China even though some scholars and politicians see China to be a growing hegemon in the Far East and note with concern that China has been making economic and military strides with friendly countries in the Western Hemisphere (Leiteritz, 2012) which is America’s traditional sphere of influence. The United States is also actively engaging Vietnam, a former enemy. We find today that the US is actively trading with Vietnam. It appears that US foreign policy is capable of radical change and rapprochement, but paradoxically not in the case of the small nation of Cuba.

Background of US-Cuban Relations

The United States and Cuba have a long history together. Cuba, like all Western Hemisphere nations, has been greatly affected throughout its existence by United States’ economic and security policies. Being only 90 miles from the US mainland, Cuba is influenced by its large neighbor to the north, just as the moon is affected by the gravity of the earth. Similar economic and political dyads can be observed between other large countries and nearby island nations such as China and Taiwan, Ireland and England, India and Sri Lanka. Along these lines, John Adams once remarked that Cuba had an unnatural attachment to Spain based on long geographic lines and that the inevitable natural result would be the eventual gravitation of Cuba toward the United States (Whittlesey, 1922).

The historical influence of Spain upon Cuba and the attempted Spanish hegemony deep into South and Central America has been seen by historians as a reaction to French and English forays into North America which needed counterbalancing. Nations compete for resources that support strong economies which in turn bolster strong militaries (Callahan, 2004). Spain was in a race with other European nations to exploit the New World to its own advantage. Some would argue that the race to carve up the Western Hemisphere was a classic case of European imperialism.

The Spanish-American War of 1898 resulted in the United States acquiring various Spanish colonies. These territories included Cuba, the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico. The United States militarily occupied Cuba for several years following the Spanish-American War. Following the US victory, there was a debate at the time whether the United States should add Cuba as a state. Since Cuba’s trade was already predominately with the United States, consisting primarily of sugar and rum, the US Congress decided in 1902 to grant Cuba its independence. However, this independence was granted with onerous conditions attached, one of which enabled the Unites States to interfere in Cuban internal affairs (Dominquez, 1997). In subsequent years, when unrest developed in Cuba, US troops reoccupied the country from 1906 to1909. Some Cuban nationalists complained that their country was as independent from the US as Long Island (Lowenthal, 1975). Many Americans agreed, concerned with continued US imperialism in the region. These concerns were exacerbated by additional US incursions into the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Nicaragua in the coming decades. The acquisition of territory is a zero-sum game. The US made it clear to its European cousins that they were not to meddle in regional affairs which the United States deemed vital to its own national interests.

The concept of “American exceptionalism” was used in its westward expansion on the North American Continent and it was being used again in its imperialistic foreign policy regarding the Americas, Cuba included. The idea of “American exceptionalism” survives today in US foreign policy. This nationalistic view continues to color US relations with other nations in such a way that any challenge to this jingoistic view, foreign or domestic, is met with hostility – particularly from politicians on the right.

The 1959 popular revolution led by Castro replaced the unpopular and corrupt regime of Fulgencio Batista. Either Fidel or Raul Castro has headed the Cuban government since the overthrow of Batista. The United States government and even non-government entities have been interfering in Cuban internal affairs since the early 20th century. For example, the US-based Mafia established a significant presence in Cuba and was linked by various sources to US plots to kill Cuban leader Fidel Castro in the 1960’s (Wolske, 2000).

Since the revolution of 1959, the US has tried many times to change the Cuban regime by illegal means, including the abortive “Bay of Pigs” invasion of 1961 and also by assassination attempts, not in-frequently involving the Mafia. One can only surmise that the Mafia agreed to these activities in part because they were promised some type of quid pro quo when the Communist regime was overthrown. In addition, a terrorism program named “Operation Mongoose” was sanctioned by the US government (Husain, 2005) which involved over 400 Cuban exiles, many recruited from Florida. All attempts to overthrow the Cuban revolution failed.

The United States has publicly admitted that it continues to interfere with Cuban internal affairs, including the use of the Internet, printed materials, and radio and television signals (CubaNet, 2003). The US has also explicitly admitted that the overthrow of the Cuban government, specifically the Castro brothers, has been the driving force behind its Cuban policies (Department of State: US, 2004) The aggressive stance of the US towards Cuba, exemplified by the five decade-long embargo, is a reflection of realist paradigm that there are no morals in the anarchical realm of international relations, only self-interest. To quote Thucydides, “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”


Modern US-Cuban conflict began after the island’s 1959 revolution. This surprising regime change occurred during the Cold War and such a disturbing development across the Straits of Florida was disconcerting for the United States government. There was particular concern when the new Cuban government looked to the Soviet Union for assistance after being rebuffed by initial approaches to the US government. The fear of a Communist take-over “domino” effect in French Indo-China was a serious concern at the time and there was now a similar threat facing the United States and Western democracy in the Caribbean, Central, and South America. This unwelcomed changing of the guard was the beginning of America’s modern war-like attitude towards Cuba.

Concomitant Communist advances in Southeast Asia and in the southern Western Hemisphere may have served to harden US stances in both areas during this time. “Che” Guevara suggested in the 1960’s that revolutionaries should create two or three Vietnams for the US to handle at one time (Dominquez, 1997). It could be argued that U.S. policymakers were genuinely concerned about the spread of Communism during this era of Communist advances. At the time, the 1954 defeat of the French in Vietnam at Dien Ben Phu, plus memories of the Korean conflict, may have dampened calls to invade Cuba and forcibly overtake the government. Instead, an embargo was put in place that remains to this day. And as we have seen, covert actions were also put in place to destabilize the Cuban government. The Bay of Pigs fiasco, for example, was a victory for the new Communist country against the US titan to the north and resulted in international diplomatic embarrassment for the United States. Finally, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis placed Cuba squarely between the national interests of the US and the USSR. The resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis, with the removal of nuclear weapon-tipped ballistic missiles from Cuba, marked an important turning point between the two superpowers. This near cataclysmic event helped improve communications between the two superpowers and began the processes that led to the Strategic Arms Limitations agreements a decade later. In this sense, Cuba unwittingly helped serve as a catalyst for changing the essential dynamic between the two superpowers.

Current Situation

The United States has argued for decades that the Cuban government regularly violates many human rights of its citizens. This gives the US a moral reason to oppose the Cuban regime and argue that US policy is in place to help the Cuban people. However, many experts in the academic and policy world believe that morality should have no place in the international system. Perhaps the Cuban government is despised more by the U.S. (and Cuban exiles) because of its nationalization of industries and the taking of personal property after the 1959 revolution.

From an economic viewpoint, Cuba’s association with the USSR and the Eastern Bloc countries made up some 90% of its international trade (Purcell,1990). When the Soviet Union fell and lost control of its satellites, Cuba’s very existence was questioned. Cuba also relied on the USSR for military aid. The very fact that Cuba was able to survive this economic shock was surprising to many, but showed that austerity measures worked – and also showed the strength of Fidel Castro’s iron grip on his own citizens.

Current U.S.-Cuban relations could be seen as indicative of an unstable peace, which sometimes rises just short of conflict. The Levels-of-analysis approach suggests that relations between Cuba and the US can be understood by using the images of the international system, the nation, and the individual. The US-Cuban conflict as seen from the international level can be interpreted as a smaller nation caught in a classic power struggle between two larger powers, the USSR and the United States. After its revolution, Cuba naturally looked for power partners on the international stage once its diplomatic outreach to the US was rebuffed. The resulting long-term association with the USSR was a classic balance-of-power move to gain a strong partner that could help stave off any attacks by a large, bellicose neighbor.

Cuba has experienced difficult economic hardships since the breakup of the Soviet Union. It has had no hegemon partner to parry the economic might of the US. China apparently has no interest in getting deeply involved in a purely regional dispute involving the United States and Cuba. Russia is no longer in a position to help Cuba either. Therefore, at least on the international stage, Cuba has been relegated to using the United Nations to help it communicate the unjustness of the onerous provisions of the US economic embargo. For example, as mentioned above, Cuba has used the UN Assembly to embarrass the United States 21 years in a row by having the international community vote on lifting the embargo which is almost universally deemed to be unjust – but mere international embarrassment is far from capable of changing the US policy. Using the UN is not a realist gambit, but instead is a liberalist action to use an international institution to put pressure on the U.S. to abandon its embargo. The U.S. insists that the embargo is a bilateral dispute among nations. The UN votes are not binding in any way, so the US chooses to ignore them. Some have argued that this strategy may indicate that the Cuban government actually prefers a constant “cold war” with the U.S. in order to maintain political cover internally and internationally (Borer & Bowen, 2007).

At the nation-level of analysis, Castro and other authoritarian rulers use the fear of national enemies to influence its citizens. The fear of invasion from the U.S. has certainly been used to rally the Cuban population, sometimes for good reason. Several generations of Cubans have grown up with a deep-seated fear and hatred of the United States, similar to many nations in the Mideast. This is an ongoing problem that U.S. policy must address if American exceptionalism is to work successfully off U.S. shores. Winning hearts and minds is always a difficult and prolonged business.

Fidel Castro and his brother Raul represent the individual-level of analysis in Cuban affairs. The individual has much more freedom of action in an authoritarian regime than a democratic government. There are fewer, if any, institutions in the way of economic, military, or political action. It remains to be seen whether Raul Castro cultivates a ‘hero’ status as his brother Fidel did, but the Castro patriarchy continues to persist in Havana despite all attempts to depose it from afar and internally. Cuban leadership has survived eleven U.S. presidents – from Eisenhower to Obama – in addition to the punishing embargo.

Cuban Refugees and the Embargo

Economic embargoes are not expressly prohibited by The United Nations Charter. The Cuban economic embargo has not changed the country’s regime but it has kept Cuba a poor and impoverished country. Economic embargoes are seen by some as only one tool, short of military coercion, that can be used to punish perceived adversaries. It is the most vulnerable of people of Cuba who are suffering due to the embargo – the sick, the elderly, and the very young. International organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have condemned the embargo because of its effect upon these vulnerable populations, among other issues (Lopez-Levy, 2011).

Some scholars believe that the U.S. has misapplied economic sanctions to Cuba, stating that only multinational embargos have any chance of being effective (Gordon, 2012). They also claim that the embargo is ‘extraterritorial,’ meaning that it affects third countries trading with Cuba. This has caused ire amongst traditional U.S. friends (and foes) alike. For example, Canada and other countries have strenuously argued that the embargo in its current form flaunts international law. For example, any cargo ship that enters a Cuban port cannot enter a U.S. port for 180 days. If the ship enters a U.S. port within this timeframe, it is subject to confiscation. This is seen as an illegal form of a unilateral embargo that affects the ability of third party nations to conduct commerce. There are also embargo implications for international banking, mergers, and acquisitions, and the inability of Cuba to join financial institutions such as the World Bank and IMF. This is contrary to the U.S. profession of inclusiveness in the community of nations. Finally, others have argued that US policies, including the embargo, have undeniably retarded the democratic development of Cuba (Landau, 2009).

Strangely, the US has in place a policy that mitigates certain aspects of the Cuban embargo. This policy is to allow tens of thousands of Cubans to immigrate each year to the United States. To many, this policy acts as a kind of release valve for internal political and economic dissent that would otherwise build up inside Cuba and perhaps cause a change in leadership to occur. This “release valve” policy could be seen as a way to keep Cuban leadership in power. For example, an exodus of over 120,000 Cubans was allowed to cross over to the United States in 1980 during what has become known as the Mariel boatlift operation  (Fernández, 2007).

The United States is pressuring Cuba economically while paradoxically enabling a yearly Cuban immigrant quota. Remittances by Cuban exiles in the US that are sent back to Cuba to provide a much-needed injection of cash for its economy, which again acts as another release valve for the Cuban state. In addition, the US embargo is not supported by many nations, including the European Union, which in turn erodes the effectiveness of the economic sanctions.

Since the Cuban revolution, tens of thousands of exiles have entered the U.S. The majority of them, some 90%, have emigrated to the United States, mainly to Florida and to New Jersey. Exiled Cubans have generally been economically successful in the U.S. In the year 2000, total revenues of Cuban-American businesses in the U.S. exceeded that of the entire nation of Cuba (Eckstein, 2005). Cuban voting patterns in Florida helped the Republican ticket win the state in both the presidential races of 2000 and 2004.

It can be argued that better relations with Cuba could actually help topple the Communist regime. After all, the US decided to engage the USSR, China, and Vietnam. Why not Cuba? Cuban leadership uses the punitive US actions to protect itself from internal strife. The nation’s ills, from poverty to a lack of modern medical equipment can all be blamed, rightly or wrongly, upon the U.S. embargo and other U.S. actions. By removing the 50-year old embargo, the United States could also remove one of the primary rationales given by the Cuban government for the failures of socialism. The Cuban government has been using this excuse for fifty years.

Possible Future Muddied by US Presidential Politics

There does not appear to be much if any internal US debate regarding lifting the Cuban embargo. The few that are arguing for the normalization of relations appear to be utilizing arguments based upon the tenets of liberalism. They see some successes in this area such as the recent American experiences with China, Vietnam, and Russia. The primary idea behind this philosophy is that regime change can occur if the US engages softly with antagonistic nations rather than punitively (Nye, 2004). The US is not going to invade Cuba, absent a Syria-like humanitarian crisis, therefore, what are the U.S. policy alternatives to effect regime change?

A potential answer to help end the U.S.-Cuban impasse is to immediately stop the embargo. If one imagines an end to the embargo, it would alleviate the suffering of the general population of Cuba and would bring laurels to the U.S. The yearly votes at the UN Assembly clearly indicate that the world would see a compassionate U.S. helping its neighbor in need. Having set a precedent of dealing with other Communist nations, opponents of the ending of economic sanctions would have little ammunition with which to argue their opposition. If there isn’t a plan to militarily change the Cuban regime, which no competent scholar or military tactician believes exists, then the road is wide open to attempt a new approach to U.S.-Cuba relations. If there is any hope or belief that economically and culturally engaging non-democratic states leads to stabilization and peace, as arguably has happened with the former Eastern Bloc, Russia, China, and Vietnam, then a new era of US-Cuban relations should begin posthaste.

The main problem blocking this potential future of cooperative US-Cuban relations is the political heft of hundreds of thousands of Cuban exiles living (and voting) in the United States, particularly in the important swing state of Florida. This group of exiled Cubans may be single-handedly keeping improved US-Cuban relations at bay. Lopez-Levy (2011) has indicated that the primary reason behind long-standing punitive US actions is the revenge-driven desire of Cuban exiles to regain their property taken in the 1959 revolution. Another reason may be that many Cuban exiles see themselves as the rightful heirs to positions of high authority in a ‘new’ Cuba. Prominent American Cubans have publicly stated that they expect to rule in Cuba once its current government collapses (Lopez-Levy, 2011). Current US policy (meaning the embargo) won’t change as long as Florida continues to be a battleground state in presidential elections (Abrams & Rangel, 1998), which does not appear to be changing any time soon.

The influence of the exiled Cuban lobby was exhibited in 1998 when there was an attempt to stifle a US government report that indicated that Cuban military capabilities were not a concern for the region (Ratliff & Fontaine, 2000). The report almost did not see the light of day. When it was eventually released, it was accompanied by a special note, from then-Secretary of Defense Cohen, which was seen as a roundabout way to mollify the ire of the Cuban lobby (Ratliff and Fontaine, 2000).

So the stalemate continues, with hardliners in both Havana and Washington insisting that the other is to blame for hostile relations. Lifting an anachronistic and punitive embargo first enacted in 1959 during the height of the Cold War could go a long way in helping to restore the U.S.’s tarnished image resulting from two long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and its imperialistic legacy too well known in the Americas.





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