With the pandemic obliterating tourism, Cuba is seeing their largest protests in decades over lack of food, medicine, and other goods. Can the U.S. trade embargo — which makes it more difficult for Americans to help the Cuban economy by, for example, drinking Cuban rum or smoking Cuban cigars — really be ethical in this circumstance?
Former leader Fidel Castro officially declared Cuba a Communist state in 1961. The next year, President John F. Kenedy issued a trade embargo against the country. That policy still exists today because Cuba remains a Communist state, one of only five remaining in the world. (Although one of them is China, the world’s most populous country.)
Although President Barack Obama eased some aspects of the embargo, such as allowing more imports of Cuban rum and cigars, these restrictions were largely reinstated by successor President Donald Trump.
2009 estimates pegged the embargo’s cost at about $1.2 billion to the U.S. and $685 million to Cuba. Cuba itself claimed the embargo cost the country more than $5 billion in 2020.
What the bills do
Three current bills in Congress would lift the U.S. trade embargo with Cuba, after 59 years. While the three bills don’t contain the exact same legislative text, they would functionally establish more or less the same policy.)
The United States–Cuba Relations Normalization Act was introduced in the House on May 28 as H.R. 3625, by Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL1).
The Freedom to Export to Cuba Act was introduced in the Senate on May 19 as S. 1694, by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN).
The United States-Cuba Trade Act was introduced in the Senate on February 4 as S. 249, by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR).
What supporters say
Supporters argue that the legislation is a win-win, improving the U.S. economy while giving 11 million Cubans a better quality of life.
“The United States’ six-decade trade embargo with Cuba is a failed policy that is out of line with our values and national interest,” Rep. Rush said in a press release. “Lifting the embargo and removing restrictions on commerce and travel with Cuba is good for U.S. consumers and our economy, good for Cuban Americans, and good for the people of Cuba who are actively being denied access to medicine, food, and freedoms.”
“Instead of looking to the future, U.S.-Cuba policy has been defined for far too long by conflicts of the past,” Sen. Klobuchar said in a separate press release. “As we work to rebuild our economy following the pandemic, lifting the trade embargo will open the door to a large export market and create jobs in the U.S.”
What opponents say
Opponents aren’t just “tough on Cuba” Republicans, but also the Democratic White House. In June, at the Biden administration’s request, the U.S. voted against a symbolic United Nations resolution to end the embargo. The votes were 184 countries in favor, three abstentions, with only the U.S. and Israel voting against.
“The United States stands with the Cuban people and seeks to support their pursuit of freedom, prosperity, and a future of greater dignity,” Rodney Hunter, the U.S. political coordinator for the U.S. mission to the United Nations, said in a speech explaining the vote.
“As with other [U.N.] member states, the United States determines its conduct of economic relationships with other countries in accordance with its national interests,” Davis continued. “Sanctions are a legitimate way to achieve foreign policy, national security, and other national and international objectives, and the United States is not alone in this view or in this practice.”
“Sanctions are one set of tools in our broader effort toward Cuba to advance democracy, promote respect for human rights, and help the Cuban people exercise the fundamental freedoms enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” David concluded. “We therefore oppose this resolution.”
Odds of passage
Rep. Rush introduced his bill five times before, with support varying widely, from 55 Democratic cosponsors for the 2009 version to zero cosponsors for the 2013 and 2015 versions. No version ever received a committee vote, even when Democrats previously held the House.
The current version has attracted four cosponsors, all Democrats. It’s been referred for a potential vote in six different committees, about the most you’ll ever see for a single bill: Agriculture, Energy and Commerce, Financial Services, Foreign Affairs, Judiciary, and Ways and Means.
Sen. Klobuchar introduced her bill three times before, though support has steadily decreased each time: from 25 cosponsors in 2015, to 17 cosponsors in 2017, to eight cosponsors in 2019. No version ever received a committee vote.
The current version has attracted a smaller-still four bipartisan cosponsors: three Democrats and one Republican, Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS). It awaits a potential vote in the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee.
Sen. Wyden introduced his bill once before, in 2017, where it attracted six Democratic cosponsors and never received a committee vote. The current version has attracted a slightly smaller three Democratic cosponsors, and awaits a potential vote in the Senate Finance Committee.