President Obama today outlined a long awaited shift in U.S. policy towards Cuba, which has been characterized by a series of sanctions, travel restrictions and trade embargoes throughout the past half century. The U.S. government has maintained this embargo for longer than any other country in modern history, a move that has had significant social and economic impact on the two nations. The countries are located approximately 90 miles apart, but the embargo has impacted families separated by that border as well as broader economic repercussions.
The embargo was initiated for many political reasons, but the obvious reason behind the sanctions is that Cuba’s communist government posed a threat to U.S. capitalism and democracy in the height of the Cold War. As time has passed and the Cold War has ended, however, the embargo has been increasingly scrutinized by the international community and by legislators in America. The U.S. has claimed human rights violations in Cuba are part of the reason the embargo has continued, while the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights found that the U.S. sanctions actually had a negative impact “on the human rights of the Cuban people.” The UN General Assembly has also called for an end to the embargo numerous times, with Israel the U.S.’s only other supporting vote.
Amongst U.S. legislators, the Cuban embargo has precedence in the Trading With The Enemy Act of 1917, which gives the U.S. President the authority to impose economic sanctions on enemy nations in times of war. President Kennedy exercised this right with the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, and since then the embargo against Cuba has only been strengthened with new legislation. The latest course of action was taken by President Clinton, whose 2000 Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act allowed for the sale of medicine and goods intended for humanitarian use.
Especially in this increasingly globalized world, any form of sanctions can have a significant impact on the nations involved. Russia is learning that truth the hard way with its tanking economy, which will only be further impacted by the new sanctions signed by President Obama this week. While sanctions against Cuba are eased, new ones against Russia begin. At least the policies are being updated to reflect the current times. President Obama commented on the outdated nature of the Cuban embargo at a fundraiser in 2013, saying, “The notion that the same policies that we put in place in 1961 would somehow still be as effective as they are today, in the age of the Internet and Google and world travel, doesn’t make sense. We have to continue to update our policies.”
The Internet plays a role in the new U.S.-Cuba agreement, as the Cuban government has promised to reduce restrictions to Internet access in the island nation. Travel restrictions between the two nations are also expected to be eased, so that families can visit each other and foreign business relations can begin anew. According to CNN, Cuba has also vowed to free 53 of its political prisoners, which began with the release of Alan Gross.
The new policy agreement wont reverse more than 50 years worth of economic sanctions, but it is an important step forward to re-establishing a relationship between two neighboring countries. The consequences of the embargo have already gone too far — Cuba estimates that they’ve lost more than $1 trillion as a result of the sanctions, while the U.S. estimates they lose about $1.2 billion each year in exports. The global political climate has changed drastically since 1960, but this policy shift is still important despite being long overdue.