The US embargo of Cuba began in 1960, a year after Fidel Castro turned this island toward communism. It was extended to food and medicines in 1962, the same year as the showdown with Russia over the installation of missiles there. The embargo has prevented American companies from doing business with Cuba, and discouraged tourism to Cuba. The American government also tried with quite limited success to prevent other countries from trading with Cuba.
In general economic embargoes are undesirable because they interfere with free trade among countries. Yet a case could be made for an embargo against Cuba. Castro not only allowed Russian missiles to be installed in Cuba, just 90 miles from Florida, but was also actively trying to interfere in other countries by sending troops and so-called advisers. The aim of the embargo was to impose economic hardship on Cuba that would force Castro to drop these international actions, and possibly even lead to the toppling of his government and the end of communism in Cuba. Castro did stop his international adventurism, but he and communism remained firmly entrenched for decades.
The Cuban economy has done badly, and has fallen behind the economies of many comparable countries. For example, in 1959, Cuban per capita income was above that of Taiwan, another island close by a hostile super power. Cuba’s two main exports were sugar and tobacco, while Taiwan’s were sugar and rice. At that time, Taiwan began its transition toward a private market system and globally oriented economy, whereas Cuba abolished private property and the government took charge of the economy with central planning and central organization. Since then Cuba’s economy has fallen far behind Taiwan’s as Taiwan has taken advantage of world markets to grow at a remarkable rate while Cuba has chugged along with very slow growth. Cuba’s per capital income is a fifth or less of that of Taiwan. Sugar and tobacco remain important exports of Cuba, while Taiwan has shifted toward complex electronic and industrial goods. Fidel Castro was a charismatic leader who mesmerized audiences with his oratory, but he utterly failed to deliver the goods to the Cuban people.
Cuba’s weak economic performance is in small part due to the embargo since the US would be a natural important trading partner for Cuba, as it is for other nearby Caribbean countries, and for Mexico and other Central American countries. Yet communism itself is the main cause of its poor economic performance. One can say this with complete confidence since communism has utterly failed as an economic system in every country where it has been tried.
One only need look at the difference between the economies of South and North Korea for a clear natural experiment on the disadvantages of an economic system with no private property and central direction of the economy. Prior to the Korean War, the backward part of the Korean economy was in the south and the advanced industrial part was in the north. The roles are now radically reversed since the South and its private enterprise system is far ahead economically (and in other dimensions as well) of the North.
In the last decade, with Fidel Castro ailing and his brother Raul taking over leadership, the Cuban government has begun to realize what the Cuban people long ago learned, that communism is responsible for the vast majority of its economic weakness. Despite the opposition of hardliners, Cuba is allowing very small-scale private firms in retailing and other sectors, and houses can be bought and sold to a limited extent. These are only baby steps away from communism, but they put Cuba on a slippery slope toward a more market-based economy that will be hard to reverse.
Free trade is a principle that the United States should follow except in extraordinary circumstances. Cuba under Fidel, especially in his early days, may have provided enough of these circumstances to justify the embargo. Since Cuba no longer provides any significant threat to American interests, there is no sense in continuing to punish the Cuban people with an embargo on trade, nor to provide excuses to its leaders for the poor performance of the Cuban economy.
It is time to end the embargo on the export and import of goods and services between the United States and Cuba The Cuban people will benefit almost immediately. This may just be the time when such a move puts added pressure on the Cuban government to end its failed experiment with communism.