Thoughts on US and Cuba Relations and Trade Embargo
I recently traveled to Cuba. While I was there, I asked a number of Cubans what they thought about the government. It was hard to get too many answers, seems some were fine with it, and some didn’t like it.
I was in a taxi and we were talking in Spanish and he was telling me what he thought of the people in the US. “Buena gente” is what he said — meaning he feels the visitors from the US are good people. But he hates the US government — he made that clear with a few swear words.
And why shouldn’t he? It seemed to be the case that the impacts of the trade embargo were far-reaching, and pretty visible. One thing that you see immediately, and that you may have heard, is that many of the cars in Cuba look like they are from the 50s. This is an impact of the trade restrictions.
In my opinion, the trade embargo with Cuba is dumb, not helping anyone, and if anything, making many problems worse.
It’s a lopsided equation — the impact of the US trade embargo to Cuba is massive in Cuba, but a minor issue in the US. And it’s been this way for so long that it’s not a newsy item. It had been slightly more newsworthy with updates from the Obama administration, but even so it doesn’t seem to be a major focus.
So why is there a trade embargo?
It’s probably best to read the Wikipedia article, but here are a few of the highlights. With the Cold War and Cuban Revolution as the backdrop: First, in 1958, the US starts an embargo on selling arms to Cuba while Batista is in power. The Cuban Revolution happens, Castro takes power, and the embargo increases, in theory in response to Cuban trade with the Soviet Union as a partial cause. The US stops selling oil to Cuba, then Cuba nationalizes some US-owned oil companies, and then the US starts a more full trade embargo in 1961. There is a lot more to it.
So it is the year 2019–58 years later. And there is still a trade embargo. Why is it there now? Well there are a few laws that still enforce it, but at a high level it seems to be because the US doesn’t want to support the communist government of Cuba.
Except that that is an absurd reason on its face — the US does quite a bit of trade with another communist state…China. Just $710 billion of trade. So it’s about communism, but clearly it’s not about communism. Since there is no problem getting things from China. And it’s not a humanitarian thing, which is self-evident if you have read a news article about the US and any country in the last ten years. It’s more that way today with Cuba because of a combination of inertia and absurd political history.
What countries can trade with Cuba?
Now, I’m not totally sure about this, and it was hard to tell from visiting and hard to tell from researching. It seems to me that in theory, Cuba should be able to trade with other countries, but in practice the US embargo has actually served as a major deterrent and therefore it’s almost a global embargo.
The Helms-Burton Act has been the target of criticism from Canadian and European governments in particular, who object to what they say is the extraterritorial pretensions of a piece of legislation aimed at punishing non-U.S. corporations and non-U.S. investors who have economic interests in Cuba. [source]
Sanctions could also be applied to non-U.S. companies trading with Cuba. As a result, multinational companies had to choose between Cuba and the U.S., the latter being a much larger market. [source]
So it seems because of the looming threat from the US, sometimes implicit and other times explicit, many countries don’t do business with Cuba, and this is why it feels like going to Cuba is going back seventy years.
Who benefits from the trade embargo?
Here are a few pro/con arguments on the US embargo to Cuba. But I think it’s interesting to think about who benefits from the embargo to Cuba. Well, we can rule out a few groups. US citizens don’t benefit. Cuban citizens don’t benefit. Does the US government benefit? Not really — it just creates another problem. Does the Cuban government benefit? Maybe. It seems to me that almost no one benefits from the trade embargo. I think there may be some higher-ups in the Cuban government who are trying to halt change in Cuba and still can funnel significant resources their way — maybe for those people the embargo benefits them.
Who does the embargo hurt?
The answer here is a bit more obvious: far more people than it helps. It drastically hurts Cuban citizens. They don’t have access to goods in the US. It was hard for me to tell, but it seems the secondary impact is that Cuba doesn’t receive many things from other countries as well. It doesn’t benefit US citizens — it would open up a new trading partner, and a new place to travel more easily.
A few quotes
Here are a few quotes with thoughts on the embargo.
The embargo has been a failure by every measure. It has not changed the course or nature of the Cuban government. It has not liberated a single Cuban citizen. In fact, the embargo has made the Cuban people a bit more impoverished, without making them one bit more free. At the same time, it has deprived Americans of their freedom to travel and has cost US farmers and other producers billions of dollars of potential exports.
-George Schultz, former Secretary of State
It’s a stupid policy. There’s no reason why we can’t be friends with the Cubans, and vice versa. A lot of them have relatives in the United States, and some Americans have relatives in Cuba, so we should have freedom of travel … We seem to think it’s safe to open the door to a billion communists in China but for some reason, we’re scared to death of the Cubans.
-former Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern
My take on the embargo
I agree with George and George. The embargo causes a huge amount of harm, and benefits almost no one.
The absurdity for me is that in order to convince Cuba that the US has a superior economic ideology we will halt trade. It has the exact opposite of the intended effect. I believe it actually builds resentment on Cubans and opening up trade would build support.
As I was walking around a street in a small town Vinales, where people could not have been nicer to me, here was what I was thinking about the trade embargo:
The US is importing ignorance and exporting hate.
It’s an ignorance import because there are no relations with Cuba, people don’t know about it, have misconceptions, and think it’s dangerous.
It’s a hate export because what would you feel if you were a Cuban citizen and you were looking for a source of the problems? Sure, you could blame the Cuban government — but they are providing you free schools and health care — but why is there one country that won’t do trade and is also strong-arming other countries to do the same. It’s severely depressed the Cuban economy.
All the trade embargo is doing in practice is making life worse for regular Cuban people. Honestly, it’s not the best way to build support for your economic ideology.
Say the US opened the blockade — what would happen? First, there would be an immediate trade surplus from Cuba. So that is a good thing. Even US stats show there is missed economic activity from Cuba. I don’t think it would be a big impact relatively for the US but it’s certainly positive. And for Cuba — it’s definitely good. You can see this just as people are trying to cram things to carry onto the planes between Florida and Havana. It’s not the best way to do exports but it is one way.
The Cuban government likely doesn’t represent the Cuban people just like the US government does not really represent the American people. So in some way — to prove some point to the Cuban government about communism and humanitarian rights the US government is significantly harming the Cuban people. Makes a lot of sense.
It seems to me it has the opposite of the intended effect. If the US started trade with Cuba, immediately, Cuba would receive cool US products. To me that seems it would increase support for the US.
So those are a few thoughts on the Cuban trade embargo. If it was my decision I would remove it.
A few reference articles:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuba–United_States_relationsUnited States embargo against Cuba – Wikipedia
The United States currently imposes a commercial, economic, and financial embargo against Cuba. The United States first…en.wikipedia.orgCuba – Wikipedia
The territory that is now Cuba was inhabited by the Ciboney Taíno people from the 4th millennium BC until Spanish…en.wikipedia.org