President Obama made a number of spot-on arguments yesterday for why the United States should end the ineffective trade embargo that has helped impoverish the people of Cuba for over fifty years. However, the core components of the embargo are statutory law that will require an act of Congress to overturn. While it’s very encouraging to see the president take a leadership role in pursuit of a good policy, getting Republicans on board is going to be difficult to say the least.
Over the last 20 years, there have been 11 votes in the two houses of Congress seeking to eliminate or amend the Cuba embargo. In all of those votes, loosening the embargo got majority opposition from Republicans. According to Cato’s trade votes database, it wasn’t even close. Republican support for the embargo has ranged from 61% (in support of travel ban) to 91% (in support of import ban) with the average level of support at 77.5%. Indeed, in 2005 more Republicans voted to withdraw the United States from the World Trade Organization than voted to end the Cuba embargo.
That’s not to say that positive movement on the embargo in a Republican congress is impossible. There are encouraging signs as well: shifting opinion among Cuban Americans alters the electoral politics of the embargo in favor of opposition; resurgent emphasis on free markets may temper the Republican party’s reflexive love for belligerent foreign policy; and long-time Republican opponents of the embargo will now have renewed energy.
In practical terms, embargo opponents will need to persuade House leadership to schedule a vote and find enough support in the Senate to overcome an inevitable filibuster from Marco Rubio and others. It may not be impossible, but there’s a lot of heavy lifting left to do. Hopefully, the President’s actions will be enough to get the ball rolling toward more reform of this antiquated and harmful policy.