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Cuba’s dictatorship, not the embargo, is what needs to go

If commerce and tourism had the power to undo Havana’s repression, they would have done so by now.

At her home in Havana, Zoila Rodriguez Marzo shows a document of the sentence handed to her son Exeynt Beirut and a photo of her son, her daughter, and their father, who have been detained since anti-government protests last July. Cuba is imposing sentences of up to 30 years on demonstrators.YAMIL LAGE/AFP via Getty Images

Feb. 7 marked the 60th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s proclamation imposing an embargo on trade between the United States and Cuba. Other JFK milestones are recalled by media and political elites with esteem or affection. Not this one.

“Cuba has been under US embargo for 60 years. It’s time for that to end,” declared David Adler of Progressive International in The Guardian. Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, argued in an essay for Univision that “the US embargo is opposed by every other nation in this hemisphere,” so that “in a failed attempt to isolate Cuba, we have isolated ourselves.” Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, long a supporter of normalized ties with Cuba, tweeted that “the Cold War is over” and condemned the embargo as “a policy that has failed for decades, all the while inflicting incalculable suffering on ordinary Cubans.” And The Nation, boasting that it had opposed Kennedy’s trade ban from the outset, ran yet another article denouncing it under the headline: “Cuba: 60 Years of a Brutal, Vindictive, and Pointless Embargo.”


This is par for the course. In the face of the oldest dictatorship in the Western hemisphere and one of the cruelest on the planet, men and women who regard themselves as enlightened aim their outrage not at the regime that tramples human rights, strangles freedom, and violently represses its critics but at America’s longstanding policy of not doing business as usual with that regime. By contrast, many of those same voices rightly call for restricting trade by companies tainted by slave labor in China’s Xinjiang region, just as they earlier endorsed sanctions against South Africa during apartheid. Why, when it comes to Cuba, do they demand not the lifting of the communist oppression but of the trade embargo meant to resist it?

It is often forgotten now, but when Fidel Castro in 1959 overthrew the regime of Fulgencio Batista and seized power in Cuba, he had the tacit support of the United States. Months before, Washington had imposed an arms embargo on Batista’s military dictatorship and begun pressuring him to leave office. Within days of Castro’s revolt, US officials formally recognized the new government, and just three months after his coup, he was welcomed to the United States for an 11-day visit. Cheering crowds greeted Castro, and he spent three hours with Vice President Richard Nixon.


Fidel Castro looks out of a train on its way to Boston, April 1959.Photo by George N. Lester

Nonetheless, Castro began almost at once to align himself with the Soviet Union and Communist China, and began targeting American assets on the island. The new regime passed a law empowering the government to seize US-owned companies. Oil refineries, sugar mills, telephone companies, power generators, banks — Castro stole them all, a vast haul of American properties worth an estimated $1.9 billion in 1972 dollars, or $12.7 billion today when adjusted for inflation.

By the time Kennedy imposed the trade embargo in 1962, the hostility of Cuba’s new rulers was an established fact. Soon after, Castro would authorize the installation of Soviet nuclear missiles on Cuban soil. All the while, his jailers, torturers, and firing squads were at work, crushing young Cubans by the thousands for the crime of opposing the new tyranny.


Sixty years later, Cuba remains drenched in misery. The New York Times reported in January that protesters rounded up during last summer’s peaceful anti-government demonstrations “could get up to 30 years in prison as they face the largest and most punitive mass trials on the island since the early years of the revolution.” In a country known for harsh government crackdowns, the authorities are engaged in one of the harshest ever. The suffering of Cuba’s people is undeniable, and so is its cause: not the US embargo but the communist despotism that has been in place since 1959.

A peculiar myth about the embargo — one repeated again and again — is that if only it were repealed, Cuba would be drenched by a tsunami of tourists, consumer goods, and democratic ideas from America that would wash away Havana’s communist fortifications.

But if commerce and tourism had the power to undo the regime, wouldn’t that have happened by now? The US embargo, after all, is highly porous. It doesn’t prevent the export of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of goods to Cuba each year, mostly foodstuffs but also whiskey, beer, and even newsprint. In recent years, the United States has consistently been among Cuba’s leading trade partners. In 2019, for example, 5.3 percent of Cuba’s imports were American. Meanwhile, Cuba remains free to do business with the rest of the world, unfettered by JFK’s embargo.


Nor is there any shortage of tourists from democratic countries. Millions of them visit the island each year, half a million Americans among them. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, more tourists were traveling to Cuba from the United States than from any other country except Canada. It is a canard that the embargo prevents Cuba from democratizing by preventing American vacationers and businesspeople from flooding the country with their notions of liberty and enterprise. Cuba’s rulers maintain a stranglehold on virtually every aspect of the economy, which means that anything that enriches that economy adds to their power. Lifting what remains of the travel ban and embargo will not pull the plug on Cuba’s misery; it will only make that misery worse.

President Barack Obama in his second term made it a priority to move rapidly toward normalizing relations with Cuba, setting the stage to test the impact of more engagement and trade on Cuba’s domestic situation. The results were conclusive. The more the United States opened up to Cuba — summit meetings, trade missions, direct air travel, the relaunching of a US embassy, even a baseball outing by Obama and Cuban president Raul Castro — the more repressive the regime became. Former secretary of state John Kerry eventually confessed his “disappointment” about how Havana reacted after ties and trade with the United States were expanded. “Cuba seemed to harden down after the initial steps were taken,” he said ruefully.


It is indeed a tragedy that the government established by the Castros remains in power, but that’s not the fault of the embargo announced by JFK. It’s the fault of Cuba’s brutal rulers. The time to lift the trade restrictions will be when the dictatorship is lifted — when political prisoners are freed, when emigrants can leave, when political parties are legalized, and when democratic elections are scheduled. May that day come before the embargo’s next anniversary.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jeff.jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby. To subscribe to Arguable, his weekly newsletter, visit bitly.com/Arguable.