The Politics of Your Parents’ Embargo

Is Cuba Ready for American Spring Breakers? Is Anywhere Ready for That?

From the August Issue

By Mark Stenberg


In December 2014, President Obama announced his intent to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time since 1961.

In a plot reminiscent of a Dan Brown novel, news media discovered Canada of all countries had been secretly brokering discussions between the US and Cuba for nearly eighteen months; then, after diplomats arrived at an agreement, representatives from the two countries met to consecrate their political vows in the Vatican under the watchful eyes of Pope Francis. As a result, in May the United States officially removed Cuba from their list of countries that sponsor terrorism, and on July 1st the President declared that the two countries would begin reestablishing their respective embassies.

Currently, all Americans can legally visit Cuba—with some stipulations. The ban on travel to Cuba has been loosened, allowing American visitation so long as their travel itineraries facilitate “people to people contact.” All tourists must participate in cultural experiences that have direct contact with Cuban people, as the policy aims to educate Americans about Cubans and Cubans about Americans.

While the caveat sounds a little patronizing, casting Cubans as some alien race, it’s well intentioned. Decades of diplomatic ice—punctuated only by propaganda and acts of hostility—have distorted both parties’ perceptions of each other, making a cautious thaw a prudent idea.

In order to ensure that American vacation plans align with these criteria, potential tourists must travel with groups licensed by the government. Exceptions exist for relatives, dignitaries and other outliers, but the average Americans must use a chartered organization. Travel companies and colleges compose the majority of these chartered organizations, and are affordably priced and easy to use. They make exploring Cuba as easy as creating a profile and entering your credit card information.

Unfortunately, the “people to people” rule means many activities are forbidden. Fixtures of the college Spring Break experience, such as relaxing on the beach and going to nightclubs, are off limits. Though official travel charters fail to mention specifics, it’s a safe guess that beer bongs, public sex, drug use and other Panama City Beach trappings are out of the question, too.

One group, Insight Cuba, lists several examples of appropriate excursions, such as: “meet a popular Cuban painter in their studio, visit a Cuban primary school and interact with the children, tour fine art museums, dine at private restaurants or meet an expert Cuban historian.” While those sound perfect for a family vacation, they’re much stricter than the lenient policies of mainland Spring Break destinations.

The two wary governments essentially want tourists and guides acting as ambassadors of everything wonderful about their cultures, and if high school and college tours have taught us anything, it’s that ambassadors are great at presenting worlds that are very appealing and also very misrepresentative. Vacations to Cuba will probably follow the same path—contrived, misleading, and very pleasant.


Until the U.S. actually eliminates the embargo, trips to Cuba will remain restricted. So far, the American government has only loosened restrictions, not eradicated them.

Fortunately, legislation submitted in February that’s designed to remove the sanctions holds considerable popular support. A bipartisan group of lawmakers introducing the bill, “The Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2015,” reminded voters who exactly the embargo punishes. “I think we all need to remember this is a sanction, or prohibition on Americans, not Cubans,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).

The group introduced the bill in order to undo the effects of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, a bill that codified President Kennedy’s embargo on trade and financial restrictions to Cuba. Until then, the embargo imposed in 1962 had been in effect only as a Presidential proclamation. As a result of the Helms-Burton, the fate of the sanctions belonged to Congress, so only a Congressional vote could remove it.

Despite Obama’s relaxation of restrictions between the countries, he lacks the power to actually end the embargo.

Still, the President and the American people want the embargo to end. Public support for removing the sanctions has risen annually for years and currently stands at 56 percent. Even Cuban-Americans, who have historically supported the embargo, have changed their tune: 68 percent of the Cuban-American population supports ending restrictions. As the age of the voting population shifts and memories of the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis fade, so does political support for the embargo. With populist backing and the approval of the President, the pipedream of unfettered access to Cuba becomes increasingly feasible.

However, as Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-American from Miami has said, a process for lifting the embargo has existed for 20 years. Implementing “free and fair elections in Cuba, respect for fundamental human rights, the release of all political prisoners and [the] other requirements of Helms-Burton” will end the embargo. “Instead of empowering the regime,” Ros-Lehtinen said, “we should stand with the Cuban people and their pro-democracy leaders to ensure that when history is written, we are on the side of liberty.” She reflects the viewpoint of the 44 percent of Americans who are pro-embargo, and the many Cuban-Americans who have historically supported the sanctions.

The difference is generational. Younger Cuban-Americans who have strong familial ties to Cuba but are far removed from the memories of Castro’s revolution want the embargo to end. The New York Times editorial board recently echoed these thoughts. “The generation that adamantly supports the embargo is dying off,” it said in October 2014. “Younger Cuban-Americans hold starkly different views, having come to see the sanctions as more damaging than helpful.” To millennials, the embargo is a Cold War relic and counter-productive policy that costs billions in potential tourism. It makes sense for the U.S. to quit nursing its ego and admit the sanctions have failed.


However, diplomatic policies operate on multiple levels. The symbolic importance of maintaining the embargo still holds water, and not just to older generations. Repeated reports of human rights violations committed by the Cuban government have some humanitarians hesitant to end sanctions. Opponents of ending the sanctions worry that an American show of leniency implicitly condones these abuses.

Proponents of removing the embargo counter that America maintains trade relations with other human rights abusers, and that singling out Cuba is hypocritical. However, lCubaifting the ban looks intolerably like complicity to many politicians and Cuban-Americans.

According to the Human Right’s Watch 2014 World Report on Cuba, “Officials employ a range of tactics to punish dissent and instill fear in the public, including beatings, public acts of shaming, termination of employment and threat of long-term imprisonment.” In addition, the number of short-term arbitrary arrests has actually increased in recent years. These punishments, which increased from 2,100 in 2010 to over 3,600 in 2013, “prevent human rights defenders, independent journalists, and others from gathering or moving about freely.”

Those arrested are beaten and threatened, and can be imprisoned anywhere from several days to several years. The government denies them access to fair and public hearings, and are often required to participate in “reeducation” classes. More than 57,000 Cubans are in prisons or work camps, one of the highest per capita incarnation rates in the world (though still trailing America’s #2 ranking). Those who criticize the government are “subjected to extended solitary confinement, beatings, restrictions on family visits, and denial of medical care.”

Supporters of the embargo remind that U.S. policy allows citizens to visit family members and send money to Cuban relatives, and these remittances total more that $1 billion per year. In addition, Congress has allocated a budget of nearly $200 million to promote democracy and human rights in Cuba since 2001. In other words, the embargo allows the U.S. to financially pressure the government while still providing aid to Cuban citizens.

Those who argue that introducing American tourism will help Cuban citizens are forgetting the virtual non-existence of the private sector in Cuba. Opening the country for trade and tourism would help the dictatorial government, not the citizens.

The 90 percent state-owned economy ensures that the Cuban government and military would reap the gains of open trade with the U.S., not private citizens. Foreign companies operating in Cuba are already required to hire workers through the state, where wages are converted to local currency and devalued at a ratio of 24:1. Because of this, Cuban tour guides receiving $500 paychecks actually making $21 pittances. In essence, investing money in the Cuban economy is investing money in a dictatorship fluent in human rights abuse.

Still, Cubans and Americans agree that the embargo has failed. Continuing it in obstinacy misses the purpose of why it was enacted—to encourage change. Why continue supporting a policy that has clearly failed, especially when we’re the only country participating in it? The United Nations has formally denounced the U.S. embargo on Cuba every year since 1991, and in 2013, 188 countries condemned the policy, with only Israel siding with the United States. While “Everyone Else is Doing It” has never been a good foreign diplomacy mantra, America’s isolation in sanctioning Cuba may indicate that it’s time for a new approach.

The embargo also harms Cubans by restricting their access to technology, medicine, affordable food and consumer goods. Cuban doctors have access to less than 50 percent of the drugs on the world market, and the American Association for World Health continues to condemn the embargo. “It is our expert medical opinion that the US embargo has caused a significant rise in suffering—and even deaths—in Cuba,” a report found.

In short, any decision regarding the embargo is more deeply nuanced than popular opinion would leave one to believe. No one can predict what will happen if the embargo is lifted: the free market may work its magic, rejuvenating the crumbling Cuban economy from the inside out. Or, it may put money in the hands of a regime intent on solidifying its reign without improving the lives of its citizens. Spring Break in Cuba might sound alluring, with its promises of cigars, rum, Cuban sandwiches and classic cars, but the reality is unfortunately much less appealing.