To Truly Fight Communism, We Must End the Embargo on Cuba | Opinion

Protests have erupted against the communist regime in Cuba. As a result, there have been calls from the politically influential Cuban-American community to stand with the demonstrators. On Wednesday, pop star Pitbull released a video in which he expressed frustration about not being able to help his people achieve freedom and called for global business to step up. Pitbull was joined by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who wrote a letter to President Biden asking him to enlist American business in providing internet access to Cuba.

American corporations have often been a vehicle for social and political change, both at home and abroad. Unfortunately, policy towards Cuba has worked to reduce U.S. economic and cultural influence since the Eisenhower administration.

The U.S. bans nearly all exports to Cuba, and those that do business in that country are even prohibited from doing business in the United States. Sanctions are supposed to weaken a regime and eventually lead to its reform or overthrow; unfortunately, as I showed in a 2020 report for the Cato Institute, there's a large body of literature showing that they practically never work. This is especially true in this particular case; the Cuban embargo is about to enter its seventh decade without having worked to liberate the island.

Understanding this, the Obama administration took steps to loosen restrictions on travel and trade, although some of those reforms were reversed by the Trump administration. The politics of sanctions is quite strange, in that those most concerned about a nation's freedom tend to be most strident in demanding restrictions on travel and trade, which ultimately make a country poorer and less prone to American influence.

Of course, greater interconnectedness doesn't always lead to economic or political liberalization: China is a case in point. Yet the case of Cuba is clearly distinguishable; while it was unrealistic to ever think that the United States could have a major effect on the political development of the largest country in the world on the other side of the planet, with more free trade and travel, a small island nation can end up heavily influenced by the U.S.

Cuban Americans
MIAMI, FLORIDA - JULY 14: Protesters gather in front of the Versailles restaurant in the Little Havana neighborhood to show their support for the people in Cuba that have taken to the streets to protest on July 14, 2021 in Miami, Florida. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Indeed, before Castro came to power, between 1954 and 1958, the U.S. made up 65 percent of Cuba's total exports and 74 percent of its international purchases. Over the next few years, as the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations created the embargo, trade between the two nations collapsed, and the Soviet Union filled much of the void, particularly in the area of sugar purchases.

While Cuban revolutionaries were motivated by a dislike of dependence on the United States, they simply traded one influential foreign power for another. Although over two-thirds of Cuban international trade was with the U.S. in the 1950s, by the late 1980s three-fourths was with the Soviet Union, and the country therefore suffered a severe economic crisis after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

It is inevitable that a small island nation is going to have to be open to the economic and political influence of other countries if it wants to get wealthy. China is now one of the top three trading partners of Cuba, along with Venezuela and Spain. But this is unnatural from a geopolitical perspective; a country that is only 90 miles from Florida does more business with a nation 8,000 miles away with which it has no cultural connections.

Moreover, increasing American trade with Cuba would give U.S. businesses, stockholders, and consumers more influence in that country. Tourism would also facilitate cultural exchange, and expose people on the island to co-ethnics who have created a much better life for themselves under capitalism. Communist dictators in East Germany and North Korea have traditionally feared this kind of interdependence more than anything else, and for good reason.

Of course, setting aside potential political impacts, the most direct effect of the embargo is that it harms both the American and Cuban economies, and it would therefore be worth removing no matter what. While no one can be sure how history would have unfolded had the U.S. not restricted trade and travel, in 2018, the UN estimated that the embargo had cost Cuba $160 billion, no small sum for a nation whose entire GDP is only around $100 billion. Some argue that the cost to the U.S. is even higher in the aggregate, although losses matter less given the size of the American economy.

Sanctions tend to be good politics, because they seem like the midway point between going to war and doing nothing. While a few voices have actually called for military intervention, most realize how unrealistic and dangerous that would be. Thus, supporting sanctions is a way for politicians and activists to signal that they don't like communist dictatorships. Anyone who proposes a different path is accused of "selling out" or "surrendering" to some foreign enemy, whether Putin, Xi, the Ayatollahs, or another disfavored enemy.

Nonetheless, sanctions are bad policy. The U.S. has a history of overthrowing governments, a choice that has tended to work out terribly. But our choice doesn't have to be between embargo and war. The Cuban regime is ideologically discredited, and knows that it cannot count on popular support.

Increasing economic and cultural exchange with the United States is the clearest path to reform, and is something Washington can clearly make a reality.

Richard Hanania is a Newsweek contributor and the president of the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology and a Research Fellow at Defense Priorities. Follow him on Twitter @RichardHanania.

The views in this article are the writer's own.