President Barack Obama will have to decide this week whether to continue, for yet another year, provisions of the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba. Without a presidential extension, these provisions — though not others that were instituted by congressional action — will end this month. The ending of the embargo is long overdue. The current economic crisis provides a useful rationale for doing so.
There is precedent for taking such a step with a communist nation during hard times. In the face of the Depression, prominent American businessmen began arguing that recognition of the Soviet Union would lead to a substantial increase in trade and so provide a much-needed boost to the U.S. economy. In November 1933, after several conservative politicians had joined the push for recognition, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established diplomatic relations with the Soviet government.
The roots of the Cuba embargo go back to the Eisenhower administration. Noting in a 1960 memorandum that “the majority of Cubans support Castro,” Lester D. Mallory, deputy assistant secretary of State for inter-American affairs, argued that “the only foreseeable means of alienating internal support is through disenchantment and disaffection based on economic dissatisfaction and hardship.”
The objective, he wrote, was “to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government.”
A few months later, during the presidential campaign in which John F. Kennedy was lashing at Vice President Richard M. Nixon for being part of an administration that allowed communism to be established 90 miles from American shores, the United States imposed a partial economic embargo on Cuba.
In 1962, then-President Kennedy instituted a full embargo of Cuba (albeit only after asking his aide Pierre Salinger to go out the night before and buy him a thousand Cuban cigars).
When President George H.W. Bush signed a tightening of the restrictions into law shortly before the 1992 election, the bill’s chief sponsor, then-Rep. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., proclaimed that it would bring down Fidel Castro “within weeks.”
Traveling in Cuba nearly two decades after Torricelli’s prediction, one sees hardship and dissatisfaction, and many people living in poor housing, but no signs of hunger. And, of course, the Castro brothers remain in control.
If the embargo hasn’t worked after 50 years, how can anyone plausibly argue that it will work now?
Who wants the embargo? Practically no one beyond a small number of Cuban-Americans in the Miami area. It exists today only because Florida is the largest swing state and Republicans believe, probably correctly, that they are unlikely to win its 29 electoral votes without strong support from this special-interest group.
Lifting the embargo would not turn the U.S. economy around. But it would be of marginal assistance to the overall economy and could be of substantial help to businesses and employment in industries that would have significant exports to the island.
Cuba is, of course, well known as a living museum of the golden age of the Detroit automotive industry. There is a vast fleet of U.S.-made automobiles on the road here, but none more recent than 1959. In addition to the common Russian-built Ladas, the newer models include Mercedes, BMWs, Nissans, Hyundais — just about every car make except those made in the United States. And even the old American cars here often have new Japanese-made engines in them. An end to the embargo would give U.S. manufacturers an opportunity to compete for business in Cuba.
It has been 20 years since the Soviet Union disintegrated. The Cold War has receded into history, with the one glaring exception of the U.S. embargo of Cuba.
The United States fought terrible wars with China (in Korea) and Vietnam, each of which cost tens of thousands of American lives. Yet relations with China were normalized in 1978 and with Vietnam in 1995. A huge amount of U.S. trade takes place with both. The Chinese regime today is much more repressive than that of Cuba, and Vietnam blocks its citizens’ access to uncensored information at least as much as Cuba does. Yet the embargo goes on.
Make no mistake: Cuba is not a free country. Conditions have improved, though, and we have been able to walk about on our own and talk with anyone we meet. Many Cubans take a justified pride in the accomplishments of their country since the revolution, particularly in health care and education.
But it is obvious that there is substantial discontent with the status quo under the Castro brothers. Over the last decade, a two-class system has developed in which those who can work in the tourist industry make much more than other Cubans do. Many professionals who, in order to earn a decent living, are obliged to work as bellmen, waiters, bartenders, elevator operators and the like are seething with anger. So, clearly, is a difficult-to-gauge percentage of the much larger number of Cubans who have no opportunity to get those jobs.
Cubans we meet on the streets are very curious about the United States. Ending the embargo would also mean U.S. citizens could travel to Cuba without restrictions. The more Americans who come here, the greater the desire of the Cuban people for more freedom will become. Fidel Castro is 85 and ailing; Raul is 80. An influx of Americans is almost certain to strengthen the forces for liberalization in Cuba.
Robert F. Kennedy had it right in a memo he wrote, less than three weeks after his brother’s assassination, to Secretary of State Dean Rusk. Kennedy called the policy “inconsistent with traditional American liberties.” The embargo of Cuba is a glaring, senseless anachronism. There is no good reason for letting it last another day.
Mr. Obama, tear down this wall!
• McElvaine is a professor of history at Millsaps College.