The absurdity of the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba was evident from the moment of its inception 50 years ago this month, when President John F. Kennedy ordered press secretary Pierre Salinger to buy 1,200 H. Upmann Cuban cigars before signing the order. The embargo failed in its primary objective to remove the Castro brothers from power and has imposed undue hardship on the country's 11 million citizens. It is an anachronism embraced only by hard-liners from a bygone era.
The Cuban trade embargo was born less as a sober-minded foreign policy initiative than in a fit of presidential pique. Kennedy, trying to rebound from the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, sought to re-establish his Cold Warrior anticommunist bona fides by sealing off Cuba from American investment, tourism and trade. In theory, the embargo was supposed to fuel a popular revolt against President Fidel Castro.
But since coming to power in 1959, Castro and his brother Raul have survived the efforts of 11 American presidential administrations to undermine their dictatorial rule. The embargo became an effective propaganda tool for the Castros to use in arguing that whatever ailed Cuban life could be blamed on Washington. Other nations, from Canada, to Spain, to China, to Singapore, to countries throughout Central and South America, have forged trade relations with Cuba.
The trade embargo makes even less sense today. The United States has never been shy about doing business with both international human rights violators as well as former foes, from Vietnam, to China, to Russia, to Saudi Arabia, to North Korea and even Libya. Yet because the U.S. government has allowed a portion of its foreign policy to be held hostage largely by a small but politically vocal group of anti-Castro South Florida Cuban emigres, the island continues to be singled out for irrational special treatment.
In fact, the embargo has been gently lifted when it suited U.S. economic interests. In 2011, despite the embargo, the United States exported an estimated $328.3 million in mostly agricultural products to Cuba. In 2008, the number was even higher — $711.5 million in exports to the island.
Recent baby steps in allowing limited travel to Cuba are welcome. But they are not enough. Lifting the full embargo would rekindle formal diplomatic relations, reunite families, boost tourism and allow American business interests to broaden their investments. History has proven that engagement is a more effective foreign policy tool than estrangement. The embargo against Cuba has been a 50-year failure.