In 1960, in the midst of the Cold War, the United States imposed an embargo on goods to Cuba, excepting food and medicine. This was two years after Fidel Castro came to power and tilted Cuba into the influence of the Soviet Union. The embargo occurred after Cuba nationalized American-owned businesses without compensation. Nearly two years later, the embargo was tightened by forbidding almost all exports. Little known is that the United States imposed an embargo on Cuba in 1958 when Fulgencio Batista was still in power. That embargo forbid the transfer of American arms to Cuba.
The easing of the embargo and travel restrictions by Barack Obama in 2016 was long overdue. While there was geopolitical justification for the embargo during the Cold War, the fall of the Soviet Union turned the already poorly run Cuban economy upside down. Since then, Cuba has drastically scaled back its international efforts to advance communism. It did continue its humanitarian efforts with as many as 20,000 doctors in 68 countries as late as 2004. That cannot be construed as a threat to the United States or any country. Yet, the Cold War embargo on Cuba by the US continued for twenty-five years after the fall of the Soviet Union.
When Raul Castro replaced his brother as President, he began a slow liberalization of the economy which allowed for the operation of small businesses, the right to own private property and decreased persecution of the LGBT community. Despite these changes, Cuba remains a country with few freedoms.
The hope of the Obama administration was that opening relations with Cuba would lead to further liberties there. That was not just a hope but a lesson of history. Trade, tourism and other international contacts are revolutionary to closed states. There is a reason that North Korea is a tightly closed society. If its people knew more about the outside world, they would revolt. The Soviet Union collapsed because the Soviets wanted to emulate the massive technological changes the West was undergoing in hopes of stimulating their economy. People risked their lives to leave the Iron Curtain during the Cold War because they knew about the higher quality of life in the West. Increased contacts with Americans most likely would have pushed some form of social upheaval and change in Cuba over the coming years.
A few dags ago, the Trump administration announced that it is rescinding much of Obama’s Cuba policy . This is possible because Obama made the changes based on an executive order. It can be undone by an executive order too, and that is Trump’s path to action. Trump declared the reasons for the policy change:
“To the Cuban government, I say, put an end to the abuse of dissidents, release the political prisoners, stop jailing innocent people, open yourselves to political and economic freedoms, return the fugitives from American justice, including the return of the cop killer Joanne Chesimard,” Trump said, referencing the former Black Panther who was convicted of murder in 1977.
Trump’s assertions are factual and backed up by human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Cuba is one of the worst offenders of human rights in the world. However, it is not the worst. If this was a change in US foreign policy to place human rights at the forefront as Jimmy Carter once did, then it could be something to cheer.
What upends Trump’s argument is not that Cuba shouldn’t have sanctions, which is a question in itself, but if the United States wants to implement a policy based on human rights, then it must be based on human rights and not political posturing. That is not happening.
Freedom House does an annual ranking of political and civil freedoms of all countries in the world. On a scale of 0 to 100, Cuba places a 15. That is very low. Yet, there are nearly 20 countries lower still. Many of those countries are supported by or have close relationships with the United States. These include South Sudan, Ethiopia, Equatorial Guinea, Bahrain, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan and, of course, Saudi Arabia. The United States is not going to place an embargo on Saudi Arabia or any of the other countries listed unless a government adverse to the interests of the United States comes to power or these countries drift within 90 miles of the US coastline and acquire a large politically influential ethnic group in a swing state…like Florida.
Cuba’s Freedom House rating is exactly the same as China’s. The closest Trump has come to imposing economic sanctions on China is to threaten them with tariffs as high as 45%. Moreover, Trump’s threat of tariffs is not even based on human rights, but trade policies. The human rights abuses going on in China are perfectly fine for the Trump administration to do business with, but intolerable when it comes to Cuba.
The only reason for the Cuban policy shift is Trump’s fulfillment of a campaign promise to Cuban voters and to curry the favor of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American. Trump’s actions are not supported by the American public. The Obama policy on Cuba is wildly popular, even 64% of Republicans favor keeping it.
If during Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia he had blasted their human rights failings, there might be some argument that human rights matter to him in Cuba and elsewhere. Instead, Trump announced a $100 billion military deal with the Saudis. Instead of an embargo, the Saudis got their wish list of military hardware.
China, Saudi Arabia, Cuba — three different countries with roughly the same human rights problems represent three different Trump policies. To be fair, this is how Presidents have acted for decades. Trump’s policies are nothing new to American foreign policy. Instead of building on Obama’s actions with Cuba, which was a first step to putting that relationship into a geopolitical footing similar to other nations, Trump is returning to the policies of the Cold War without the Soviet adversary.
Cuba doesn’t have the trade power or oil to curry American economic favor, but it isn’t the threat it was decades ago. While there is no reason for the United States to support the Cuban government as it does with Saudi Arabia, neither is there any reason to shove Cuban foreign policy back into the darkness of the Cold War. Declaring a return to Cold War policies because of Cuban human rights is not just another hypocritical step in American foreign policy, but an insult to all those persecuted in China, Saudi Arabia and the many other countries with dismal human rights records that the United States supports.