Senator Rubio: Tear Down the Cuba Trade Embargo!

Senator Marco Rubio is the frontrunner among Republican presidential candidates, according to the latest Fox News poll. (Photo: Office of Senator Rubio)

The Cuba embargo has not only failed, but has also harmed US interests.


Sen. Marco Rubio has just announced his candidacy for President, accusing the presumptive Democratic candidate, Hillary Rodham Clinton, of being “a leader from yesterday,” adding that “yesterday is over,” and “America has always been about the future.” 

Those familiar with Sen. Rubio’s hard line on Cuba will recognize the irony in his statement.   Far from looking toward the future on US-Cuba relations, he appears to be chained to the policy failure of the Cuban embargo, which continues to this day. 

It would be difficult to find a single US policy that has failed for so long to accomplish its goal.  The fantasy has persisted since 1960 that cutting Cuba off from US trade would inspire a spontaneous democratic revolt against Castro, leading to a US-friendly regime.  Sen. Rubio grew up with this view, but he now has the chance to bring US-Cuba relations into the 21st century by supporting an end to the embargo.

After nearly 55 years, it has become abundantly clear that the embargo has only strengthened Castro, who was given a convenient excuse for his economic mismanagement.  He gleefully portrayed the US as the bully determined to destroy Cuba’s economy and sovereignty.  In the meantime it is Cuban citizens who have paid the price of economic deprivation.

The embargo also helped to drive Cuba into Soviet satellite status, later replaced by oil-driven dependency on Hugo Chavez-led Venezuela.  Instead of neutralizing Cuba’s influence, the trade embargo has strengthened the hand of US adversaries in the region.

Hard-liners, including Rubio, argue that easing the embargo would be a victory for the Castro brothers.  In fact the opposite is more likely to be true.  First of all, Fidel turns 89 this year, Raul turns 84.  Cuba will soon have a post-Castro government, and the personal grudge against them will no longer be a relevant policy issue.

More importantly, ending the embargo would contribute significantly to undermining Cuba’s communist government.  Economically, Cubans want what most other people want: the chance to make a better living, to consume more of what they want, and to buy and sell property, goods and services more freely. They want cell phones, Pepsi-Cola, and the chance to buy a car made after 1959—what a concept! Cuban policies, aided and abetted by the embargo, have prevented all that.

But now, with the prospect of opening to the world economy, the most capable and talented young Cubans will be increasingly tempted to leave unless Cuba’s hidebound economy is reformed.  Increasing trade would accelerate the reform process.  And openness, cell phones and the internet would promote more information flow and pressures for democracy.  Trade is the ultimate subversive force for changing Cuba’s economy and society.

The embargo has not only failed, but has also harmed US interests.  Trade investment between Cuba and the US were strong before the embargo, and would eventually return to historical trends if the embargo ended and Cuban economic reforms took hold.  In the meantime, US exporters and investors must sit on the sidelines while US policy forbids them from most activity in Cuba, while the door swings open wider for European and other foreign business interests.

Recent Gallup and Pew Research polls showed 59 percent and 66 percent, respectively, of Americans favoring an end to the embargo.  And while a Florida International University poll showed a slim majority of Cuban-Americans still supporting the embargo, two-thirds of younger Cuban-Americans favored ending it.  Senator Rubio, take notice:  “America has always been about the future.”

This is not surprising. Cuban-Americans themselves are among the greatest potential beneficiaries of renewed Cuba-US economic relations.  They have the strongest linguistic, cultural and family ties to the island, and are best-placed to establish economic and business ties with Cuban markets.

Finally, the partisan argument in Washington for now seems to be that anything President Obama supports, good Republicans should oppose.  But this is a view that fails to recognize the historical importance of the situation.  President Obama cannot end the trade embargo; only Congress can do that, and would play a key historic role if it does. 

Now that both houses are in Republican hands, they have the opportunity to create exports, jobs, and opportunities in both Cuba and the United States.  They can craft the legislation to include compensation conditions and a phase-out of the embargo over time.  Such a bill would receive bi-partisan support and raise public opinion of Congress in general as well.

It is famously said that only Nixon, the cold warrior, could go to China.  Now Senator Rubio finds himself as the Cuban-American who can play a similar historic role in re-establishing close US-Cuban economic ties, benefitting the US economy, the Cuban people, Cuban-Americans and in fact all Americans.  He would also distinguish himself in a crowded Republican field by actually being Presidential.  Look to the future, Senator Rubio. End the Cuban trade embargo.

Kent Jones is Professor of Economics at Babson College. He specializes in trade policy and institutional issues, particularly those focusing on the World Trade Organization and is the author of five books, including Politics vs. Economics in World Steel Trade, Export Restraint and the New Protectionism, Who's Afraid of the WTO?, The Doha Blues and most recently, Reconstrucing the WTO for the 21st Century. He wrote this commentary for Latinvex.

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