Tuesday, April 9, 2013


Predictably, the Cuban-American community in South Florida is absolutely aghast that BeyoncĂ© and husband Jay-Z chose to spend their 3-day anniversary vacation in Cuba.   Also predictably, two Cuban-American legislators, Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, both Republicans, have demanded (yes, demanded) that the Treasury Department investigate the trip, which they believe violated the decades-old US embargo against Cuba.  In their letter to the Treasury Department, Ros-Lehtinen and Diaz-Balart asserted: “Cuba’s tourism industry is wholly state-controlled, therefore, U.S. dollars spent on Cuban tourism directly fund the machinery of oppression that brutally represses the Cuban people.”  

Among other provisions, the embargo prohibits US tourism to Cuba, and only allows Americans to visit the island on trips that focus on “educational exchange activities that will result in meaningful interaction” between Americans and Cubans.  The Treasury Department, the government entity charged with enforcing the embargo, apparently granted BeyoncĂ©, Jay-Z and their group a license for the visit, as it does for approximately 10,000 Americans per year, under that exception.

The legislators are totally missing the point.  Quibbling about whether or not the trip violated the embargo is a waste of time.  Everyone would be better served if they would instead question the existence of the embargo itself, which has long proven not only to be a catastrophic failure at accomplishing its stated objectives, but has probably helped keep the undeniably abhorrent Castro regime in power for over 50 years.

As  Daniel Griswold, director of the Cato Institute's Center for Trade Policy Studies stated in a 2009 The Guardian article:

The embargo has been a failure by every measure. It has not changed the course or nature of the Cuban government. It has not liberated a single Cuban citizen. In fact, the embargo has made the Cuban people a bit more impoverished, without making them one bit more free. At the same time, it has deprived Americans of their freedom to travel and has cost US farmers and other producers billions of dollars of potential exports.

As a tool of US foreign policy, the embargo actually enhances the Castro government's standing by giving it a handy excuse for the failures of the island's Caribbean-style socialism. Brothers Fidel and Raul can rail for hours about the suffering the embargo inflicts on Cubans, even though the damage done by their communist policies has been far worse. The embargo has failed to give us an ounce of extra leverage over what happens in Havana.

With regard to tourism specifically, Mr. Griswold continues:

Advocates of the embargo argue that trading with Cuba will only put dollars into the coffers of the Castro regime. And it's true that the government in Havana, because it controls the economy, can skim off a large share of the remittances and tourist dollars spent in Cuba. But of course, selling more US products to Cuba would quickly relieve the Castro regime of those same dollars.

If more US tourists were permitted to visit Cuba, and at the same time US exports to Cuba were further liberalised, the US economy could reclaim dollars from the Castro regime as fast as the regime could acquire them. In effect, the exchange would be of agricultural products for tourism services, a kind of "bread for beaches", "food for fun" trade relationship.

Obviously people may have different opinions regarding the effectiveness of a policy before it is enacted, or a short time thereafter, since at that point its effects are not yet known.  But now, almost 53 years in (the embargo was instituted in October of 1960), we can safely say that the embargo, whose stated goal was to encourage Cuba to move toward "democratization and greater respect for human rights," has failed miserably.

So why is it that in the face of the embargo’s obvious failure, so many in the Cuban-American community do not even question the desirability of its continuation?  In 2011 former presidential candidate George McGovern blamed "embittered Cuban exiles in Miami" for keeping the embargo alive all these years, because of their dislike for Fidel Castro.  A bit of an oversimplification perhaps, but not too far from the truth.  The embargo was a knee-jerk reaction, a short-term maneuver, yet emotional resentment and politics conspired to convert it into a sacred cow of astounding durability.  It is the most enduring trade embargo in modern history, and has even made the strangest of political bedfellows: the Cuban-American community and the Republican party.

The Castro brothers’ rule has spanned the administrations of  ten U.S. Presidents (Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush 1, Clinton, Bush 2 and Obama).  Meanwhile, the Soviet Union and its former bloc collapsed and China reinvented itself into a thriving market-based economy.  Cuba remains a totalitarian, repressive state.

What would the situation in Cuba be like today had the US taken a different approach?

It almost certainly would be better than it is, and could not possibly be worse.