Do We Really Need an Embargo Against Cuba?

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No, you can't go to Cuba to see for yourself how little Elian is doing — at least not legally, anyway. Because despite agreeing a few days ago to relax restrictions on selling food and medicine to Cuba, the House Republican leadership, supported by a number of Democrats, held out against moves to relax the law forbidding Americans from spending money in Cuba, which effectively outlaws most tourism.

But the Elian Gonzalez saga, coming hard on the heels of Congress's permanently normalizing trade relations with China (and the Clinton administration's easing of sanctions against Iran and North Korea), has raised again the question of why the U.S. still maintains an economic embargo of Cuba. After all, it was imposed 38 years ago by President Kennedy, and while it's been dutifully endorsed by all seven U.S. presidents since then, Fidel Castro appears to be even more firmly entrenched in power than in Kennedy's time. In other words, it may have had a profound effect on the Cuban economy, but the embargo has been a singular failure in its primary mission — to unseat the Cuban dictator.

And that has prompted a growing movement in the corridors of power to reconsider the policy. Once the preserve of dedicated liberals and lefties, opposition to the U.S. embargo on Cuba these days is an ever-expanding tent. The recent congressional effort to relax aspects of the embargo was led by farm-state Republicans and echoed a growing consensus even inside the GOP. The National Bipartisan Commission on Cuba, whose calls for a comprehensive review of U.S. policy have thus far been rebuffed by President Clinton, includes not only 16 GOP Senators (and eight Democrats), but also some of the GOP foreign policy heavyweights lined up by the Bush campaign, including former Secretaries of State Kissinger, Schultz and Eagleburger.

And that's hardly surprising, since ending the embargo has long been advocated by groupings as diverse as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Vatican and, reportedly, the bulk of democracy activists still living in Cuba. While previous embargoes of countries such as Iran and Iraq have had the support of most of the industrialized world, the only country consistently backing Washington's Cuba policy is Israel.

Yet, despite the burgeoning opposition, advocates of the embargo continue to hold sway with the leadership of both parties on Capitol Hill, and with both presidential candidates. Elian's enduiring legacy, however, may be that he reopened a national debate in the U.S. on the future of Cuba policy.

Read on for TIME Daily's summary of the core arguments on both sides of the issue, and for a history of the embargo.


Arguments Against the Embargo

  • It actually helps keep Castro in power

    Never mind the fact that it's failed to dislodge him after 38 years, the embargo is now Castro's catchall excuse for every ill that plagues his decaying socialist society. It helps him paint the U.S. as hostile and an imminent threat in the eyes of the Cuban people, which is how he rationalizes his authoritarian politics. Opening the floodgates of trade will leave Castro with no excuses, and interaction with the U.S. will hasten the collapse of his archaic system.

  • What's good for China is good for Cuba

    China is a lot more repressive than Cuba, and yet we've normalized trade relations with Beijing on the argument that trade will hasten reform and democratization. We're even lifting sanctions against North Korea despite the fact that their missile program is supposedly a threat to our skies, whereas the Pentagon has long since concluded that Cuba represents no threat to U.S. security. It's nonsensical to argue that trade induces better behavior from communist regimes in China and North Korea, but will do the opposite in Cuba.

  • It mostly hurts the people it's supposed to help

    You can be sure Fidel Castro isn't going to bed hungry and or suffering through a headache because there's no Tylenol to be had. Yet millions of his people are suffering all manner of deprivations that the could be eased by lifting an embargo that's never going to overthrow him anyway. Stopping Cubans from benefiting from trade with the U.S. and interaction with American tourists leaves Castro unscathed, but it deprives the Cuban people of a taste of freedom that could only undermine a repressive regime.


    Arguments for the Embargo

  • Lifting the embargo will strengthen Castro's government

    There's no private sector in Cuba; its economy is predominantly state-owned, and trading with it inevitably strengthens the state. The government in Havana has been reeling since the collapse of its Soviet patron, but lifting the embargo would ease its financial crisis and therefore strengthen its hand.

  • Cuba's trade with other Western countries hasn't eased repression

    Cuba has been trading normally with most of Latin America and Europe for more than a decade now, and Castro has shown no sign of reforming his system or ending repression. The idea that trade promotes human rights is a self-serving myth promoted by corporate America, and there's little reason to believe that an end to the embargo would automatically improve the political situation in Cuba.

  • Easing the embargo before Castro agrees to change sends the wrong signal

    Castro continues to defy international standards on democracy and human rights, and lifting the embargo now would be to reward that defiance. His regime rejected even the reformist communism of Gorbachev in the '80s, but even though it has struggled to survive economically in the '90s, it has steadfastly maintained its hard line. Democracy should be the condition for lifting the embargo.

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