Why is the Cuban Embargo Still in Place?

analysis by Steve Anchell

“The embargo on Cuba is the most comprehensive set of U.S. sanctions on any country, including the other countries designated by the U.S. government to be state sponsors of terrorism.”[1]

In 1959, the Cuban Revolution succeeded in overthrowing the rule of North American gangsters as well as the corrupt and repressive dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.[2] Anti-communist Batista was closely aligned with U.S. foreign policy and trade interests. The U.S. government monitored the revolution with trepidation, though many leaders felt it could be controlled. When Fidel Castro proved to be both uncontrollable and adherent to Marxist-Leninist ideals, the U.S. turned against him with an unprecedented vengeance.

The first sanctions were imposed in January 1961, the last month of President Eisenhower’s second term in office. They were a partial embargo banning the import of Cuban sugar cane.[3] By the end of 1962, the full economic embargo was in place “with the single exception of licensed sales of food and medicine …”[4] More acts strengthening the embargo followed, culminating in 1996 with the House and Senate passage of H.R. 927, the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (LIBERTAD) Act.[5] Known as the Helms-Burton Act, it contains the following stated purposes:

(1) To assist the Cuban people in regaining their freedom and prosperity, as well as in joining the community of democratic countries that are flourishing in the Western Hemisphere;

(2) To strengthen international sanctions against the Castro government;

(3) To provide for the continued national security of the United States in the face of continuing threats from the Castro government of terrorism, theft of property from United States nationals by the Castro government, and political manipulation by the Castro government of the desire of Cubans to escape that results in mass migration to the United States;

(4) To encourage the holding of free and fair democratic elections in Cuba, conducted under the supervision of internationally recognized observers;

(5) To provide a policy framework for United States support to the Cuban people in response to the formation of a transition government or a democratically elected government in Cuba; and

(6) To protect United States nationals against confiscatory takings and the wrongful trafficking in property confiscated by the Castro regime.[6]

Sixty years later, the embargo has proved to be singularly ineffective, even to the point of strengthening Cuban resolve and bolstering the Castro family dictatorship. The New York Times “has long called for an end to America’s embargo, which has strengthened the hand of Mr. [Raul] Castro, his brother Fidel, and other hard-liners who have used it as an excuse for their disastrous misrule in Havana. And it has hurt the Cuban people whom we claim to want to help.”[7]

A succession of U.S. Presidents, beginning with Richard Nixon, have proposed various solutions for ending the embargo and normalizing relations, only to be rebuffed by the Cubans in one form or another.[8] Whether it is through adventurism in Angola or the imprisonment of Alan Gross,[9] when rapprochement seemed likely, the Cuban ruling class has conveniently found a way to derail the process.

Prior to the Helms-Burton Act, a president could have lifted the embargo. However, one of the key provisions of the Helms-Burton Act is that only an act of both houses of Congress can lift the embargo. A president can loosen or tighten the sanctions but cannot remove them.

Why is the embargo still in place?

When the U.S. established full diplomatic relations with China in 1979, few, if any, substantial concessions, either to ending civil rights abuses, releasing political prisoners, or moving towards democracy, were imposed. In 1989, the Chinese Army fired upon and killed an estimated 1,000 protestors in Tiananmen Square.[10] Other than the usual and expected diplomatic outrage on behalf of the U.S. government, there were no further repercussions against the Chinese Communist regime. If communist China is on the U.S. most favored nations list, why is the embargo still in place?

Anti-Castro Cubans, concentrated in Miami.[11] are often blamed for maintaining the embargo, but they are only part of the problem. While Cuban Americans are a highly organized and vocal minority, they do not represent the majority of U.S. citizens who cannot comprehend the continuing purpose of maintaining the embargo.

Cuban Americans have long ago ceased having hegemony on this matter. Only the remnants of the older generation, mostly those who fled the embargo and their immediate offspring, are left among the fervent embargo supporters. Prior to Trump, most polls taken since 2000 have shown an increasing number of Cuban Americans believe the embargo is a failed policy and should be lifted.[12]

And while the Cuban-American population largely supported Trump, most analysts believe this has as much to do with their adoration of a strong man as with their support of the embargo. According to Fernand Amandi, a lecturer in the Department of Political Science at the University of Miami, “Cubans generally like people who are forceful and aggressive and convey strength, and for better or for worse, Trump does convey those things."[13] In other words, they largely voted for strong-man Trump, not the embargo as a policy.

Who benefits by maintaining the embargo?

If we discount first-generation Cuban-Americans, who are increasingly marginalized by age and attrition, we are left with three groups that benefit from the embargo. The first is politicians. Senator Marco Rubio initially won his seat through the support of Cuban-American hardliners. And even though his rabid anti-Castro stance is out-of-step with the majority of young Cubans, it is one that he personally believes, supports, and will never abandon. The same can be said for former Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and current Congressman Marion Diaz-Balart.

The second group to benefit is U.S. agribusiness and pharmaceuticals. Since the imposition of the full embargo in 1962, there have been a series of amendments that have either allowed or taken away the right of major U.S. agribusiness and pharmaceuticals to sell food and drugs directly to Cuba for humanitarian purposes.

Under the terms of the 2000 “Trade Sanctions Reform And Export Enhancement Act” (TSRA), pharmaceuticals are allowed to sell medicinal drugs to Cuba. For the most part, the product they sell is outdated drugs no longer used in the U.S. This is a highly lucrative market for these companies needing to offload overstocked supplies. In the case of agribusiness, as a result of the TSRA, “the USA has been the major supplier of food and agricultural products to Cuba.”[14]

“In 2008, Cuba imported more than US$700 million worth of food and agricultural products from the USA.”[15] [16] In 2009, restrictions were loosened even further. Today, nearly all the food served to tourists, the major source of income for Cuba, comes from the U.S. Food loaded onto ships in Florida arrives three hours later in Havana to be distributed to government-owned hotels, restaurants, and privately owned government-licensed paladars (home restaurants).

Although Cubans are capable of producing nearly all the food they require for themselves and tourists, what they lack is the infrastructure to get it to the markets where it is needed. Several years ago the government made a push to try and become food self-sufficient, or at least make a significant reduction in dependency on the U.S. Farms were directed to grow the crops needed to supply the restaurants and hotels in Havana. Unfortunately, due to the lack of investment capital to purchase new trucks and spare parts to keep the old ones running, most of the food rotted at the pick-up locations. Today, with the fuel embargo imposed by Trump and still in place under Biden, the problem is further exacerbated.

Along with U.S. food and pharmaceutical products, the U.S. sugar cane industry centered in Louisiana and Hawaii, and the sugar beet industry does not want Cuban sugar back on the open market. Lifting the embargo will likely include concessions made to Cuba that will allow them to export an annual sugar quota to the U.S. This would be an expedient and obvious means of helping Cuba recover economically and one that many people, including the U.S. sugar industry, expect as a natural consequence of the end of hostilities.

The third group that benefits from the embargo is the Cuban ruling oligarchy, consisting of the late Fidel's inner circle of family and friends. Oligarchy or dictatorship, nothing serves a ruling government better than an outside enemy. And although Fidel made periodic overtures to the U.S. to lift the embargo, whenever it appeared rapprochement might be possible, the government, his government, would shoot down a “Brothers to the Rescue” flight or round up political dissenters, or arrest a U.S. agent provocateur, as mentioned previously in reference to Alan Gross. While it could be argued that the timing has always been a coincidence, the number of coincidences is too great to dismiss them out of hand.

Prior to the international COVID-19 pandemic, the ruling oligarchy was attempting to put reforms in place to smooth what they perceived to be the inevitable lifting of the embargo, including privatization of business and property ownership. Their hope was that there would be enough freedoms and reforms in place that lifting the embargo would result in a smooth transition to the new paradigm, ensuring their continued rule and averting the possibility of political upheaval often resulting from major shifts of this kind.

Cracks in the system began with the San Isidro Movement [17], involving a protest of artists and dissidents. While peaceful change is to be hoped for, it is likely that this will be seen as an opening shot in what may become a bloody resistance against an island fiefdom run for the benefit of a few on the backs of the many.

On the U.S. side, the vehemence against lifting the embargo expressed by many Cuban-Americans, even if not the majority, is out of step with the majority of Americans and the self-interest of the U.S. The attitude of Cuban-Americans appears to be based on a deeply held anti-communist, anti-socialist, anti-Castro ideology. In my own interaction with Cuban Americans living in Miami, many of them view the 12,000,000 Cubans remaining on the island as traitors to the Cuban people. According to those I have personally held conversations with, any Cuban still living on the island who is not actively trying to leave deserves what they get, and that includes the embargo.

Today, Cubans are experiencing a prolonged period of deprivation and near starvation due solely to the effects of the U.S. embargo, which includes the vital influx of tourists from cruise ships that occurred during the Obama presidency. Having given in to despair, Cuban youth, artists, and intelligentsia are leaving the island in unprecedented droves. They are fleeing to Mexico, South America, Dubai, Russia, and anywhere else that will take them. There is no turning back. Unless the embargo is lifted, there will have to be either a bloody insurrection or an army coup to end the impasse. Cuban Americans would welcome either.


[1] United States Government Accountability Office, Economic Sanctions, Agencies Face Competing Priorities in Enforcing the U.S. Embargo on Cuba, November 2007

[2] English, T.J. Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba and Then Lost It to the Revolution

[3] Sweig, Julia A. Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know, 2nd ed. p. 88

[4] Sweig. p. 88.

[5] Congress.gov, H.R.927 - Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (LIBERTAD) Act of 1996

[6] Thomas: H.R. 927 Section 3, Purposes. Ibid.

[7] The New York Times, “Lift the Cuban Embargo

[8] Sweig. p. 89 – 93

[9] Sweig. pp. 271 – 275

[10] Encyclopædia Britannica, “Tiananmen Square incident

[11] Portes, Alejandro and Rubén G. Rumbaut. Immigrant America: A Portrait, 3rd ed.

[12] Sweig, p. 237

[13] News @The U, University of Miami, "Cuban Americans Show Strong Support for Trump"

[14] Amnesty International. “The U.S. Embargo Against Cuba: Its Impact on Economic and Social Rights

[15] Amnesty International. Ibid.

[16] U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, Inc. “2012-2001 U.S. Export Statistics For Cuba.

[17], StartUp Cuba TV, "What Is the San Isidro Movement and Why Should You Know About It?"


Amnesty International. “The U.S. Embargo Against Cuba: Its Impact on Economic and Social Rights.” 7 December 2009.

Bardach, Ann Louise. Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana and Washington. New York: Scribner, 2009.

Bolender, Keith and Noam Chomsky. Voices From The Other Side: An Oral History Of Terrorism Against Cuba. London: Pluto Press, 2010.

Chomsky, Aviva. A History of the Cuban Revolution. West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2011.

Chomsky, Aviva, Barry Carr, Pamela Maria Smorkaloff, eds. The Cuba Reader: History, Culture, Politics. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.

Eckstein, Susan. Back from the Future: Cuba under Castro. New York: Routledge, 2003.

English, T.J. Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba and Then Lost It to the Revolution. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.

Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (LIBERTAD) Act of 1996 (Helms-Burton Act). 1996. Library of Congress, The.  01 February 2014.

Henken, Ted A. Cuba: A Global Studies Handbook. Santa Barbara ABC-CLIO, 2008.

Huffington Post. “Obama Extends Cuba Embargo One Year.” 14 December 2009. 01 February 2014.

New York Times, The. Editorial Board. “Lift the Cuban Embargo.” 12 December 2013. 01 February 2014.

Portes, Alejandro and Rubén G. Rumbaut. Immigrant America: A Portrait, 3rd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. pp. 45, 48, 51.

Sweig, Julia E. Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know, 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

U.S.–Cuba Trade and Economic Council, Inc. “2012-2001 U.S. Export Statistics For Cuba” February 2013. 01 February 2014.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Services "Sugar Production" 09 October 2021. 19 October 2021