Sanctioned State: The US Embargo on Cuba

By Katz, David | Harvard International Review, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Sanctioned State: The US Embargo on Cuba


Katz, David, Harvard International Review


Cuba may be just 90 miles off the coast of Florida, but it is a world away politically from the United States. The United States has imposed its infamous embargo on the nearby Communist island-state since 1961, and all signs indicate that the administration of US President George W. Bush plans to maintain this policy. While the United States hopes that sanctions will force communist Cuba to embrace democracy and capitalism, the Cuban government blames the United States for the chronic starvation and economic devastation within its borders.

Although the rest of the world is free to trade with Cuba, Cuba adamantly argues that the United States is, literally, killing its people with its sanctions; Foreign Minister Perez Roque recently called the sanctions "an act of genocide." Bringing democracy to Cuba might indeed be a noble ideal, but after 40 years, the embargo has shown itself to be ineffective in achieving this goal. Instead, it has given dictator Fidel Castro political ammunition against the United States, not to mention costing the United States billions of dollars in terms of lost trade each year. Most ironic, perhaps, is that the end of Castro's regime may come sooner by abolishing the US sanctions for good.

Over the four decades of Castro's rule, Cuba has undergone the adoption of a strong Marxist-Leninist political ethos, cooperation with the Soviet Union, Cuban expropriation of US business interests, and a face-off with the United States in the "Bay of the Pigs" incident. During this time, the island's economy has stagnated. Today, problems abound, from inadequate agricultural production and restricted diets to non-operational plumbing and broken street lamps. Additionally, the island's major industry is tourism, including approximately 200,000 US nationals who visit each year, more than a quarter of whom travel illegally via third countries. This reality of the economy has caused the salaries of busboys in beach hotels (through tips) to rise above those of many doctors and lawyers and has led to a worrisome amount of prostitution. The average Cuban is forced to subsist on meager wages, making it hard to afford even the bare minimum of living essentials.

Given that Castro had been in office for less than three years before the United States imposed the embargo, he has since been able to deride the sanctions as the source of Cuba's economic woes, even though its communist economy would likely have lagged independent of outside intervention. In recent years, Cuba, free to trade with the rest of the world, has diversified its trading partners (dependence on Russia plunged from 80 percent in 1989 to 15 percent today), but has only seen minimal improvements in living standards. Indeed, more than the US embargo, Cuba stagnates under the weight of its communist government.

Moreover, the economic pressures placed on the island by the embargo pale in comparison to the political gains that Castro has realized in the minds of his people. …

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