Cuba embargo turns 50: is this what JFK intended?

Ten presidents later, the US still prohibits nearly all trade and financial transactions with Cuba. But the embargo may work against our national interests, writes guest blogger Landau French.

By , Guest blogger

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    Cars travel on a road in Havana as the 'Boudicca' cruise ship enters the city port on Wednesday. The 50th anniversary of the US trade embargo against Cuba was met with little fanfare on the island, where most Cubans said it was a failed policy that had succeeded only in making their lives more difficult.
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• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, thehavananote.com. The views expressed are the author's own.

The US embargo turned 50 years old this week. It probably won't surprise most folks to learn that the night before President John F. Kennedy signed a total US embargo of Cuba into force, he asked an aide to buy 1,000 Cuban cigars (just to be safe, the aide got 1,200).

Surely Kennedy would have been shocked to learn that his massive stockpile would run out long before his embargo would; just days before his assassination, Kennedy had approved a secret meeting to take place in Havana between a senior US diplomat and Castro. But the meeting never took place, and Kennedy's embargo has remained a fixture now for half a century. Over at the Daily Mail, Lee Moran offers perspective on this week's milestone:

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"When the embargo began, American teenagers were doing The Twist, the US had yet to put a man into orbit around the Earth and a first-class US postage stamp cost just 4 cents."

How is it that 10 presidents and a Cold War ago, the United States cut off nearly all trade, financial, and aid transactions with 11 million people 90 miles away? Never-ending presidentially declared sanctions such as Kennedy’s Cuba embargo had a way of piling up in decades past, long past their utility or relevance. This eventually prompted Congress to reform the authority under which a president could use his emergency international economic (sanctions) powers. After that law passed in 1977, any new sanctions would require oversight and could not just continue in perpetuity. Except the Cuba embargo was grandfathered in with the new law, so, as long as the president declared, every year, the pressing national security interest in continuing it (or, rather, his authority to maintain it), the embargo hung on.     

President Obama last signed that declaration in September. But seriously, where’s the emergency? Fifty years ago, in October 1962, the world came as close to nuclear war as it ever has, when the United States discovered nuclear-armed Soviet missiles in Cuba, initiated a naval blockade, and managed to negotiate an agreement with the Soviets for the missiles’ withdrawal. That was clearly an emergency, and a definite threat to the United States. 

And 50 later? There’s not exactly any national interest or emergency compelling the president (well, except for his own re-election fortunes in swing-state Florida) to continue this fossilized policy. If there were one, the just-released “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community” failed to mention it. The only threat in Cuba, according to the report, is the internet and its potential for undermining the Cuban government’s grip on power.

On the contrary, our compelling interests surely lie in dismantling the embargo: it harms the Cuban people (and certainly doesn’t help them at all), who would be quick to flood the US in the face of any real destabilization on the island. It invites Havana to embrace countries – Venezuela, Iran, China - that really do more materially threaten or at least challenge our interests. It locks us out of the incipient reform process in Cuba, and could also be hindering its progress as it offers Havana hardliners an easy excuse to maintain tight control. And, most directly counter to our national interest, the embargo hampers swift, routine, effective cooperation on shared interests with a willing partner, whether in fighting drug smuggling, human trafficking, or disaster prevention and mitigation.

--- Anya Landau French blogs for The Havana Note, a project of the "US-Cuba Policy Initiative,” directed by Ms. Landau French, at the New America Foundation/American Strategy Program.

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