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60 years on, the economic embargo on Cuba is an abject failure

The U.S. embargo on Cuba emboldens the hardliners in the government who blame the United States for their own failed policies, and who are determined to hold onto power. It also hurts the Cuban people, impeding their ability to obtain basic medical supplies.
Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee.
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Today, February 7, 2022, marks the sixtieth anniversary of the day the United States economic embargo against Cuba first went into effect. Sixty years. Three generations, twelve presidents, sixty sessions of Congress, and six transformational decades ago, dating back to the middle of the Cold War.

The goal of the embargo, which has been expanded multiple times, was unmistakable: to depose the Cuban Government by imposing a vast web of punitive sanctions designed to crush the Cuban economy and incite a popular uprising. To be precise, in a declassified April 1960 State Department memo confidently entitled “The Decline and Fall of Castro”, the purpose was “denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation, and the overthrow of [the] government.”

Sixty years later hunger and desperation are pervasive in Cuba, but the Cuban Government remains under the firm grip of the Communist Party. No opposition party has been allowed to function or to challenge it. Free and fair elections are as elusive as they were sixty years ago. Political dissent is not tolerated.

The U.S. embargo is opposed by every other nation in this hemisphere. In fact, it is opposed by every other nation in the world, except Israel. In other words, after sixty years, we have convinced only one other government – just one – to join us, and not a single government in our own hemisphere. In a failed attempt to isolate Cuba, we have isolated ourselves.

Those responsible for this Administration’s policy toward Cuba have apparently decided that

  • despite candidate Biden’s pledge to the contrary;
  • despite the failure of the embargo to achieve any of its objectives – which the CIA acknowledged in a declassified report back in 1982;
  • despite a worsening human rights situation; and
  • despite contributing to the misery of the Cuban people who the White House insists it wants to help, there is no reason to change course.

Today, hard hit by COVID and the Biden Administration’s cut-off of remittances and restrictions on travel by Americans to Cuba, life for most Cubans is an increasingly desperate struggle. Popular protests against the government’s mishandling of the pandemic, mishandling of the economy, and autocratic rule have been met with a fierce crackdown, summary trials, and lengthy prison sentences including for young people.
I am as outraged by the crackdown on protesters in Cuba as anyone. No one condones acts of vandalism or violence, but provocations and brutality against thousands of peaceful protesters are inexcusable.

But I also know that trying to bludgeon the Cuban authorities into submission does not work. It has not worked for sixty years.

It has made things worse.

It emboldens the hardliners in the government who blame the United States for their own failed policies, and who are determined to hold onto power.

It hurts the Cuban people, impeding their ability to obtain medical supplies as basic as syringes and masks to fight COVID, and preventing small businesses from accessing U.S. products.

It flies in the face of our belief in the power of diplomacy through engagement with countries whose governments we disagree with, especially a country 90 miles away with whose people we share so much in common.

Sooner or later – and I hope it is sooner – the Administration needs to face the fact that continuing Donald Trump’s policy of punitive sanctions and vitriol has backfired. The longer they delay that day of reckoning, the worse it will be.

We can do better than this. We can defend human rights, we can stand up for the right of people to choose their leaders in free and fair elections, and we can also do what we do with virtually every other government in the world with which we disagree – find areas of common purpose for the benefit of the people of both countries.

On this sixtieth anniversary of a Cold War policy of sanctions and isolation that has failed in every conceivable way, let us dedicate ourselves to a new way forward that our allies and partners in this hemisphere will support, that the American people will support, that supports the Cuban people, and that is worthy of the United States.

( Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee and is the President Pro Tempore of the Senate. He long has been the leading congressional advocate for normalizing relations between the United States and Cuba.)