Report from Havana: Time for a Reality Check on U.S. Policy toward Cuba

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Official U.S. and Cuban depictions of the effects of the U.S. embargo differ notably from Cuban economic reality. This report, based on the authors’ recent visits to Havana and interviews with top Cuban officials, dissidents, and other private citizens, shows that the embargo is not responsible for Cuba’s poor economic condition–as Havana claims–nor has it been effective at achieving Washington’s goal of isolating the Cuban regime.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the consequent loss of massive aid and trade preferences, Cuba has established more developed relations with the outside world and introduced limited reforms in areas including trade, foreign investment, and tourism without renouncing socialism. Cuba is thus no longer backsliding, but neither is it flourishing.

A dense network of American contacts with Cuba has also developed. About 3,400 American business visits to Cuba took place last year, and 80,000 Americans are visiting the island annually, in addition to thousands of Cuban Americans who, along with other Cuban exiles, remit $1 billion per year to Cuba. Much of that activity violates the spirit, if not the letter, of U.S. sanctions law.

Interviews with leading dissidents also reveal a preference for engagement with the United States and little support for maintaining the embargo. Moreover, many dissidents oppose proposed U.S. legislation that would provide aid to human rights and other activists in Cuba because it would compromise their independence and legitimacy.

Current U.S policy toward Cuba is based on historical inertia, domestic political calculations, and emotionalism. The embargo will continue to be ineffective–especially given dwindling support for the policy, the ease with which Cuba gets around the sanctions, and the ways in which Cuba has been adapting to changing world conditions. The United States could help improve Cuba’s poor human rights record and reveal Fidel Castro’s regime as the main source of Cuba’s economic troubles by lifting the trade and investment embargo, restoring the right of Americans to travel to Cuba, and rejecting any current or proposed official aid to groups inside Cuba.

William Ratliff

Jonathan G. Clarke, a former British diplomat, is a research fellow in foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute. William Ratliff is senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.