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The Cuba embargo at 60: When will it end?

Published 10 Dec 2022
Antony Murrell

On 2 November 2022, 185 nations, including Australia, voted at the UN to oppose the American blockade of Cuba. This was the thirtieth such condemnation passed in the General Assembly. And only the United States and Israel opposed it.

Such consensus is rare on any international issue, and is especially notable when directed against the world’s most powerful state. Yet, one need not go far to find opposition to the policy. Former American Presidents and Secretaries of State have deemed it a failure, including Jimmy Carter, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and George Shultz. And this assessment is supported even by the CIA. So, why does the embargo persist? And when will it end?

To answer this question, one must recognise that the embargo is not codified in a single law. It is a web of statutes, proclamations, executive orders, and regulations, once described by Fidel Castro as a “tangled ball of yarn”. As such, its intensity has fluctuated over the years in response to developments in the United States’ domestic politics.

The embargo proper began in 1962, when, following the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Kennedy Administration issued a proclamation prohibiting trade with Cuba. After the Missile Crisis later that year, Washington pledged not to interfere militarily in Cuba again. But this did not prevent the use of economic warfare and political subversion to dislodge the ruling Communist Party. And to this end, the Kennedy Administration developed the Cuban Assets Control Regulations.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s saw the embargo tightened and codified in statute. This included the Cuban Democracy Act and the LIBERTAD Act, which made the lifting of the blockade contingent on Havana adopting market reforms and multi-party democracy.

Nevertheless, the shift in emphasis away from anti-communist containment and towards liberalisation has raised serious questions about the policy’s effectiveness. The embargo, which has cost Cuba upwards of USD 130 billion, has done nothing to liberalise the country. Instead, it has provoked a nationalist backlash, ossifying siege socialism into the country’s political makeup.

Many now believe engagement is a better path to instigating political reform. Such an approach would reflect that taken towards China and Vietnam. And it would provide the government with an off-ramp that would not require it to give up sovereignty.

This thinking formed the basis for the brief ‘Cuba thaw‘ of the Obama years. But without legislative action to repeal the earlier Acts of Congress, there was no fundamental change. Upon entering office, the Trump Administration reversed Obama’s executive actions and tightened sanctions on Cuba.

For his part, Biden has followed Trump more than Obama. Hoping to appease the pro-embargo Exile lobby in the swing state of Florida, he has taken a hawkish line on Cuba. And when combined with the general inability of the US Congress to pass laws, political factors make rolling back the policy extraordinarily difficult. As such, there are three things that must happen for the embargo to end.

First, should Florida lose its swing-state status, the demands of the lobby will figure less in national electoral strategy. Given the rightward shift of the state’s politics under Republican governor Ron DeSantis, this is increasingly probable.

Second, the Democratic Party, which has generally favoured rapprochement with Cuba, must obtain a comfortable majority in both houses of Congress and maintain the Presidency. Though this is unlikely, it is a prerequisite to repeal the legislative aspects of the embargo.

Third, there must be sustained domestic and international pressure to end sanctions. Most Americans appear to support stronger relations with Cuba. And the re-emergence of Pink Tide governments in Latin America has already placed diplomatic pressure on Washington to reassess its position.

Australia can do its part by continuing to join in the chorus of states opposing the embargo. Safety in numbers means that doing so carries little risk of diplomatic blowback. And it may make a difference in pushing Washington to abandon an inhumane policy. One that has failed, even on its own terms.

Antony Murrell is a fourth-year student at the University of New South Wales, studying a Bachelor of Arts (History/Spanish and Latin American Studies) and a Bachelor of Laws. He currently writes about geopolitics and international affairs for the YouTube channel CaspianReport, which broadcasts commentaries on a wide range of international issues and conflicts. Previously, he helped produce the Global Questions podcast for the Young Diplomats Society as audio editor. His main areas of interest include great power politics, Latin America, the Pacific, and relations between the global North and South.

Antony is an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW.