If Biden really wants to put principles and effectiveness before politics, he should make bold choices and end the embargo.
In the past 60 years, the United States imposed an embargo on Cuba, severely restricting the circulation of goods on the island. Most U.S. companies are prohibited from dealing with Cuba, and various U.S. laws penalize foreign companies that do business in Cuba. These restrictions are designed to squeeze the island economically and create enough dissatisfaction within Cuba to force the ruling Communist Party to either carry out major reforms or step down.
With the support of then Vice President Biden, the Obama administration tried to reconsider the policy and seek to re-engage with Cuba. Barack Obama eased sanctions, allowed direct flights between the two countries, and eased restrictions on Americans doing business in Cuba. Donald Trump reversed Obama’s strategy. He relisted Cuba on the list of countries that support international terrorism in the United States, cut off travel between Cuba and the United States, and prohibited Americans from sending money to their relatives in Cuba, cutting off the main economic lifeline of many Cubans.
Joe Biden promised to abandon Trump’s strategy of exerting “maximum pressure” on Cuba, but so far has not changed any of Trump’s restrictions. The White House admitted earlier this year that “Cuba policy changes are not currently one of President Biden’s top priorities.”
However, the protests that have rocked Cuba in the past week — some of them are the largest since the revolution — have forced this issue. Many Cuban-American activists and Republicans urge Biden to keep up and even increase the pressure on Cuba. Democrats are divided on whether to maintain or relax the blockade.
The strongest reason for ending the embargo against Cuba is that the policy continues to cause huge losses to the Cuban people. Both the Cuban government and the United Nations estimate that the embargo has cost the Cuban economy 130 billion U.S. dollars in 60 years. It is also worth noting that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates that the embargo also costs the U.S. economy billions of dollars each year. The number of casualties is difficult to quantify, but it is obviously significant. UN human rights experts urge the United States to relax sanctions during the COVID-19 pandemic, believing that this change will save lives by allowing Cuba to obtain more medical supplies and equipment.
The Cuban policy hardliners secretly accept the human and economic costs of the embargo is acceptable in order to achieve the goal of destroying the communist regime. They will point out the unprecedented protests currently taking place in Cuba as evidence that the embargo is working. It’s not. Yes, Cubans are angry about the economic difficulties and pandemic pain that have occurred in their population. But as Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel used repression and anti-American rhetoric to curb protests, there was little sign that the regime was in immediate danger.
The communist regime has survived the fall of its Soviet supporters, the death of Fidel Castro, and the transfer of power by his brother Raul to Dias-Canel. Dias-Canel is not Castro was born after the revolution came to power. The sixty years of sanctions not only brought suffering to the Cuban people, but also provided a convenient scapegoat for the regime, blaming it for the economic difficulties and social dissatisfaction of all countries.
Contrary to intuition, ending the embargo and promoting relations between the United States and Cuba is the greatest weapon the United States can use to counter the oppressive Cuban regime. President Obama formulated this strategy when he opened up travel between the two countries: “No one can represent American values better than the American people,” Obama said in 2014. “I believe this contact will ultimately enhance the power of the Cuban people. Play a bigger role.”
Giving Cubans access to the freedoms and opportunities available to their relatives in the United States will increase anger and pressure on the Cuban government’s failure to provide these things. Eliminating the Communist Party’s ability to blame the United States for its failure will expose the Cuban government’s unwillingness to escape the consequences of Soviet-era economic policies and political repression.
The hardliners will argue that easing the embargo now will reduce the pressure on the Cuban government by reducing the social desperation that triggered these protests. Although the economic crisis may lead to collective anger, spontaneous protests against authoritarian regimes usually end in re-suppression rather than regime change. Many experts believe that social change movements are most effective when people and organizations have access to the resources necessary for sustained political and social activism. Relaxing control of Cuba’s economic crimes will help increase the resistance of its citizens and civil society to the government.
The government should consider how to reconsider the embargo policy. It does not need to cancel this policy all at once, nor should it put pressure on Cuba on democracy or human rights issues. But careful consideration should not be an excuse for inaction. For example, Biden should not deny the idea of re-sending money to Cuba, but should seriously explore how to allow Americans to send money to relatives in Cuba safely.
Relaxing the embargo will be a risky political move for the president. After Biden’s poor performance among Latino voters, he lost Florida in the 2020 election, and a radical change in Cuba’s policy may alienate some Cuban Americans in the state.
Republicans will undoubtedly accuse the president of weak communism or succumbing to progressive demands. But if Biden really wants to put principle and effectiveness before politics, he should make a bold choice to end the sixty years of failure in the United States and the suffering of Cuba.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.