The UN General Assembly just voted for the 30th consecutive year to condemn America’s economic embargo on Cuba. Yes, you read that right. They did this in 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002, 2001, 2000, 1999, 1998, 1997, 1996, 1995, 1994, and 1993.
And it wasn’t a close vote. Brazil, under the leadership of right-wing extremist Jair Bolsonaro, abstained. So did Ukraine, which is for obvious reasons entirely reliant on the goodwill of the United States. But only the United States and Israel voted “no.” The other 185 countries that participated all voted to beg the United States to lift the embargo.
So why on Earth hasn’t it?
The World vs. the United States
General Assembly resolutions can’t be enforced without action from the Security Council, in which great powers have permanent seats simply for being great powers—an on-the-nose metaphor for how power is distributed in the world in general. But we should still take note of the scale of the global condemnation of the embargo.
Are some of those 185 countries dictatorships or monarchies? Sure. But an 185-2 vote means that nearly every democracy in the world voted for the resolution. There’s little doubt that it’s an accurate reflection of global public opinion. The overwhelming majority of the planet wants us to end this policy.
And it’s not hard to see why. The embargo has had devastating effects on the Cuban population. During the Cold War, that was balanced to some extent by the patronage of the Soviet Union, but the collapse of the USSR at the beginning of the 1990s led to a devastating crisis euphemized by Cuban authorities as the "special period.” When Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela was riding high in the 2000s, Venezuelan aid was an alternative way for Cuba to make up for some of the effects of the U.S. embargo, but these days, to put it mildly, Venezuelans have their own problems.
So where does that leave Cuba?
The Embargo Hurts Ordinary Cubans
Cuba has a track record of sending doctors and medical equipment all around the world to help people in need. Critics of that policy deride it as a way of building global goodwill for an undemocratic regime, but as a citizen of a nation that all too often spreads its influence around the world with cruise missiles, drone assassinations, economic sanctions, invasions, occupations, and military coups, I have trouble getting too mad at Cuba for sending doctors to help people in Brazil or South Africa.
Even many Cubans with criticisms of their regime are rightly proud of the country’s healthcare system. Cuba has one of the best doctor-to-patient ratios on the entire planet and they fared far better even during the worst of COVID than comparable nations. But no matter how many doctors they have, their patients are now all too often having to go without medicine—one of the grimmest examples of the shortages of basic goods that are afflicting the island.
We’re often told that these problems can’t be blamed on U.S. policy because the rest of the world trades with Cuba. But this is misleading in multiple ways.
First, the embargo obviously makes it more difficult—even with tightly constrained humanitarian loopholes—for Cuba to get, for example, any medical equipment that the rest of the world gets from the United States. When Americans think about the embargo, they think about how it denies us Cuban cigars and Havana Club rum, but Cubans are more likely to notice that it’s led to Americans being prosecuted for selling Cuba water-purification equipment.
Second, various U.S. laws intended to tighten the effect of the embargo actually punish foreign companies for doing business in Cuba. This is one reason why Cubans often call the embargo “the blockade.”
Third and most importantly, apologists for the embargo want to have it both ways. On the one hand, they want to say that the (often quite real) inefficiencies of Cuba’s system are the only reason for the nation’s shortages and misery. On the other hand, they insist that it shouldn’t be lifted because it's such an important tool for pressuring the Cuban government into liberalizing and democratic reform.
Which is it?
If right-wing anti-communists are so confident that things would be just as bad in Cuba without a U.S. embargo, why are they so unwilling they test their theory?
An Incoherent Policy
The idea underpinning the imposition of the embargo sixty years ago that Cubans would take their economic frustrations out on the government was always dubious. People under siege from more powerful neighbors often respond in the opposite way, with defiant displays of national unity.
In any case, the idea that all the humanitarian costs of the embargo are balanced out by the all-important goal of promoting democracy and human rights becomes incoherent the moment it’s placed within the overall framework of American foreign policy.
As a democratic socialist, I care about freedom of speech, independent labor unions, and multi-party elections, and think Cuba should be criticized for not having those things. But does anyone anywhere seriously believe that the human rights situation in Cuba is even close to being as bad as the one in China—never mind in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia?
Cuba just passed a popular referendum that, among many other changes to the country’s family code, gave gay couples on the island equal rights in the spheres of marriage and adoption. (While the democratic legitimacy of this referendum can be questioned on the grounds that only one side had access to state media, even the regime’s harshest critics don’t seem to be alleging that the results were falsified.) By contrast, homosexuality in Saudi Arabia is a death penalty offense.
Anyone who’s ever visited Cuba knows that ordinary Cubans are hardly worried about being swept up by the secret police for griping about the regime even to foreign strangers. That doesn’t mean that the lack of a free press or multi-party elections isn’t objectionable, but it does make it more than a little absurd that we’re told that ordinary Cubans have to be ground down decade after decade with an economic embargo for the sake of democracy even while the United States partners with far more despotic governments elsewhere.
To be sure, the fact that U.S. policy is inconsistent doesn’t necessarily mean the inconsistency should be resolved in the direction I’m advocating here. Perhaps the U.S. should hermetically seal off its economy from those of China, Saudi Arabia, and numerous other nations with human rights records vastly worse than Cuba’s? To be sure, the economic consequences of that would be devastating for ordinary Americans, but if the promotion of democracy is worth that kind of suffering, why should foreigners be the only ones who have to bear its brunt?
A deeper problem here is that, as I’ve noted elsewhere, the idea that if the U.S. and Miami-based anti-Communists got their way, Cuba’s often flawed and dysfunctional model of state socialism would be replaced with a prosperous and flourishing democracy is a little hard to square with reality. Take neighboring Haiti—a country that has been thoroughly shaped by U.S. intervention. Haiti has dystopian levels of poverty and economic inequality—and its government refuses to hold elections. Why should anyone think the U.S. imposing its will on Cuba will lead to that country being a stable and prosperous liberal democracy?
A healthier approach would be to leave the question of future democratic reform to the Cuban people themselves—without any U.S. meddling to hasten the process along, and certainly without devastating sanctions to punish ordinary Cubans for the flaws in their political system.
President Barack Obama took large strides toward that healthier policy just before he left office. He couldn’t lift the embargo without Congress, but he made a variety of symbolic and substantive moves to normalize relations. The U.S. even abstained for the first time on the UN resolution to condemn the embargo in 2016. Donald Trump reversed course when he assumed the presidency, and so far Joe Biden has shown little appetite to pick up where his friend Barack left off.
Where does that leave us? Cubans are hurting badly, and for the thirtieth year in a row the rest of the planet has begged us to end our cruel and pointless embargo. It’s time to listen.