A Fifty Year Old Fallacy

February marked the anniversary of the fifty years of the Cuban embargo enforced by the US. The promulgation of the Cuban Democracy Act in 1961 reflected the policy of containment that was to prevent the extension of the relationship between Cuba and the Soviet Union after the embarrassing Bay of Pigs invasion. Six months later, the world was at the height of Cold War tensions with the Cuban missile crisis.

The embargo didn’t prevent nuclear heads from being shipped to Cuba. Neither did it affect its economy or even social services in the long-term (the health system is ranked higher in Cuba than in the US by OECD standards; Cuban citizens live four months longer than Americans). Ironically, the only reform passed removed the restrictions on medicine exports to Cuba (in 2000). Cuba never needed the US, so why is an ineffective embargo of fifty years old still being enforced? More broadly, what makes a state, in its time and context, deserving of an embargo?

Politics. The issue may be old for the young generation of Cuban exiles, but the fact is, it is the most important political matter by far for Cuban-Americans. Most have immigrated to the US during the 1950s as Fidel Castro was installing his single-party model. Florida’s population numbers 5.2% Cubans, making the community a significant recipient of votes for presidential elections, in a pivotal state (think 2000 presidential elections). Neither party wants to be sanctioned by an eventual removal of the embargo. Disappointed by the too lenient Democratic stance, and by what they consider as an abandonment of the Cuban cause by Kennedy during the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cuban-American vote has always been fundamentally Republican. Obama captured only 35% of the vote in 2008, compared to the national Hispanic vote of 67% for the Democratic candidate. With 5.2% of the Floridian population, in this environment, there was no room for the past 50 years to see any improvement in the situation

Now that we know the political motive, let’s scale back a bit. What are the reasons invoked by Congressmen and party leaders for the apparent resilience in keeping the embargo? Well, the fact is, current proponents haven’t mentioned it since the 1970s-1980s, and when asked, their reasons range from human rights violations to authoritarianism. As if the best way to change a dictatorship was to ignore it. However, proponents of the embargo (for the majority Republicans) agree with America trading with Zemin’s (and current) China, Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, or Mobutu’s Congo.

The entry of China in the WTO in 2001 was not only a milestone for trade, but also the assurance that there would be efforts towards human rights violations, as China grows and becomes more open. And in this case, Castro’s Cuba is closer to China than any African dictatorship recognized by the US.

A political personality such as Obama could reforge the links between the two countries, by showing what Cuba could earn in development if the US were trading with the island, and most importantly, by finally turning the page of ideologies of the past.