Op-Ed: As Castro era ends in Cuba, so should the U.S. embargo

A car drives by a billboard outside Havana, Cuba that reads in Spanish "It was, is and will be done," with a picture of Cuba's President Raul Castro.
(Desmond Boylan / Associated Press)

Raúl Castro is expected to step down as president of Cuba on Thursday. His handpicked successor, Miguel Díaz-Canel, is likely to be appointed by the National Assembly of People’s Power soon afterward. For the first time in more than half a century, the island will be led by someone not named Castro.

Cuban Americans have long believed this would be the moment when our two countries would finally kiss and make up, but that is not the case. President Trump has reversed many of President Obama’s efforts to normalize relations with Cuba, citing the country’s poor human rights record and lack of democracy. A number of the business and travel restrictions that were loosened in 2014 and 2015 have been reinstated, the consular section has closed, and the new American Embassy in Havana has been reduced to 10 diplomats. Conservatives in the U.S. now seem intent on continuing, even strengthening, the trade embargo on Cuba and tightening American travel to the island even further.

This is wrongheaded. The 50-year trade embargo against Cuba has failed. It has not influenced the country’s leadership to change its communist government or to improve human rights on the island.


Quite the opposite is true: When the U.S. tightens its stranglehold on Cuba, the Cuban government slows reforms and restricts dissent. Ever since Trump announced his decision to reverse Obama’s U.S.-Cuba thaw, Castro has halted necessary economic changes.

Nowhere else in the world does the U.S. maintain a unilateral embargo; not even against rogue nations like Syria.

Moreover, we are harming Cuba’s people much more than we are the Cuban government. Fewer American visitors mean less income for private citizens, who make their living by renting rooms, serving meals and selling souvenirs.

Under the influence of his recent nominees — Mike Pompeo for secretary of State and John Bolton for national security advisor — Trump is likely to clamp down on Cuba even more. Pompeo once accused Obama of promoting dictators by visiting Cuba, and Bolton tried to sabotage former President Carter’s 2002 visit to the island by falsely blaming Cuba for having a “developmental biological weapons program” and providing assistance to “rogue nations.” Bolton failed to derail Carter’s visit, but he and other conservatives did convince President George W. Bush to significantly restrict American travel to Cuba. Bush’s tightened travel ban remained in place until Obama revised the regulations, allowing Americans to travel to Cuba for educational and cultural purposes.

Trump’s Cuba rollback is not in the best interests of the U.S., either. The more we alienate Cuba, the closer it moves to Russia and China. Russia recently initialed a deal to manage the Cienfuegos oil refinery, and it is now considering reopening a communications base that intercepts satellite communications. China is Cuba’s largest trading partner. Both China and Russia are major advisors and arms suppliers to the Cuban military.

This week’s transition of power in Cuba represents an opportunity for the U.S. to re-engage. Born two years after Fidel Castro claimed power, Díaz-Canel comes from a younger, more technologically savvy generation that wants Cuba to become part of the interconnected world. Díaz-Canel has personally championed the expansion of the internet in Cuba and called for more government transparency. Trump should seize the moment and meet with Cuba’s new leader.


The U.S. should also remove all sanctions that harm the Cuban people and opt instead for targeted sanctions, which can be levied against individuals for specific abuses, or particular policies. Under the embargo, all Cubans are punished. It’s a blunt weapon, not a precision instrument.

Nowhere else in the world does the U.S. maintain a unilateral embargo; not even against rogue nations like Syria, which has used chemical weapons against its own people, or North Korea, which threatens to make use of its nuclear program.

Most importantly, the Trump administration should work with Latin American governments to determine a regional consensus on policy toward Cuba. Cuban leaders look to Latin American governments for legitimacy and financial support. These governments are unwilling to pressure Cuba as long as the U.S. maintains a comprehensive trade embargo, which they consider unfair and counterproductive. If the U.S. ended the embargo, the region would be more willing to pressure Cuba to improve human rights and permit dissent.

Our flawed policy is shattering Cubans’ hope for change. But there is another reason Trump may want to rethink his position: Six in 10 Americans support normalizing relations with Cuba, and most favor ending the embargo.

Ambassador Vicki Huddleston was chief of the United States Interests Section in Cuba from 1999 to 2002. She is the author of “Our Woman in Havana: A Diplomat’s Chronicle of our Long Struggle with Castro’s Cuba.”

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