Revisiting the Cuban Embargo

Tuesday, April 15, 2014
Excerpt by Michael Totten, author, journalist and contributing editor at World Affairs Journal:

For years now, the embargo has appeared to me as outdated as it has been ineffective [...]

After spending a few weeks in Cuba in October and November, however, I came home feeling less certain that the embargo was an anachronism. The ailing Fidel Castro handed power to his less ideological brother Raúl a few years ago, and the regime finally realizes what has been obvious to everyone else for what seems like forever: communism is an epic failure. Change is at last on the horizon for the island, and there’s a chance that maybe—just maybe—the embargo might help it finally arrive [...]

Any decent person should want to see political liberalization alongside economic liberalization, but a limited amount of progress can be made without it. The Chinese Communist Party figured out how to do it. China hasn’t caught up to the West, but it’s way ahead of where it was when Mao Zedong micromanaged the country into famine.

But what’s left of the US embargo might put a major crimp in Raúl Castro’s plans to partially capitalize the economy. Going full China, where Cuba produces a massive amount of merchandise for American consumers, is not an option if the embargo is not lifted first.

Sanctions against Cuba would be lifted at once if the regime were to hold just one free election and adhere to the human rights norms in our hemisphere. Since that hasn’t happened, only one conclusion is possible: Cuba’s Communist Party would rather rule alone in a poor country than share power in a prosperous one. No matter what the United States does or does not do, Cuba will underperform until that changes.

The regime does want Cuba to prosper, but within limits. Otherwise its officials wouldn’t even consider economic reform. They would just plod along North Korean–style. Therefore, keeping the US embargo in place will sooner or later force them to choose prosperity or power. They cannot have both. The Communist Party might finally cry uncle. It’s possible. If so, the sanctions will finally produce their intended effect—the democratization of Cuba. But if not, the embargo will continue looking like a spiteful anachronism that pointlessly punishes Cuban citizens who have already been punished enough by their own government.

If the US were to unilaterally lift what’s left of the embargo right now, the standard of living for the average citizen would probably go up a little as a result of Raúl’s concurrent reforms. Cuba could become in time a Caribbean China—a clear improvement over what it has been since Fidel came to power. Yet Cubans would still suffer under a power-mad police state, and the US would have exhausted its leverage for nothing.

The question at this point is who will blink first.