Since the 1960s, the United States has imposed an embargo against Cuba, the Communist island nation 90 miles off the coast of Florida. The embargo, known among Cubans as “el bloqueo” or “the blockade,” consists of economic sanctions against Cuba and restrictions on Cuban travel and commerce for all people and companies under U.S. jurisdiction.
The United States and Cuba have not always been at odds. In the late 1800s, the United States was purchasing 87% of Cuba’s exports and had control over its sugar industry. In the 1950s, Havana’s resorts and casinos were popular destinations for American tourists and celebrities such as Frank Sinatra and Ernest Hemingway. Read more history…
Pro & Con Arguments
Cuba has not met the conditions required to lift it or a willingness to negotiate in good faith with the United States.
Proclamation 3447 signed by President Kennedy on Feb. 3, 1962, established the embargo against Cuba to reduce “the threat posed by its alignment with the communist powers.” The embargo was strengthened by the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act and the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (Libertad) Act of 1996 (also known as Helms-Burton), which specified conditions for terminating the embargo.
According to U.S. law, Cuba must legalize all political activity, release all political prisoners, commit to free and fair elections in the transition to representative democracy, grant freedom to the press, respect internationally recognized human rights, and allow labor unions. Since Cuba has not met these conditions, the embargo should not be lifted.
Lifting the sanctions unilaterally would be an act of appeasement that could embolden Cuba to join forces with other countries such as Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, China, and Iran to promote anti-American sentiments or socialism in the Western Hemisphere. The United States should not risk sending the message that it can be waited out or that seizing U.S. property in foreign countries, as Castro did in Cuba when he took power, will be tolerated.  
Further, Cuba has not demonstrated a willingness to negotiate in good faith with the United States. President Barack Obama stated in a Sep. 28, 2011 “Open for Questions” roundtable, “Now, what we’ve tried to do is to send a signal that we are open to a new relationship with Cuba…. we have to see a signal back from the Cuban government… in order for us to be fully engaged with them. And so far, at least, what we haven’t seen is the kind of genuine spirit of transformation inside of Cuba that would justify us eliminating the embargo.”
Fidel Castro responded the following day by calling Obama “stupid” and saying, “Many things will change in Cuba, but they will change through our efforts and in spite of the United States. Perhaps that empire will fall first.”
Even though President Obama made efforts to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2015, the Cuban government has failed to improve on human rights. According to a 2022 Human Rights Watch report, “The Cuban government continues to repress and punish virtually all forms of dissent and public criticism. At the same time, Cubans continue to endure a dire economic crisis, which impacts their social and economic rights.” Arbitrary and political imprisonment is frequently used. Further, the government controls all media and restricts outside media.Read More
Ending the embargo would only help the government, not regular Cuban citizens.
The 90% state-owned economy ensures that the Cuban government and military would reap the gains of open trade with the United States, not private citizens. Foreign companies operating in Cuba are required to hire workers through the state and wages are converted into local currency and devalued at a ratio of 24:1, so a $500 wage becomes a $21 paycheck. A Cuban worker stated, “In Cuba, it’s a great myth that we live off the state. In fact, it’s the state that lives off of us.”
The embargo enables the United States to apply pressure on the Cuban government to improve human rights. Several international organizations have written about the long history of human rights abuses and repression in Cuba. At least 4,123 people were detained for political reasons in 2011, and an estimated 6,602 political detentions occurred in 2012. Since the United States agreed to re-open the US embassy in Cuba, the Cuban government has continued to persecute and arrest its own citizens. Arbitrary short-term detentions increased between 2010 and 2016, from a monthly average of 172 detentions to a monthly average of 827 detentions. While the average had dropped by 2019, the Cuban government was still detaining over 227 people per month arbitrarily. Newer numbers haven’t been reported, however a reported 1,400 people were imprisoned for protesting the scarcity of medical supplies on July 11, 2021, illustrating the government’s intolerance for dissent and speed in imprisoning anyone who dares speak against the government.
The freedom of expression and right to assemble are severely restricted by the government. The 1996 Helms-Burton Act stated that the United States has a “moral obligation” to promote human rights in keeping with the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the embargo is a bargaining tool.
With the embargo in place, the United States is able to target the Cuban government while still providing assistance to Cuban citizens. American policy allows people to visit family members and send money to relatives in Cuba, and also permits travel for humanitarian and educational reasons. Over one billion dollars in remittances (money transferred from abroad) are sent to Cuban families each year, mostly from relatives in the United States.
And Congress gave USAID a total budget of $364 million between fiscal year 1996 and fiscal year 2019 to promote democracy and human rights in Cuba.
Further, the embargo should be maintained because open travel is insufficient to promote change in Cuba. Many democratic countries already allow travel to Cuba with no results.
More than 2.7 million people from around the world visited Cuba in 2011, including more tourists from Canada than any other country. Despite the steady flow of tourism from western countries, the Cuban government still maintains total control over its people because most Cuban nationals are banned from tourist areas such as resorts and beaches. There would be limited, if any, contact with U.S. citizens vacationing there.Read More
Cuba sponsors terrorism and responds to American actions with aggression.
Cuba is known to have repeatedly supported acts of terrorism. Cuba was on the U.S. State Sponsors of Terrorism list from 1982 until 2015. The country was reinstated to the list on Jan. 12, 2021. The list, which includes North Korea, Iran, and Syria as of Nov. 30, 2023, is a tally of “countries determined by the Secretary of State to have repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism.”   
The U.S. State Department consistently finds evidence of Cuba’s involvement in promoting violence, giving terrorists a safe haven, and harboring U.S. fugitives. Members of the Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA), a terrorist organization that operates in Spain, live in Cuba. Black Panther activist and convicted murderer Joanne Chesimard, known as Assata Shakur, is one of 90 or more criminals who fled the United States and received political asylum in Cuba.
In 1996, Castro’s military shot down two American civilian aircrafts, killing four people. Cuba has also supported armed insurgencies in Latin America and Africa.
In addition to sponsoring international terrorism, the Cuban government has consistently responded to U.S. attempts to soften the embargo with acts of aggression, raising concerns about what would happen if the sanctions were fully lifted. President Jimmy Carter tried to normalize relations with Cuba by opening the U.S. Interests Section (a de facto embassy) in Havana in 1977. Fidel Castro then orchestrated the Mariel Boatlift, which sent 125,000 emigrants (including criminals) to the United States.
In 2003, President George W. Bush began to ease restrictions for visiting family members in Cuba, but tightened the rules again in 2004 in response to Cuba’s crackdown against political dissidents.
President Obama relaxed the U.S. travel policy in 2009 to allow unlimited travel to Cuba to visit family members. That same year, the Cuban government arrested an American aid worker and sentenced him to 15 years in prison, and he was not released until Dec. 2014.Read More
The embargo has failed and harms Americans.
Signed in 1962, the Cuban embargo has not accomplished any of its goals in over 60 years of implementation. Cuba has not adopted a representative democracy and poses no threat to the United States.
Cuba’s relationship with the Soviet Union during the Cold War raised concerns about U.S. national security, but that era is long over. The U.S.S.R. dissolved in 1991, and American foreign policy has adapted to the change in most aspects apart from the embargo.
The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency released a report in 1998 stating “Cuba does not pose a significant military threat to the U.S. or to other countries in the region.” The embargo can no longer be justified by the fear of Communism spreading throughout the Western Hemisphere.
Fidel Castro resigned his presidency in 2008, and abdicated his role as the leader of Cuba’s communist party in 2011 due to illness. His brother Raúl then stepped in to take his place and, in Apr. 2019, Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel, a close Castro ally, was selected as President. If over 50 years of sanctions have not toppled the Castro regime, there is no reason to think the embargo will ever work.
Furthermore, the embargo harms the U.S. economy and Americans. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce opposes the embargo, saying that it costs the United States $1.2 billion annually in lost sales of exports.
A study by the Cuba Policy Foundation, a nonprofit founded by former U.S. diplomats, estimates that the annual cost to the U.S. economy could be as high as $4.84 billion in agricultural exports and related economic output. “If the embargo were lifted, the average American farmer would feel a difference in his or her life within two to three years,” the study’s author said.
A Mar. 2010 study by Texas A&M University calculated that removing the restrictions on agricultural exports and travel to Cuba could create as many as 6,000 jobs in the U.S.
And nine U.S. governors released a letter on Oct. 14, 2015 urging Congress to lift the embargo, which stated: “Foreign competitors such as Canada, Brazil and the European Union are increasingly taking market share from U.S. industry [in Cuba], as these countries do not face the same restrictions on financing…. Ending the embargo will create jobs here at home, especially in rural America, and will create new opportunities for U.S. agriculture.”Read More
The embargo is hypocritical. The United States should not have different trading and travel policies for Cuba than for other countries with governments or policies it opposes.
The United States trades with China, Venezuela, and Vietnam despite their records of human rights violations. And President George W. Bush lifted trade sanctions on North Korea in 2008 amidst concerns about that nation’s desire to develop nuclear weapons.
Americans are permitted to travel to other communist countries, nations known for human rights violations, and even places on the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. Citizens may go to countries like Burma, Iran, and North Korea if given a visa. There is no justification for singling out Cuba as the one nation in the world that is off limits.
Promoting democracy by prohibiting Americans from traveling to Cuba is hypocritical. Restricting American rights as a means of forcing another country to embrace freedom is insincere, as is demanding that Cuba adopt a representative democracy given the long history of U.S. support for brutal dictatorships in countries that favor American interests, such as Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Augusto Pinochet in Chile.
The United States even backed Cuban dictator, President General Fulgencio Batista (who served as elected president from 1940 to 1944, and then as U.S.-backed dictator from 1952 to 1958 before being overthrown by Fidel Castro), someone known to have killed, tortured, and imprisoned political dissenters, because he was friendly to American interests.
An opinion poll of more than 1,000 US adults found that 62% of respondents thought the United States should re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba. Among Americans surveyed, 57% think that the travel ban to Cuba should be lifted, while only 27% think the ban should remain. Regarding the trade embargo, 51% of Americans want to open trade with Cuba, compared to 29% who do not.
Most of the world opposes the embargo. Maintaining it is detrimental to the reputation of the United States among the international community. The United Nations has formally denounced the U.S. embargo on Cuba every year since 1991. In Nov. 2023, 187 countries in the U.N. General Assembly voted to condemn the U.S. policy. Only Israel sided with the United States, while Ukraine abstained from voting.Read More
The embargo harms everyday Cubans, not the Cuban government.
Cubans are denied access to technology, medicine, affordable food, and other goods that could be available to them if the United States lifted the embargo.
The embargo prevents the people of Cuba from joining the digital age by cutting them off from technology, and restricts the electronic flow of information to the island. Fewer than one in four Cubans accessed the internet in 2011.
Though the Cuban government began permitting internet access in private homes in 2019, most access is too expensive for widespread use, costing residents about 26% of the average salary for what amounts to 7% of the average American’s internet data. And the government still controls legal access to the internet.
A report by the American Association for World Health found that doctors in Cuba have access to less than 50% of the drugs on the world market, and that food shortages led to a 33% drop in caloric intake between 1989 and 1993. The report states, “it is our expert medical opinion that the U.S. embargo has caused a significant rise in suffering-and even deaths-in Cuba.”
Amnesty International reports that “treatments for children and young people with bone cancer… [and] antiretroviral drugs used to treat children with HIV/AIDS” were not readily available with the embargo in place because “they were commercialized under U.S. patents.”
In Apr. 2020, Cuba reported that the U.S. embargo was preventing the import of important medical supplies and equipment, as well as other essentials. Cuban Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodríguez tweeted that the embargo was “the main obstacle to purchase the medicines, equipment and material required to confront the [COVID 19] pandemic.”
Cuban officials have not been forced to take responsibility for problems such as a failing health care system, lack of access to medicine, the decline of the sugar industry, decrepit plumbing systems, and water pollution because they use the embargo as a scapegoat. The Cuban Minister of Foreign Affairs reportedly blamed the embargo for a total of $1.66 billion in damage to the Cuban economy.
President Bill Clinton said in a 2000 interview, “sometimes I think [Fidel Castro] doesn’t want the embargo lifted… because as long as he can blame the United States, then he doesn’t have to answer to his own people for the failures of his economic policy.”
Free trade, not the isolation of an embargo, can promote democracy in Cuba. And, lifting the embargo would put pressure on Cuba to address problems that it had previously blamed on U.S. sanctions. Trading with China led to economic reforms that brought 100 million people above the poverty line and improved access to health care and education across the country.Read More
|Did You Know?
|1. President John F. Kennedy sent his press secretary to buy 1,200 Cuban cigars the night before he signed the embargo in Feb. 1962.
|2. Congress gave USAID a total budget of $364 million between fiscal year 1996 and fiscal year 2019 to promote democracy and human rights in Cuba.
|3. There were an estimated total of 6,602 political detentions in Cuba in 2012, which is among the world's highest on a per capita basis. While the number had dropped by 2019, the Cuban government was still detaining over 227 people per month arbitrarily.
|4. The United Nations has denounced the U.S. embargo against Cuba every year since 1991.
|5. Though the Cuban government began permitting internet access in private homes in 2019, most access is too expensive for widespread use, costing residents about 26% of the average salary for what amounts to 7% of the average American's internet data.