President Joe Biden’s decision to stop the construction of the wall with Mexico could not be timelier. Now is the time to tear down another wall, the ineffective U.S. embargo on Cuba, which has caused even more damage than the wall with Mexico, and which is equally unjustified. Although far from being the most serious foreign policy challenge, it is certainly the most easily solvable.
On several UN health-related missions to Cuba, I was able to see how the U.S. embargo has adversely affected ordinary Cubans’ health and quality of life. Not even children were spared. Based on similar trips to other developing countries, I have seldom seen children as happy as Cuban children, despite the lack of many basic items critical for their growth and education. In part, this is due to Cuba’s development of a very good health and education system, among the best in the Americas, in spite of the embargo.
What are the reasons for such a long and ineffective embargo?
Is it that Cuba is a tyrannical and abusive regime? Notably, the U.S. has relations with other regimes that are far more abusive to its citizens than the Cuban government. Also, before Castro, the U.S. had diplomatic relations with the Batista regime, a tyrannical and corrupt regime that killed and tortured thousands of Cubans.
Is it that Cuba is a threat to the U.S.? No argument could be sillier. In 1998, a report from the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency concluded that, “Cuba does not pose a significant military threat to the U.S. or to other countries in the region.” The report also called Cuba’s military forces “residual” and “defensive.”
Is it that Cuba allows no free elections or organized political dissent? Although true to a large extent, this also applies to countless governments with which the U.S. has normal relations. Is it that a goal is to help Cubans achieve freedom and a better quality of life? If it hasn’t been effective for almost 60 years it is difficult to see how it can still become so. This is like the silly popular saying “I hurt you because I love you.”
Is it that the embargo punishes the Cuban regime for all the discomforts it has caused the Cubans? Many Cubans blame both the American and the Cuban government for the situation. The most evident result of this policy is that it has caused enormous harm only to the quality of life to ordinary Cubans, not to that of the Cuban elite. To go into a Cuban grocery store is an exercise in futility, given the scarce goods on shelves. The embargo has provoked an increase in the price of medicines, making some critical ones unavailable to ordinary Cubans.
Who then has the embargo benefitted? Practically nobody, since it hasn’t achieved any of its ill-conceived goals. At the same time, the embargo has not only hurt ordinary Cubans but also American firms, which could be doing business with Cuba. A study by the U.S. International Trade Commission estimates that the embargo costs American firms between $700 million and $1.2 billion per year. It has also hurt the closest U.S. allies, Canada and the European Union, which are restricted from doing business with Havana.
Given this situation why is the embargo still maintained? It can be argued that it is supported by large numbers of Cuban-American activists in southern Florida. However, with the elections over, this shouldn’t be a cause for concern any longer. Also, younger Cuban-Americans have a more nuanced and open attitude towards Cuba. The Cruzes and the Rubios in the Senate will oppose ending the embargo. However, they should have to offer a better rationale for why it is good for the U.S. Congress to keep it.
By an almost unanimous majority, practically all countries in the world have consistently voted in the UN General Assembly for the U.S. to end the embargo. How much longer can we say to the rest of the world that we don’t care for their opinion? The embargo has also poisoned U.S. relations with its Latin American neighbors. Ending it now will show Latin America and the rest of the world that a new era has indeed begun in the U.S.
César Chelala is an international public health consultant and writer on health and human rights issues. He is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award and two national journalism awards from Argentina.