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Why Is the Cuban Embargo Still in Place?


Two years ago, President Obama announced that the United States would normalize relations with Cuba. As part of the process of fulfilling that commitment, Obama visited the island and met with Cuban President Raul Castro. Since then, he has reduced federal travel restrictions for Americans wishing to travel to Cuba and has eased federal regulations regarding the transfer of money to Cubans.

But one glaring fact remains: The brutal U.S. economic embargo that the U.S. government has enforced against the Cuban people for more than 50 years. It remains intact, continuing to bring untold economic suffering to the Cuban people.

Why? And for what?

The best article I have ever read on the Cuban embargo was published in the July 2016 issue of Harper’s magazine. It is entitled “El Bloqueo: The Cuban Embargo Continues” by Joy Gordon. I wish every single American would read it, just to get a sense of how ruthless, vicious, and brutal U.S. officials can be, especially when they target a particular country for regime change.

Gordon is the Ignacio Ellacuria, S.J., Chair in Social Ethics in the philosophy department at Loyola University Chicago. She is one of the foremost authorities in the world on the U.S. government’s policy of sanctions and embargoes. The best article ever written on what the U.S. government did to Iraq with its sanctions regime, which contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children, was an article authored by Gordon and published in the November 2002 issue of Harper’s, entitled “Cool War: Economic Sanctions as a Weapon of Mass Destruction.” To get a good sense of the banality of evil that goes into the bureaucratic enforcement of sanctions and embargoes, read that article as well as Gordon’s great book Invisible War: The United States and the Iraq Sanctions.

Let’s first acknowledge the obvious: Cuba has a socialist economic system. Therefore, even without the embargo, there would be low standards of living and never-ending economic crises, as there are in Venezuela.

But let’s acknowledge something else: The horrific suffering that the U.S. embargo has also inflicted on the Cuban people. It has been the other side of the vise that has squeezed the economic lifeblood out of them. One big difference between the two sides of this vise — socialism and the embargo — is that Cuban authorities never intended to do harm to the Cuban people with their socialist program while that has always been the intent of U.S. officials with their embargo.

I’ve been to Cuba. I’ve seen the extreme poverty. I’ve seen the bare shelves in the dark government-owned pharmacies. I saw the faded, peeling paint on what would ordinarily be one of the most lovely cities in the world, Havana. I witnessed the lack of restaurants and hotels in cities and towns outside Havana.

What amazed me most about the Cuban people was how nice and genuine they all were. I’ve traveled through many parts of Latin America. The Cuban people stand out. I’ve never seen anything like it. Everyone was so kind to me, notwithstanding the fact that I was an American, a citizen whose government has done everything it can for more than 50 years to inflict severe economic suffering on them, even starve them to death. One day I asked a Cuban cab driver, “Why is everyone so nice to me after what my government has done to them?” His answer was interesting, “What responsibility do you have for what your government does?”

Gordon carefully details what the U.S. embargo has done to the Cuban people. She writes:

In the American imagination, the embargo serves mostly to deny us access to Cohibas and Havana Club rum, but its damage to the Cuban people has been, and continues to be, pervasive and profound. It affects their access to everything from electricity to video games to shoes. It has prevented Cubans from buying medical supplies from American companies, from buying pesticides and fertilizer, from purchasing Microsoft Word or downloading Adobe Acrobat. It has restricted how much money Cuban Americans can send to their families on the island. Americans have been prosecuted for selling water-treatment supplies to Cuba and threatened with prosecution for donating musical instruments. Unlike federal regulations, which can be changed by executive decree, the embargo’s most severe and far-reaching provisions are based on a patchwork of legislation that only Congress can repeal, something it has given no sign that it plans to do….

Housing is perennially scarce, and consumer goods are difficult to obtain. In Havana, a city of 2 million people, there is an astonishingly small number of stores, and their goods are often limited in selection, cheaply made, and very expensive. On any given day, you could scavenge every store in Havana looking for Scotch tape, dental floss, or lightbulbs, and simply find none, anywhere.

Every time Cuban officials have developed a way to partially revitalize the economy, U.S. officials have figured out ways to retaliate by neutralizing the effect of the revitalization program. Gordon points out, for example, that when Cuba began to develop its nickel industry in partnership with a Canadian company, the U.S. government retaliated by making it illegal to export any item to the United States that contained even trace amounts of Cuban nickel. It also made it illegal for foreign-based subsidiaries of U.S. companies to do business in Cuba, even though international law recognizes subsidiaries as nationals of the country in which they are incorporated.

Why? Why the embargo in the first place? Why does it continue? What’s its purpose? After all, as the Pew Research group reports, close to 75 percent of the American people favor a lifting of the embargo. Why isn’t that enormously high percentage reflected in the U.S. Congress, which could easily vote to repeal the embargo today?

There can be only one answer: The national-security establishment, i.e., the Pentagon and the CIA, the most powerful branch of the federal government.

It was the conversion of the U.S. government to a national-security state after World War II that gave us the Cold War, the anti-communist crusade, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. The communists were coming to get us, the Pentagon and the CIA maintained. We have to fight them over there and everywhere before they come here and take over the federal government and the entire country. In other words, their arguments on communism and communists were the same as they are today about terrorists and Muslims.

At the center of the anti-communist fear-mongering was Cuba, a third-world country headed by a communist regime. Cuba is a communist dagger 90 miles away from American shores pointed directly at the necks of the American people, the national-security establishment maintained. There was only one solution to keep America free and secure: regime change — i.e., the ouster of Fidel Castro from power and his replacement with another crooked, corrupt, and tyrannical dictator who was subservient to the U.S. government, like Fulgencio Batista, who Castro ousted from power in the 1959 Cuban revolution.

There was something wrong, however, with that freedom and security reasoning, one that Americans, who had a deep sense of reverence and deference toward the national-security establishment, failed to notice: Communist Cuba never initiated any force against the United States. It never invaded the United States. It never initiated terrorist strikes or acts of sabotage within the United States. It never tried to assassinate U.S. officials. And it certainly never imposed an economic embargo against the United States.

Instead, it was the U.S. government, under its relatively new format as a national-security state, that did all those things to Cuba. That’s what many Americans just didn’t get and still don’t get — that in the Cold War conflict with Cuba, it was always the U.S. government that was the aggressor and that it was always Cuba that was faced with defending itself from U.S. aggression. Agents of the CIA invaded the island. They committed acts of terrorism and sabotage inside Cuba. The Pentagon exhorted President Kennedy to invade Cuba (See Operation Northwoods on the Internet.) The CIA, in partnership with the Mafia, tried to assassinate Fidel Castro. And, of course, there has been the brutal embargo that continues to this day.

The Cold War purportedly ended more than 25 years ago. Yet the U.S. embargo against Cuba continues.


Because the national-security establishment — the Pentagon and the CIA — has never been able to come to terms with the fact that their regime-change operation against Cuba failed. They refuse to accept the fact that Fidel Castro and his brother Raul have outmaneuvered them and have successfully defended Cuba from U.S. national-security state aggression.

That’s why the Cuban embargo continues, notwithstanding the fact that the president of the United States and close to 75 percent of the American people want it lifted. The national-security branch of the federal government — the most powerful branch — simply will not permit it. They’re still hungering for regime change. They just can’t let it go.

After all, just think what would happen to congressmen who try to buck the Pentagon and the CIA by voting to lift the embargo. Just think of all the military projects that could be transferred to other districts and other states. Don’t forget that when President Eisenhower referred to the grave threat to our rights and liberties posed by the military-industrial complex, he initially planned to employ the term “the military-industrial-congressional complex.”

This post was written by:

Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.