When you own a cow in Cuba, you can drink its milk, but you may not slaughter it, said Patricia Alejandro ’12, who was born in Cuba and is a member of Yale’s Cuban American Undergraduate Student Association. When they wanted to buy beef, Alejandro’s family had to pay 40 or 50 convertible units — two or three months’ salary. A pair of jeans or sandals cost more than one month’s salary. Countless other goods were also prohibitively expensive — including sugar, the national crop of Cuba, yet one so overpriced that few Cubans can actually enjoy it.
Fifty years ago Tuesday, President John F. Kennedy’s Proclamation 3447 entered into full force, and all trade between the United States and Cuba was prohibited. The measure dramatically tightened what had been a partial economic embargo against Cuba — and the harsher measure continues to this day.
The embargo was initially enacted after Fidel Castro took power and the Cuban government nationalized American holdings in Cuba. The embargo prohibits American citizens from doing business with Cuba, visiting (except under exceptional circumstances) and, until 2000, even providing humanitarian aid. The embargo’s extraterritorial provisions also make it extremely difficult for Cuba to do business with other countries.
The embargo has stunted the Cuban economy and limited Cubans’ access to good food, modern technology and useful medicine. It has also hurt the United States’ relationships with other countries — the European Parliament actually passed a law making it illegal for Europeans to comply with certain parts of the embargo. The purpose of the embargo was undeniably to make life so difficult for Cubans that they would see the error of their ways and expel Castro and communism. The United States government has maintained — for 50 years — that it will not do business with Cuba until it learns to respect human rights and liberty.
There is a pretty serious problem with this plan: It hasn’t worked. Beyond the fact that Castro is still in power and Cuba is still not a democracy, the embargo has not truly succeeded in sewing resentment into the hearts and minds of the Cuban people. The embargo allows Castro to make the United States and the embargo the scapegoats for all of Cuba’s ills. It also forces Cuba to rely on countries like the former USSR, China and Venezuela for trade. The appalling hypocrisy of the embargo is that the United States nearly always maintained diplomatic and economic relationships with countries like Russia, China and Vietnam even during the heart of the Cold War.
Numerous influential people have come out against the Cuban embargo, including Pope John Paul II, Jesse Jackson and George Schultz. They all claim that the embargo hurts the Cuban people, not the Cuban government. Democratic politicians Gary Hart, George McGovern and Jimmy Carter have also expressed this view. It is interesting to note, however, that Hart and McGovern only became vocal enemies of the embargo long after their presidential runs. Politicians are scared openly to oppose the embargo.
The Cuban-American population is an exceptionally powerful and vocal voting bloc, and many Cuban-Americans support the embargo out of sheer hatred of Castro. These Cuban exiles — whose votes are so important, particularly in Florida — have pushed nearly every major politician away from normalizing relations with Cuba. As Hart wrote on his blog last year — years after leaving politics, of course — the embargo is “a straight-jacket whereby first-generation Cuban-Americans wielded inordinate political power over both parties and constructed a veto over rational, mature diplomacy.”
It would be highly inaccurate, however, to foist the blame for the embargo’s persistence upon the Cuban-American population. American politicians across the political spectrum are to blame for their intransigence and their unwillingness to challenge the status quo. The embargo is not a major political issue, so politicians are just too apathetic to engage with it.
I will be the first to admit that this is an irritatingly complex issue and one that only an expert could fully understand. My limited understanding of the embargo against Cuba is based on research and interviews, not personal experience. And yet it is easy for anyone to note that covering our eyes and pretending we can’t see Castro won’t make him go away.
There is, however, hope. Recent public opinion polls show an overwhelming majority of Americans support at least re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba. President Obama has relaxed some of the harsh travel restrictions against Cuba and shown signs of favoring the normalization of relations there as well. Cuba, too, has shown a willingness to change, highlighted by its recent legalization of the private sale of real estate. It is time for the embargo to end.
50 years late is better than never.
Scott Stern is a freshman in Branford College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.