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Cuba: Snuff Out the Embargo

The U.S. should open up business opportunities by lifting its trade embargo against the island nation. Pro or con? Update! Podcast: Hear a lively discussion as Roger Johnson and José Azel respond to your reader comments

Pro: Free Up Economies

American policy toward Cuba is an abject failure. Nine U.S. Presidents have come and gone (and a 10th is about to depart); Fidel Castro has just resigned, yet his closest supporters remain in power.

The real victims of this misguided policy are the two generations of Cubans who have grown up under the U.S. embargo that has deprived them of access to U.S. consumer products. More important, it has isolated them from the ideals of democracy and freedom, the very things we most want for them.

In the meantime, other nations, including most of our closest allies, are openly trading with and sending tourists to Cuba. There is a substantial market there, especially for our agricultural products, and we are missing out on much of it. Embargoes are almost meaningless when the rest of the world ignores them.

Since 2002, North Dakota has exported nearly $40 million in agricultural commodities—mostly pulse crops (peas, chickpeas, lentils, etc.)—to Cuba, despite the competitive disadvantage imposed on us by our own government restrictions. Lifting those restrictions would mean greater trade opportunities.

Cuba’s government is much like those of China and Vietnam, Communist nations that enjoy trade, tourism, and even the friendship of the U.S. Yet we treat Cuba, a tiny nation with virtually no political, economic, or military power, as a pariah.

The U.S. should end the trade and business embargo with Cuba and move quickly to allow tourism between our two countries. Most important, we should restore full diplomatic relations with Havana. Only then will we have the leverage to press the new Cuban leadership to restore human rights, establish a free market-based economy, and move to democracy.

Until we do these things, however, we will watch as others enjoy the benefits of trade with Cuba and play an active role in the development of the island. The U.N. General Assembly has voted repeatedly for an end to the embargo against Cuba, most recently by a margin of 183 to 4. It is time to admit we are wrong; it is time to change our policy—for ourselves and for the people of Cuba.

Con: Restrictions Make Sense

The effectiveness of using economic sanctions for political influence is an often debated aspect of U.S. foreign policy. The practice, however, is not new or particularly American. Pericles’ decree banning the Megarians from the Athenian market and ports helped incite the Great Peloponnesian War in 431 B.C.

In the case of Cuba in 2008, after nearly five decades of economic sanctions, the debate continues. Critics of the U.S. embargo note that economic sanctions have failed to change the nature of the Cuban government and have allowed the country to use the embargo for propaganda purposes. Abandoning U.S. trade restrictions, they argue, would expose Cuba to the “American way of life” and help foment social pressures for economic reforms and political liberalization.

Regrettably, this outlook stems from a U.S.-centric vantage point extrapolated to the Cuban government. Embargo opponents make the flawed assumption that the current Cuban government is earnestly interested in close relations with its northern neighbor—and willing to jeopardize its total control and 50-year legacy of opposition to Yankee imperialism in exchange for an improvement in the economic well-being of Cubans. Raul Castro’s recent speech to Cuba’s National Assembly should put an end to that notion.

The embargo is not the cause of the catastrophic state of Cuba’s economy. Mismanagement and the fact that “command economy” models don’t work lie at the root of Cuba’s economic misery. Despite the existence of the embargo, the U.S. is Cuba’s sixth-largest trading partner and biggest food supplier.

Moreover, U.S. tourism will not bring democracy to Cuba. For years, hundreds of thousands of tourists from Canada, Europe, Latin America, and elsewhere have visited the island. Cuba is no more democratic today. On what mystical grounds do opponents of the embargo offer that American tourists will do the trick?

There are many negative unintended consequences to unilaterally lifting the embargo without meaningful changes in Cuba’s political and economic model. Most important of all, it would ensure the continuation of the current totalitarian regime by strengthening state enterprises that would be the main beneficiaries of currency inflows into business owned by the Cuban government.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of BusinessWeek,, or The McGraw-Hill Companies.

Reader Comments

Steve L.

Economic sanctions against Cuba by the USA are wholly symbolic. The rest of the world has continued to tour and trade with Cuba this entire time--to what end?

Roger Johnson is an apologist for a brutal dictator. Cuba's problem is a dictatorial military-run Communist state, based on Soviet policies. Sadly, a situation very similar to Burma's. If something is to change, let it be Cuba's government, not American policy.

paul falcone

We trade with the Chinese and the Vietnamese, so why not trade with Cuba? The faster we do this, the faster we will have a free Cuba that would not go back to Communism. The only people who want to keep an embargo are a few big-shot Cubans who want to have all power in Miami.


Revolutions happen when the people see that things can get better. If we drop the embargo, Communism will be gone in six months. There is no sensible reason to continue the embargo. It's an old policy left from a time when Communism was a world threat. It isn't anymore. We're just inflicting pain on the Cuban people and letting the dictatorial government use us as a scapegoat.


Embargoes really do nothing but stir up more animosity within the confines of where the people who are already suppressed live. I believe we should be more open to trade with Cuba. After all, it will definitely make Miami boom.


If we can do business with China, we can do business with Cuba. Enough with the old hatred for Castro by the Cuban emigres who lost their wealth and power.

fadi ghosn

The embargo is directed against the Cuban people. Lift it, and play politics as much as you want.

Common Sense

I think it is time to try it without the embargo for 50 years--and then compare.


Economic sanctions only work when they're observed by more than one country. All the seething and growling about how Cuba is a totalitarian Communist state that doesn't deserve to have its trade embargo with the U.S. lifted until it changes, ultimately means nothing if Cuba gets what it needs from other countries. It's not being an apologist; it's simply noting that the trade embargo has no leverage since Cuba is freely trading with the rest of the world.

The idea that by trading with Cuba, the U.S. will lead the impoverished Cubans to forsake their dictators for a free market economy and a democratic government makes just as little sense. It's a quote from ideologues who made lofty speeches about how to win the Cold War, and current events show just how wrong they were.

In China, the world's capital of manufacturing trade, people have been getting ever wealthier for the past decade and a half and yet, they haven't had a revolution and overthrown their government in favor of free elections. Even in Russia and Ukraine, the most progressive countries of the former USSR and ones with the easiest access to U.S. and European goods, most elections are just ceremonial. The incumbent grooms a successor, nominates him, and people vote for the nominated successor. If there's an opposition, it's ignored because it doesn't have the power and presence to make its message heard. Even there, holdovers of the Communist system still persist.

If selling some microwaves and washing machines to the impoverished and the oppressed worked, the Middle Eastern dictatorships and autocracies wouldn't exist anymore. Similarly, if economic sanctions worked to unseat dictators, Iran would be holding free elections, its Supreme Council would've been just a bad dream, and the invasion of Iraq would've never happened because Saddam would've been ousted and jailed. Embargoes and sanctions are a tool to force a dictator to do something, but they're not going to unjam an autocrat from his seat of power. Only a populace with other choices for leadership can do that as we see in Pakistan.

Thomas Wieken

This is supposed to be a beautiful place to vacation. My parents were there just before Castro took over. The poverty was unbelievable. My mother always talked about the poor children. It didn't seem that trade with Cuba was helping anyone but Batista.

It really can't hurt to open trade with Cuba. What will we import? Tobacco and sugar? Why don't we build an ethanol plant there and use the sugar instead of wheat to make ethanol. Now that makes scientific sense.


In February, my wife and I stayed a week in a Cuban resort. I think dropping the embargo would be logical, particularly given U.S. trade with other dictatorial regimes. Just don't expect overnight miracles. Give it another 50 years or so, and everything will work out fine. Maybe the embargo should be retained for cars, though. It's great fun to see all those 1950s U.S. cars roaming the roads.

Alec B.

Could Steve L. please elaborate on where he draws a similarity between Burma and Cuba?


I have looked closely at the argument of José Azel above and I cannot, for the life of me, see any justification given for the continued implementation of an economic embargo. In essence, he argues that though the embargo has been unsuccessful, to lift it would not guarantee a successful change of government. That makes no sense.

Time heals all wounds, unless, apparently, you are a Cuban refugee. The beauty of the current Presidential race in the U.S. is that neither Obama nor McCain will be swayed by the interests of the Miami contingent. They have lost their wedge and not before time.

Steve M

The con argument presented is the usual Cuban exile rant: It denies that the embargo causes hardship, it denies that U.S. tourism would help democratize Cuba, and it cites "many" negative consequences of lifting the embargo, but doesn't explain a single one.

Cuban exiles dream of a devastated Cuba so they can roll back in with U.S. dollars and take over on the cheap.

The embargo, in my humble and unlearned opinion, is what has allowed Castro to maintain control by using the threat of the great evil empire of the U.S. Lifting the embargo would bring more democratic change to Cuba in a single generation than the last 50 years of failed U.S. policy.

Why is this even an argument? Even the Soviet Union collapsed. Allow Cuba to participate in the global market, and it will change, too. The only reason Cuba still exists as it is is because the U.S. keeps it that way.


Out of stubbornness, the United States government continues to support a failure: the economic embargo against Cuba. Imperial arrogance dictates that the U.S. continue with this stupid policy. But it cannot hide from the condemnation that was delivered at the United Nations General Assembly last September, when, by a vote of 184-4, it condemned what Cuba rightly calls a blockade. George W. Bush: Put that in you pipe and smoke it.


Interesting how the Cuban leadership and Western liberals blame Cuba's failure on the U.S. embargo. Cuba can do business with everybody else, but still Uncle Sam is responsible for:

1) The economic hardship there
2) The political system (because it would change if the embargo would be lifted)

Nobody is responsible for their actions these days, and failure is always Uncle Sam's fault.

The best thing about the liberal whining is that they seem to be saying that a Socialist utopia can't work without being able to trade with the evil capitalists in the U.S. This whole issue is twisted and stupid. Cuba should be left to rot along with all things Communist. Nobody has any obligation to keep them afloat. If they want democracy, how about doing it themselves?


I am not against the embargo of Cuba. I object to the uneven way in which we decide which nations we will embargo or not. There is a case to be made that China is a far greater violator of human rights than Cuba is. I would seek constructive engagement with Cuba, and I would take a harder line with China.


I've been to Cuba multiple times. Each time, I was amazed at how a person reacted when I presented him or her with some small token of Canadian culture, i.e., a lapel pin. The conditions they live in are pitiful, to say the least. Everything is cement. Very few buildings are wood, due to lack of it.

Back here, I always read that economic sanctions will not unseat a dictator if he can trade with other countries. Quite right. So why is the almighty King George insisting upon the economic blockade of Cuba? Does he simply not see this, point because he can't or he won't?

Democracy is not a fix-all Band-Aid. It didn't work for Russia, after all. I'm confused as to why the American government seems to think that its brand of democracy is the way to go. Because, frankly, it's hardly a shining example of everything right with the system. Every time I see a news article about American government corruption, I can't help but think about the former Roman Empire.


Oh, and Steve L.: Please elaborate on the Cuba-Burma connection. Please do. A dictatorship is not always so brutal; Cubans have some of the best health care in the world and free education through college.


I took an inexpensive all-inclusive tour to Cuba last October for a week. It is spectacular in many respects, but the most obvious is the lack of Americans. The world really hates them, and Cuba actually outlaws them. The best thing that ever happened to Cuba and its burgeoning tourist industry is the elimination of Americans with their money and superior attitudes combined with economy destroying overconsumption. The last paradise in the Western World would be polluted if the embargo was lifted, and Cuba would become another Puerto Rico or Jamaica. Who needs that?


Democracy, by definition, cannot be imposed. However, that doesn't mean we have to support dictators. But we do support--or turn a blind eye to--dictators who serve our interests. No matter who wins the U.S. election, the embargo will stay in place. If trade with the rest of the world has helped Cuba so much, why is it still in utter poverty? Cuba is a flawed system.


When the "U.S. interests" (meaning what the government wants) are such that it benefits itself, the U.S. will get involved to police others. Many countries do more harm than good to the majority of their people, and the U.S. government sits back. Let there be oil involved or other interests, and the U.S. will lie to have reason to invade. As soon as we need sugar for biofuel, watch what happens to Cuba.


There is nothing more "anti-American" and "anti-free-enterprise system" than an idea that does not work. That is supposed to be the kind of stuff that socialism is made of.

Looking at an embargo that has not produced anything positive in 50 years, I state that it is essentially "anti-American" and "anti-free-enterprise." The proof would be in trying the opposite. Why not try it? Why not be "pro-American" and "pro-free enterprise?"


Embargoes are morally wrong and against free market ideas, no matter how morally reprehensible the country. And Cuba is no Burma, silly goose. It's much more advanced. Have you ever been there?


Cannot believe the ignorance of the embargo. The embargo was instituted when the murderous Castro regime stole all the property, Cuban and foreign alike. Those who state that we trade with other Communist countries do not seem to know that those totalitarian regimes paid the debts for the stolen properties. It is not the embargo, stupid. It is the system that does not work. Venezuela, which is becoming another Cuba, thanks to the monkey king wannabe dictator Chavez, is implementing food rationing. Hey, there is not a U.S. embargo there. The only embargo is the one imposed on the Cuban people by the ruling oligarchy. Cannot believe you guys support the apartheid system.


As a Cuban-American, I believe it is time we drop the Cuban embargo since it has not accomplished anything other than helping Castro use nationalistic fervor to rally his nation and consolidate power. The USA needs to be smart and let all Americans travel to all countries they desire. Freedom for all Americans. Cuba will eventually follow.


Lawrence pretty much got to the bottom of it.

The U.S. hates Cuba because Cuba defies the American hegemony system. That's why "we do support--or turn a blind eye to--dictators who serve our interests." America never cared about tyranny per se; it just always wants the tyrants to pledge allegiance.

Jon Towne

Free up nothing. Until that murderer is dead, the United States need not lift a finger. Once that jerk is gone, then let's see if Raul or whatever his two-timing name is relents to the U.S. what it wants. Time is on our side--don't you think? We kept the nukes off the island, and we kept capitalism off the island. What do those poor people have? Nothing, except Fidel Castro. Castro is and was a horrible dictator who will go down in the annals of history as a foolish puppet of the Soviet empire (not). He should be buried at sea, in a swarm of great whites.


To keep doing the same and expecting change--some call that insanity. Well, for almost 50 years the "embargo" has accomplished nothing. If Cuba had not been forgotten in the last century maybe through trade, health organization, and more, the island could have been infiltrated a lot more easily. Sounds conspiratorial? Well, politics is full of that substance. Work from the inside out. All but the music has been blocked off from the rest of the real world. The oppression the Cubanos and Cubanas have endured should at least be helped along by providing them goods, medicine, and faith.


It's always seemed a tad hypocritical that, for decades, we have been trading with Communist China. If only Cuba wasn't so iconic in the cold war, perhaps all this nonsense could have been put to rest years ago. The prospects for oil and oil-related profiteering may well be the turning point in the Cuban embargo. There is money to be made in Cuba. Therefore there is reason to lift the embargo.


The embargo is stupid and should be ended. For one, I think we could use Cuba's sugar cane to make ethanol, which might free up some of the land we are currently using for the same purpose to grow food to feed people, instead of giving first priority to powering our automobiles. Of course, this will make Midwest farmers upset, so they will be heavily against any change.

Wai L. Chui

The embargo has nothing to do with any geopolitical arguments or reality. It is just an expression of the hatred of the American political establishment toward Fidel Castro personally. His refusal to die young or collapse with the Soviet Union is a source of endless annoyance. All these talks about how dismantling the embargo will not bring democracy to Cuba is just a smoke screen.

Any argument for maintaining the embargo applies to China. The difference is that Cuba is small enough that the price paid by the U.S. is low. It is low enough to be maintained decade after decade.

If the man living across the street is annoying to you, would you not be willing to pay an affordable price to get back at him in some ways?

gary reads

Ask Fidel to write a letter of reflection, an apology to the Cuban and American people for allowing his revolution to become a stage for the USSR in its play for violent global hegemony. If Castro, despite his expropriations and incarcerations and Che-revolutions and proxy wars, had not offered his country as a strategic nuclear base against the U.S., he would not have become so demonized as a watchword for Communist treachery. He was the present, demonstrable, and lethal threat to the security of the U.S. for an entire generation.

Fidel caused the alarm to be rung to the entire American electorate, and justified the massive expenditures of the 1960s defense against the projected remote threat of the USSR. In effect, America could not ignore the threat of the USSR due to the machinations of two brothers--disaffected children of the elite. Fidel Castro, Big Brother personified, did more to inspire the American defense of the West against global Communism than any other man on earth. There should be a Cold War monument to him on the Mall.

Raul is a relic and, despite his murderous past, ought, with brother Fidel, be finally relegated to the dustbin of history.

Negotiate foreign ownership of private property with Raul, promise him and his tottering henchmen retirement waterfront condos, and unleash the developers, casinos, cruise lines, and Donald Trump on the "Cuban Dream" Isle.

Ted Pert

It's ironic that Russia, which was a communist nation for years, has abandoned the idea and Cuba still follows this outdated and ludicrous system to the detriment of its people. Please abolish these barriers.

Bert Corzo

The United States government's embargo has had little effect on the Cuban economy, since it only represents 10% of Cuba's commerce with the rest of the world. The embargo only affects the American companies and their subsidiaries. The rest of the countries, at 152 since the last count in 2004, and companies are free to conduct business with Cuba and are doing so, as confirmed by imports surpassing $5 billion during 2004. In reality, there has not been such an embargo since the year 2000, when the United States Congress lifted the prohibition of the sale of agricultural products and medicines to Cuba, thereby allowing the Castro tyranny to buy everything it needs by paying in cash.

From December, 2001, to February, 2005, the Castro regime signed contracts for more than $1.26 billion with American companies for the purchases of their products in cash payments. The U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, based on analysis of official figures of the Castro regime, has estimated the import of U.S. agricultural products at $392 million during 2004, converting the United States to Cuba's sixth-largest business partner.

The remittance of the exile community has been estimated at $1.1 billion. The $1.1 billion a year sent by the exiles to Cuba correspond to 59% of the $1.85 billion of the island revenues during 2004.

What the Castro tyranny really wants are loans and lines of credit guaranteed by the U.S. Treasury Department, since it doesn't have hard currency to pay the interests on the lines of credit for the importation of merchandise. The European Union has suspended credits to Castro's regime due to lack of payment of the $500 million in loans. These credits will not be paid, and the American taxpayers will be the losers, the ones to pick up the debt, as it happens at the present time with the taxpayers of Spain, Argentina, Canada, Venezuela, and other countries.

The Cuban economy's bankruptcy is the sole responsibility of Castro's regime. Under this system, the economy will continue to slowly deteriorate without any hope of improvement. The economy is closely linked to the social development and standard of living of the Cuban people, which makes it very difficult for the improvement of those under the existing regime.

Cuba's problems are not the result of the embargo; they are due to the corruption and ineffectiveness of a system that is against private property and free enterprise. These and no others are the real reasons of the problems. Lifting the embargo and travel ban, without meaningful changes in Cuba, will:

1. Guarantee the continuation of the current totalitarian structures.

2. Strengthen state enterprises, since money will flow into businesses owned by the Cuban government.

3. Lead to greater repression and control since Castro and the leadership will fear that U.S. influence will subvert the revolution.

4. Delay instead of accelerate a transition to democracy on the island.

Robert J Todd

What I heard from the Cuban people was, "We like you; we don't like your government." Nary a word about not liking their government. What a lovely vacation I had--a bit worried when I ran very low on cash, but roaming the streets of Havana while broke proved to be the most educational part of the trip. I'd love to go back, but I'll have to wait until we get our freedoms returned. By the way, we are made poor by the high cost of education and health care. The Cubans are poor, but their education and health care are rights, not a burden. Did you happen to note that their infant mortality rate is superior to that of the good ol' USA?

Michael A Jamail

Yes, now open trade with Cuba. As a right-wing Republican, Bush can more easily open trade than a Democrat. Do it for the sake of Cuba's people, for the commerce of the USA. Free markets mean free people; more trade means less war. Yes, yes, yes.

Che Choi

Not sure if this is really about Communism/socialism vs. capitalism/democracy. There is a huge trade with China and great economic benefit with it. This sounds more like a "my way or the high way" type of mentality. Shouldn't the leading country in the world lead other countries with good acts rather than arrogance? Why so afraid of a failed form of government?

Moe Badderman

Just look at what a runaway success the embargo has been: in only 46 years (as of last month), it made Castro resign! Just imagine what it could accomplish in the next 46 years! We need not do business with the repressive Communist regime in Cuba--we have our trade partners in China for that!


"More important, it has isolated them from the ideals of democracy and freedom, the very things we most want for them." If our embargo didn't separate these Cubans from the ideals of democracy, Castro would have. It's not as though our embargo is the sole reason that these Cubans are separated from these ideals. I think the fact that many of them try to swim over to Florida (in rafts, etc.) shows they have the ideals of democracy. I think they've got a pretty good idea about what they're missing. Why else would they risk their lives swimming over here in rafts?

Come to think of it, what exactly does it mean to "separate someone from the ideals of democracy"? It's a very grandiose statement with, I'm afraid, little real meaning. It's a vague comment. Does it mean to separate someone from the privileges democracy grants? Does it mean to keep someone from the desires of democracy? I'm not exactly sure I know what the author is trying to say by this.

By the way, in reference to the comment about our missing out on the benefits of trading with Cuba: I really don't mean to sound like a snob--I really, really do not. But what kind of resources does that little country have to offer on a mass scale? Are we really missing out on that much?


Maybe we could cut a deal; we will drop the embargo if Castro will allow Cubans to freely travel. It's ironic that the revolution in Cuba was mainly against the political-industrial complex of the times and now Castro blames not having access to it as a major reason for Cuba's failed economy.


I believe we should open a line of communication with Cuba when Castro is dead and buried. If the post-Castro government is open to trade, tourism, free enterprise, and some sort of democratic principles for its peoples, we can negotiate and work toward ending the embargo and bringing the two countries closer. If not: status quo.

Scott D. Smith

No question, we should open up trade with Cuba. Only by trading with Cuba will the real benefits of capitalism be known to the people there. In addition, it really makes the flaws of socialism show.


There is an undeniable separation between touring a country and actually living there. During a mission trip last summer, I saw firsthand what help the country needed. On the streets there was always draining sewage and dirty stray dogs. I even saw a woman eat out of a trash can more than once. It is true that the Cuban government has hurt Cuba more than the embargo, but still, the embargo has put a cap on the recourses for the Cuban people. A house farm in the La Marina neighborhood in Matanzas was their solution to provide vegetables for the neighborhood (which had, by the way, the filthiest streets, and there was sewage everywhere). Despite the Communist government, if America ended the embargo, then that could potentially boost the Cuban economy. That will take time though.

Anyway, I would also like to point out that Cubans are very aware of their situation, and how two self-absorbed governments have pushed the beautiful Cuba into the mud. The Cubans push through with a natural perseverance though, despite any failed efforts to dig themselves out of poverty.

I would also like to note that the embargo also restricts travel, and is very tight on immigration. I met a Cuban Presbyterian minister who had not seen his grandchild since 2003, thanks to the embargo. So, keep the Cuban people in mind when you think about the consequences of the embargo.

Derek Pauley

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Johnson, and he is an intelligent man. The Cuban dictator is gone, and reform is imminent. Chinese geologists are working on found oil near Cuba, Cuba has a strong medical community, and it is 90 miles from the port of Miami.

Why not change the current currency regulations as a starting point?

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