In 1962, President Kennedy ordered 1200 cigars from Cuba and then hours later signed into law an embargo against the country. Earlier this year, more than five decades after the sanctions were authorized, President Obama announced that the United States and Cuba would reinstate diplomatic ties. Embassies for the United States and Cuba reopened in both Havana and Washington, D.C., and many provisions of the embargo, including restrictions on trade and travel, were relaxed. Despite the White House’s recent push to normalize relations, Congress must ultimately act in order for the devastating sanctions to be lifted, a move which seems unlikely in the current session. Though the communist country has been the source of many headaches for the United States, the embargo has been a complete and utter failure, enacted only to hide Washington’s embarrassment following the unsuccessful invasion at the Bay of Pigs. Congress must recognize the sanctions have done more harm than good to the Cuban people and that we cannot continue to legislate based on failed principle. History has shown the most effective method to spread democracy is through involvement, not isolation.
The threat of nuclear attack, the plight of jailed political dissidents and the domino effect of communism kept American public opinion in favor of the embargo throughout the 1960s, but this is no longer the case. Cuban citizens are ready for reform, and allowing American businesses and tourists into the country would accelerate the ideological transformation currently taking place. Look at China, which was forced to become more capitalist, democratic and conscious of its human rights record after Nixon’s diplomacy in 1972. We conduct more trade with countries that are more left, such as Vietnam, and countries that oppress their citizens, like Saudi Arabia, yet we continue to let Cubans suffer with their 1955 Chevys, lack of Internet access, and poor transportation systems.
Numerous polls conducted this year show that over 60 percent of Americans support the complete lifting of the embargo. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, whose secretary visited Havana last week, estimates that the sanctions have cost the United States $1.2 billion in lost economic output annually. These statistics attest to the benefits of establishing trade once again, but the ethical argument is even more convincing. The Cuban people may be inconvenienced without McDonalds, Nike and Apple, but they are languishing without food and clean water, decent infrastructure and adequate healthcare.
The United Nations General Assembly has demanded an end to the sanctions for 23 consecutive years, and it is only a matter of time before we must concur. The best approach to transforming Cuba a modern democracy is by wholeheartedly shifting our focus to individual Cuban citizens, rather than naively demanding full surrender from their dictators. Opponents in Congress need to move past the outdated stubbornness and get on the right side of history. Lift the embargo and free the Cuban people.
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Email Akshay Prabhushankar at [email protected].