Acton Commentary

Cuba, yes! Sanctions, no!: Revisiting America's Trade Policy with Cuba


In the spring of 1999, a great stride in U.S.-Cuba relations was taken when the Baltimore Orioles and Cuban national baseball team each hosted the other in a two-game exhibition series. Though cynics cried foul that the Orioles were merely trying to recruit prime Cuban talent, the series underscored the importance of enhanced relations with Cuba in service of humanitarian goals. Enhanced relations must include, foremost, the elimination of the trade embargo that, while it has failed to bring about governmental reform for 40 years, has added to desperate poverty among Cuba’s people.

The early 90s saw a renewed zeal in restricting trade with Cuba even as the Soviet Union, Cuba’s premier trading partner during the Cold War, disbanded, putting a halt on subsidies to Cuba designed to offset the embargo. The Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 and the Helms-Burton Act of 1996 established such grand barriers to trade with Cuba that the ordinary Cuban citizens found it more difficult than ever to obtain life’s necessities within the already-restrictive communist state.

Recently, President Clinton eased some of the sanctions issued under these acts, allowing for the export of food and medicines to Cuba, which the Cuban Democracy Act had previously prevented.

Sanctions against Cuba were originally enacted in 1961 after Fidel Castro’s rise to power. The rationale behind the sanctions was to punish the Castro regime economically until it enacted certain reforms, such as liberalizing the command economy and permitting more personal freedoms among the Cuban people. Forty years later, it is apparent that such measures have failed. Cuba still remains under communist control; all the sanctions have done is punish the everyday citizens who are in no way responsible for the government at odds with the U.S. Along with the restrictions on commercial trade in place since 1961, the Cuban Democracy Act prohibited the sale of food and medicine to Cuba. Hospitals, for example, lack the most basic materials such as bandages and soap.

As the embargo stands now, Castro uses it to rally international sympathy. Further, he employs a dual Cuban nationalism/anti-Americanism to blame the poverty of Cuba on the U.S. (This nationalism has been revived with the Elian Gonzalez controversy. Cuban officials have drummed up rallies among citizens with the chant, “¡Cuba, sí! ¡Yanqui, no!”).

Isolating Cuba only strengthens Castro’s position internally, and lends credence to his claim that the U.S. disregards the welfare of Cuban citizens. The U.S. must reaffirm the superiority of a free-market system, as other Latin American countries have realized, and lead by example by trading with Cuba. Only then will the people benefit from needed products. Only then will a burgeoning culture of freedom among Cubans be related to economic liberty, the liberty that, in the words of John Paul II, aims to bring more of the world’s poor into the “circle of exchange.”

Easing of the sanctions is a small step in the right direction. By nominally lifting certain trade barriers, the U.S. has seen Castro slightly loosen the reins of government-restricted freedoms. Individual Americans are now allowed to send money and food directly to Cubans without the regime’s interference.

Churches are also getting involved by giving gifts to other churches and humanitarian groups within Cuba–again, without a word from Cuban officials. Fruit and vegetable markets are popping up in various villages, where citizens may freely trade as they see fit. This is a phenomenal step away from the communist policy that called for government distribution of the food supply.

We see that small reforms, many at the hands of committed Christians and motivated by Christian charity, are indications that trading with Cuba should have a positive influence on its policies.

The course of action most in line with a commitment to human freedom and dignity is to lift sanctions against Cuba.

“But ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; by doing this you will heap burning coals upon his head.’ Do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good.” Romans 12:20-21