In October of 1960, the United States imposed an embargo on exports to Cuba covering all commodities except medical supplies and certain food products. That was the beginning of a trade embargo that still endures and still inspires heated debate.
The anniversary of the embargo, plus this week’s upcoming vote in the United Nations condemning it — which the United States will lose, as usual — have prompted calls for a reassessment. Dropping the embargo altogether would require action by Congress. Meanwhile, anti-embargo advocates say, there’s a lot the president can do to soften or minimize its effects and open the door to restoring full ties with Cuba.
We disagree. Such a move would be premature and utterly lacking in justification at this time.
Granted, Raúl Castro has loosened the reins on the tightly controlled economy to permit more individual businesses. Some citizens can own property, and new rules are designed to encourage foreign investment. But it’s only because Cuba has been frozen in time for so long that such minimal change seems so dramatic. The Cuban nomenklatura still runs the Soviet-style planned economy that largely remains in place, and its members remain its major beneficiaries.
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Some see vague government statements from Havana welcoming renewed diplomatic ties with the United States as a sign that it’s willing to negotiate longstanding differences. We would attribute that not to any goodwill but rather to Cuba hedging its bets as it nervously watches the slide in oil prices and the rise of political instability in Venezuela.
The Andean country has been the Castro brothers’ main benefactor in the last few years, helping prop up Cuba’s chronically weak economy with cheap oil. But if oil prices continue to drop, Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro will need every penny he can get selling oil on the international market. He won’t hesitate to throw Cuba under the bus if it means survival for the Chávez movement in Caracas.
That makes the timing of any move by Washington toward Havana particularly inappropriate. Why throw it a lifeline now?
Yet even if these objections could be met, the greater issue remains unresolved: Cuba is still an unforgiving, authoritarian police state that will stop at nothing to stifle those it deems enemies of the state.
Here’s what Human Rights Watch says: “The Cuban government continues to repress individuals and groups who criticize the government or call for basic human rights. Officials employ a range of tactics to punish dissent and instill fear in the public, including beatings, public acts of shaming, termination of employment and threats of long-term imprisonment.”
Arrests of dissidents are going up, not down. Press freedom? Forget about it.
Nor has the Cuban government bothered to investigate the death of Oswaldo Payá, perhaps Cuba’s most prominent advocate of democracy, nor to allow an independent investigation of his supposed “accident” by anyone else.
Then there’s the case of American Alan Gross, sentenced to 15 years in prison for “acts against the independence or the territorial integrity of the state.” Translation from the Kafkaesque: He was caught bringing a satellite phone to Cuba’s small and beleaguered Jewish community.
Is there any doubt that the Castro brothers remain committed to maintaining their dictatorship over Cuba? Of course not. As long as that remains the case, the United States has no incentive to extend a welcoming hand.