warning Hi, we've moved to USCANNENBERGMEDIA.COM. Visit us there!

Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Why The Petty Embargo On Cuba Must End

Steve Helmeci |
September 25, 2014 | 9:42 p.m. PDT



There isn't often a context to compare the United States government to a petty, jealous teenager, so I’m going to take that chance now while it’s in front of me: we’ve been acting like a petty, jealous teenager for decades, and it’s time that stopped.

In early September, President Obama extended the U.S. embargo on Cuba, in place since 1962, for another year. The embargo is total, meaning that no trade can take place between Cuba and the United States (or any affiliated businesses) and no person with a U.S. passport can travel to Cuba. In other words, Cuba is essentially entirely cut off from the United States.

Despite the fact that, since 2008, the Cuban government has made over 300 reforms to promote enterprise in the areas of property ownership, travel, farming, municipal governance, electronics access and more; despite the fact that talks have been started between the Obama administration and the Cuban government about an easing of tensions between the two nations; and despite the fact that every year since 1992, the United Nations has condemned the embargo, this year with a vote of 188-2 (the United States and Israel are the only member nations still in support); despite all of this, the embargo endures.

Obama called it “in the national interest” to maintain the embargo on Cuba, and a column in U.S. News and World Report from February noted that “no good would come from lifting the embargo,” going even further to say that lifting the embargo would be contrary to American values. 

In this columnist’s opinion, however, that is a falsehood, a front to cover for a policy that is simply the outdated result of a grudge formed some 52 years ago.

Aside from the fact that even our allies are openly hostile to the embargo (188-2 in favor of condemnation is a pretty strong indicator that most of the world doesn’t like it), which does not help our global image, there are other adverse effects of the embargo that actually makes it not within our national interest to keep it. For instance, according to a 2013 Forbes article, the embargo costs the U.S. economy on average $1.2 to $3.6 billion dollars a year, a cost that is shouldered disproportionately by small businesses who do not possess the proper infrastructure to evade the embargo.

With regard to maneuvering around the embargo, many American companies are able to do business in Cuba: any US-based multinational corporation can use its overseas affiliates to conduct business with the Cubans. Because our main allies in business, the Europeans, Japanese and Canadians, can travel and trade freely with Cuba, our sanctions have little real clout.

Moreover, the same Forbes piece points out that restrictions have lost their grounding in complaints from businesses, as all 5,911 of the previously American-owned corporations nationalized during the Castro regime have dropped their claims. The sanctions have been proven to be out of date, and are continuously called out as such.

The only real effect on Cuba is that they are forced to collaborate with regional players that are less friendly to America, such as when they agreed to an underwater communications link with Venezuela in 2011, circumventing the need to connect with American companies. So, we lose business, drive a country to side with other unfriendly countries and make ourselves look bad all at the same time.

Why hasn’t the embargo been lifted, then? Logically, it makes no real sense for the United States to single out Cuba in a way they single out no other country.

Perhaps the reason is rooted in some false sense of moral superiority we hold over Cuba, because they’re communist. As the U.S. News and World Report article states, doing business with this authoritative regime would be an abandonment of and “a blow to” American values. Surely the United States, the beacon of democracy that it is, would NEVER trade with a country as horribly oppressive as Communist Cuba.

Well… actually, we do. Quite often.

This is by no means a mitigation of the actions taken by the Cuban government. Surely, the Castro regime has inflicted many wounds on many people, and by no means is this argument an attempt to lessen that impact. 

That being said, the Cuban regime would by no means be the worst authoritarian government that we are allied with, let alone the worst one we trade with.

Allow me to highlight now four of the many current allies of the United States internationally that have committed some pretty heinous acts within the confines of their own borders:

1. Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, Equatorial Guinea

He has been called Africa’s worst dictator and the U.S. State Department has described unlawful arrests and detentions, government-sanctioned killings, and various oppressive actions on the part of the Mbasogo regime. But we still purchased $3 billion of oil from the country in 2008 alone.

2. Idriss Déby, Chad

In 2010, Amnesty International released a report noting detentions and killings of civilians and aid workers, violence and rapes against women and girls, the use of child soldiers, detentions and killings of political opponents, harassment of journalists and other offenses. Additionally, the Déby regime took the money the US gave to Chad to help with their famine and used it to buy weapons to keep the regime in power. But, like we did with Equatorial Guinea, we purchased upwards of $3 billion of oil from the country.

3. Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan

There have been a number of substantiated accusations against Karimov, including the order to corner 400-500 protesters and have them all killed by sniper fire, as well as torture techniques that include boiling to death in hot water. But, we like to buy uranium from Uzbekistan, and they like buying our Boeing jets, so they are one of our closest allies in the Global War on Terror.

4. King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia

For the most part, we all know what goes on in Saudi Arabia. A failure to protect women, foreign workersm and Shia citizens; freedom of expression is negligible; and arbitrary detention and execution by medieval means without fair trial all rampant. But, as with the above three examples (are we beginning to sense a theme?), we like their natural resources. In this instance, again, it’s oil.

You could also look into Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow in Turkmenistan, as well as authoritarian governments in Morocco, the UAE, Tajikistan and Vietnam, among others.

Or, if the current examples don't quite illustrate my point, check out our history with Augusto Pinochet in Chile, Manuel Noriega in Panama, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire (he is perhaps the most of all of them like Castro), the Shah of Iran and many, many others.

And those are only allies.

Consider for a moment that our largest trading partner by far is the People’s Republic of China, a country as communist as they come in the modern day. Additionally, until they decided to become hostile with the Ukraine, we had open relations with Russia, the nation with which we actually fought the Cold War against Communism, and that is run by, one can argue, an authoritarian leader, Vladimir Putin.

Perhaps the craziest point of all is that, during World War II, American corporations were allowed to conduct business with Nazi-controlled corporations. But today they wouldn’t be--and in some cases aren’t--able to do business with Cuba.

One is left to question, then, whether the government of the United States really cares that much more about the people of Cuba than the people in all of the aforementioned countries, or whether they are just using “human rights violations” as a front to continue punishing Cuba for one incident 50+ years ago.

So, in essence, the economic reasons for the embargo are negligible, the international backing for the embargo is nonexistent and the moral high ground we claim to occupy is a farce. Any reason given to maintain the embargo on Cuba is easily refutable. It’s just time for it to go.

I am sorry to anyone the Castro regime affected personally, but it’s simply no longer good policy to act petty and jealous by pushing away an entire country over an isolated incident that ended over half a century ago.


"Global Turning Points" is a new NT column on the critical international issues you might have overlooked. Check back Thursdays or read more here.

Reach Columnist Steve Helmeci here.



Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

Watch USC Annenberg Media's live State of the Union recap and analysis here.