Since the 1960s, the United States has imposed an embargo against Cuba, the Communist island nation 90 miles off the coast of Florida. The embargo, known among Cubans as “el bloqueo” or “the blockade,” consists of economic sanctions against Cuba and restrictions on Cuban travel and commerce for all people and companies under US jurisdiction. On Mar. 15, 2016, the Obama administration announced that two Cuba embargo restrictions would be relaxed, allowing easier travel to Cuba and more commerce between the countries. Most other embargo restrictions remain in effect.
Proponents of the embargo argue that Cuba has not met the US conditions for lifting the embargo, including transitioning to democracy and improving human rights. They say that backing down without getting concessions from the Castro regime will make the United States appear weak, and that only the Cuban elite would benefit from open trade.
Opponents of the Cuba embargo argue that it should be lifted because the failed policy is a Cold War relic and has clearly not achieved its goals. They say the sanctions harm the US economy and Cuban citizens, and prevent opportunities to promote change and democracy in Cuba. They say the embargo hurts international opinion of the United States.
History of US-Cuba Relations, 1800s to 1980s
The United States and Cuba have not always been at odds. In the late 1800s, the United States was purchasing 87% of Cuba’s exports and had control over its sugar industry. In the 1950s, Havana’s resorts and casinos were popular destinations for American tourists and celebrities such as Frank Sinatra and Ernest Hemingway. By Jan. 1, 1959, however, revolutionary Fidel Castro had overthrown the US-backed President Batista and established Cuba as the first Communist state in the Western Hemisphere. From 1959 to 1960, Castro seized $1.8 billion of US assets in Cuba, making it the largest uncompensated taking of American property by a foreign government in US history. Depending on how interest is calculated, claims on the seized assets range from $6.4 to $20.1 billion in 2012 dollars. The US government was also concerned about the threat posed by having a new Soviet ally so close to America’s shores. On Oct. 19, 1960, President Eisenhower signed a partial embargo on exports to Cuba, the first step towards the US policy that exists today. Eisenhower ended diplomatic relations with Cuba and closed the US embassy in Havana on Jan. 3, 1961, saying “There is a limit to what the United States in self-respect can endure. That limit has now been reached.” The former embassy building would later serve as the site of the US Interests Section (a de facto embassy) opened by President Carter in 1977.
President Kennedy approved a 1961 plan to train and arm Cuban exiles trying to overthrow Castro’s communist regime, but the Apr. 17, 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion failed when the Cuban military defeated the outnumbered US-backed forces. The situation became more dire when a US spy plane observed the Soviet Union shipping nuclear missiles to Cuba.
On Feb. 3, 1962, President Kennedy signed Proclamation 3447 (effective date Feb. 7, 1962) to declare “an embargo upon all trade between the United States and Cuba.” The night before he signed the embargo, JFK sent his Press Secretary, Pierre Salinger, to procure as many Cuban cigars as he could find. Salinger returned with a stash of 1,200 Petit Upmann cigars.
The Cuban Missile Crisis, period of negotiations from Oct. 15-28, 1962, eventually ended in an agreement for the USSR to remove its weapons from Cuba. President Kennedy later estimated the 50/50 odds of the United States launching a nuclear attack on the island nation as “between 1 in 3 and even,” demonstrating how close the countries came to going to war.
On Feb. 8, 1963, the United States prohibited travel to Cuba and in July of that year the Cuban Assets Control Regulations (CACR) were issued as a comprehensive economic sanction outlawing financial transactions with Cuba. The regulations also prohibit the purchase or importation of any merchandise of Cuban origin, with the exception of “information or information materials” (such as publications, recorded music, and certain artwork).
In 1977, US President Jimmy Carter showed signs of attempting to thaw relations by opening the US Interests Section in Havana and authorizing secret talks wtih Cuba. Proponents of the embargo note that instead of reciprocating with goodwill, Castro authorized the 1980 Mariel Boatlift, in which 125,000 Cubans, including nearly 2,500 prisoners and mentally ill patients, were sent to Florida, reportedly to ease the Cuban food shortages, get rid of people who criticized his regime, and embarrass the United States which took in the refugees.
Supporters of the embargo received further ammunition when the US State Department added Cuba to the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism in 1982, reportedly because of its support for communist rebels in Africa and Latin America. Syria, Iran, and Sudan are the other three countries on the list. Critics of the terrorist labeling, including US Army retired Brigadier General John Adams, said that the designation has no justification and undermines US credibility in the international community.