Commentary

It’s Time, Finally, to End the Cuban Embargo

By Aaron Lukas
December 14, 2001

War has a way of bringing clarity to international relationships. As president Bush has repeatedly announced, “You are either with us, or you are with the terrorists.”

That test is appropriately applied to our black-sheep neighbor in the Caribbean. For Cuba, however, it might better be phrased as, “You are either with the terrorists, or you are with us.” Held to that standard, it’s clear that Cuba is not in the terrorist camp, and therefore are not against us. And so the time has come to end the Cuban embargo.

It’s true that many Cubans have long been suspicious of the U.S. government. But they don’t, in the main, wish Americans harm. Indeed, 80,000 U.S. citizens visit Cuba each year and are warmly received. At the same time, thousands of Cubans risk their lives to cross the 90 shark-infested miles to Florida. Without the estimated $800 million in annual remittances from friends and family in the United States, many Cubans would starve.

In other words, except at the official level, relations between Americans and Cubans are anything but hostile.

Even the despicable government headed by Fidel Castro doesn’t seriously threaten us. Cuba’s military impotence is accepted fact. The island no longer serves as a base for Soviet intelligence operations, nor does it attempt to export the Communist economic system that has so spectacularly failed at home.

Perhaps more salient today is the fact that Cubans don’t commit acts of terror on our shores, hijack U.S. planes, or attack us with micro-organisms. Cubans aren’t, in short, our enemies, and most Americans know it. But unlike the sanctions on Iraq, we’re told, the Cuban embargo isn’t designed to punish a dangerous enemy. Rather, it’s a gift to the Cuban people; a sort of “tough love” that is ultimately in their own best interest.

That line is wearing thin after four decades. In a new Cato study, interviews with leading Cuban dissidents reveal a preference for engagement and little support for the embargo. If Mr. Castro’s staunchest opponents think the embargo has helped keep him in power, we shouldn’t doubt them.

History shows that isolation isn’t necessarily an effective means of fostering change. In 1970, 17 of 26 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean had authoritarian regimes. Today, only Cuba has a dictatorial regime. Yet only Cuba has been subjected to a comprehensive embargo. Elsewhere, economic engagement has been the rule. That the Cuban people have suffered under a brutal tyrant is indisputable; that the embargo has made their plight worse is equally obvious.

No significant U.S. industries would be threatened by scrapping the embargo since Cuba has few competitive exports, making the political costs of freeing trade with Cuba lower than is the case with other countries. American exporters, however, pay a hefty price. The U.S. International Trade Commission estimates U.S. firms lose between $684 million and $1.2 billion worth of business per year. Those contracts go to Canadian, European, and other firms.

Not only has the embargo backfired, it wastes American resources that are needed to fight terrorism. Treasury officials who could be unraveling terrorist financial networks are instead tracing property owned by Spanish hotels in Cuba to make sure it wasn’t stolen from Americans decades ago. INS agents that could be watching our borders for suicide bombers are instead worrying about tourists who may have spent money in Havana. These shouldn’t be our top priorities. In fact, they shouldn’t be priorities at all.

Along with an end to the embargo, funds currently wasted on attempts to de-legitimize the Castro regime could be diverted to more productive uses. For instance, money currently spent on Radio Mardi (which is electronically jammed by the Cuban government) could go instead to a Radio Free Afghanistan—a region where the broadcasts might actually do some good.

But perhaps most significant would be the message that scrapping the embargo would send to the Taliban and other regimes that sponsor terrorism: foreign governments need not follow the American model, but states that attack us forfeit the right to choose their own destiny.

Of course, the reason that the embargo has persisted in the face of overwhelming evidence that it’s failed has been the strength of the Cuban-American lobby in Congress. Yet pro-embargo sentiment is weaker than ever for a variety of reasons, including bad press garnered by Miami Cubans over the Elián González standoff. Moreover, armed conflict has a way of lending political capital to presidents that is unavailable in times of peace. President Bush thus has a unique opportunity to change direction on Cuba that his predecessors lacked.

The Cuban embargo long ago outlived its usefulness. With war now raging against radical Islam, it’s time to let go of a policy that only serves to punish the innocent and antagonize our friends. Let Cubans freely taste the carrot of our prosperity through trade and let’s save the sanctions stick for true enemies.

Aaron Lukas is an analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Trade Policy Studies.