The US Embargo Against Cuba: A Cold War Relic?

The United States began an embargo against Cuba on 19 October 1960 when the latter nationalised US-owned oil refineries on Cuban soil and without compensation. At first the embargo prohibited all exports from the US to Cuba except for medicine and food, but was later expanded to cover almost all exports. It is the longest trade embargo in modern history.

The economic, financial and commercial ban has remained in place — with occasional adjustments — until 2015, under a total of 11 US presidents. Only during the final term of the 11th president in that line, Barack Obama, have diplomatic relations between the countries started to significantly thaw.

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A visible sign of the US embargo is the many classic American cars on the streets of Havana. Credit:
Leandro Neumann Ciuffo (Wikimedia Commons)

Why Did the US Maintain an Embargo Against Cuba?

For many, the end of the Cold War should have ended any strategic reasons for an embargo against Cuba, yet some claim the embargo is a question of human rights and democracy. Whether this is correct depends on interpretation.

The Embargo Is Based on Human Rights

On the one hand, many supporters of the blockade have long claimed that Cuba is a repressive dictatorship marked by human rights violations and a lack of democracy. Yet when compared to many other countries with which the US has no trade restrictions, such as Saudi Arabia, the argument of a human rights-based embargo does not carry much weight.

Furthermore, the United Nations, along with human rights groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have cited negative humanitarian impacts of the embargo. This signifies that the blockade itself could be correctly deemed as a human rights violation.

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Fidel Castro (far left) and Che Guevara in 1960 (public domain)

The Embargo Is a Tool for Getting Cuban-American Votes

There is another ‘democratic’ interpretation of the endurance of the embargo. We need look no further than the domestic situation in the US, in particular Florida, the third largest state by population. Florida has a very large Cuban-American community, mostly due to the hundreds of thousands of affluent immigrants who arrived there in the years following the 1959 Cuban Revolution.

This group occupied the highest socio-economic position in pre-revolution Cuba, and lost the most wealth and influence when the new Fidel Castro-led government enacted its sweeping socialist reforms. Cuban-American political power in the US has been very influential on both local and national levels, especially when it comes to US foreign policy regarding Cuba.

Both Cubans and Americans Welcome Détente

Even among the traditionally pro-blockade Cuban Americans there is a changing tide. Recent polls have shown that second- and third-generation Cuban Americans, as well as more recent immigrants, do not share the hard-line politics long associated with their particular ethnic group. This change coincides with polls of Cuban citizens, which show that a vast majority prefer closer ties between the countries.

President Obama, who won the Cuban American vote in both 2008 and 2012, is the first US president to seek a normalisation of relations with the Castro government. Even some Cuban-American Republicans are in favour of the move.

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Cuban President Raúl Castro and US President Barack Obama meet in Panama on 11 April 2015. Credit: Whitehouse.gov

This turn of events is significant and for some long overdue, thought it seems to have at least as much to do with strategic, vote-getting ‘democracy’ — discussed above — than human rights. In other words, since it is politically popular, relations can now normalise regardless of how right or wrong the blockade is or ever was.

Perhaps the real winners will be US corporations, which have been waiting for years for this kind of thaw. How soon they can begin to pursue their interests in Cuban trade is yet to be seen, but we can bet they will have a hand in any form of détente that takes place.

Graham is an editor and contributor at Made From History. A London-based writer originally from Washington, DC, he holds a master's degree in Cultural History from Malmö University in Sweden. Graham also contributes environmental news articles to asiancorrespondent.com and latincorrespondent.com.