For more than 50 years Cuba has suffered under a trade embargo imposed by the U.S. government. This embargo effectively bans American citizens from engaging in any commercial, financial or economic activity in the communist country. But with the introduction of market reforms by the new Raul Castro regime over the past three years, this unjust and inefficient policy should finally come to an end.
Starting in the fall of 1960 as a reaction to the new revolutionary government of Cuba seizing American assets, the economic embargo has become a defining characteristic of the island nation. Not being able to import automotive parts or new models since 1960 has left the island's transportation system in a time capsule from the 1950s.
And, while the other defining characteristics of Cuba – food shortages, dilapidated infrastructure, poor living conditions and little political freedom – can all be laid at the feet of the Castro regime, the embargo only aids in their continuation.
Just like with trade sanctions on Saddam Hussein's Iraq in the 1990s, this policy only ends up helping the dictator and punishing the people. According to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), when the sanctions were enforced in Iraq (1990-2003), roughly half a million – mostly women and children – died due to malnutrition and lack of proper medicine. By not trading goods with these countries, which increases availability and lowers prices, the power of who gets what goes to the dictator.
In Hussein's Iraq, and Castro's Cuba, high-priced and scarce basic necessities not only became prizes for those loyal to the regime, but also a convenient distraction. Being able to control most of the information their subjects receive on a daily basis, dictators can use trade embargoes as a scapegoat for all the problems that are actually the result of their own disastrous economic policies. This enables the regime to stay in power longer than they would have if there was no disruption of trade in the first place.
Trade embargoes are not only bad economics and unfair to the people already living under an authoritarian regime, but also makes our own government appear callous and hypocritical. The United States freely trades with the much larger communist China – despite their imprisonment of political dissidents – and has allied with dictators before from the Middle East to Central Asia just to secure air bases.
According to former Senator Gary Hart the Cuban embargo has become ingrained into American foreign policy purely out of habit. "Though it started out to be a measure of an administration's resistance to Castro's politics, it very soon became a straightjacket whereby first-generation Cuban-Americans wielded inordinate political power over both parties and constructed a veto over rational, mature diplomacy."
Another group wielding political power against the embargo being lifted is the people who benefit from high sugar cane prices – the American sugar lobby.
With one of the (number one) sources of sugar cane in the world blocked from one of the largest markets in the world, American sugar cane interests have greatly benefited at the expense of Cuban farmers. American consumers have also suffered at the expense of the embargo by having high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) seep into every food product they consume because of the high price of natural cane sugar and American farm subsidies to corn growers.
While the topic of HFCS could fill up another column, American consumers should be able to buy products with cane sugar without having to deal with artificially higher prices. It's ironic that a policy initially started as a reaction against a communist government coming to power is now entrenched in our capitalist system by a government-protected monopoly and price controls.
While Cuban-American relations have been icy in the past due to both sides' flaws, Raul Castro has thankfully been paying attention to China's pragmatic communism instead of North Korea's dogmatic communism.
Upon taking leadership in 2008, Raul removed government restrictions on Cuban citizens buying goods like microwaves, computers and DVD players. Vacant government-owned land has been turned over to private farmers and private co-ops, and decision-making shifted to the municipal level to increase food production.
The Cuban government has even introduced a measure completely antithetical to communist dogma – a tiered pay system for public employees, paying them on the merit of their work. Along with cutting half a million public employees from the government payroll in a year, allowing Cubans to start small businesses, and legalization of the Cuban real estate market, the Cuban government has made enormous strides in just three years.
These reforms give our government such an easy out to this counterproductive policy of economic embargo on the people of Cuba. Refusing to end the embargo at this point is simply cruel.