Fidel Castro Has Finally Stepped Down: Now What Should Be Done About That Pesky Trade Embargo?

I. Introduction

Fidel Castro recently stepped down as president of Cuba. Castro's health, not the 46 year trade embargo, was the primary reason for Castro's statement that he "would not seek to retain his post." [1] Anyone seeking a radical change in the policies of Cuba may have to wait indefinitely, as Fidel Castro's younger brother Raul quickly supplanted him. In a ceremony, on February 24th, Fidel's younger brother was formally designated as Fidel's successor as the head of Cuba's Council of state. [2] Furthermore, Raul stressed that although Fidel will step down as president, Fidel will continue to be "consulted on important decisions, especially on those relating to defense, foreign policy and the economy." [3] However, American politicians and the public have yet another opportunity to consider the continuing effects of the trade embargo placed upon Cuba nearly 50 years ago. Clearly, Fidel was able to defy the wishes of the United States for several decades without giving in to pressure to relinquish Cuba's adherence to Communist ideology. Unfortunately, the embargo devastated Cuban citizens. In a country where the average wage per month is $20, more U.S. aid needs to be given. [4] Considering the current economy of Cuba, is the embargo still a "humane method of coercion" against Cuba, or is it detrimental to yet another generation of Cubans? [5]

II. Background History

Fidel Castro successfully led a guerrilla campaign that helped topple the regime of United States supported leader Fulgencio Batista. [6] While Fidel was able to capture power in January of 1959, he quickly gained the disdain of many in the United States. [7] With the success of the revolution, Castro was able to shift Cuba's government from a capitalist system, as it existed under the regime of Batista prior to 1959, to a communist system. [8] Arguably, the shift to communism was a fatal blow to trade relations between the United States and Cuba.

The United States was understandably suspicious of Cuba's suspected alignment with the Soviet Union during the peak of the Cold War, and a blockade of Cuba's exportation of sugar to the United States was deemed a viable response to the perceived threat. [9] For example, in 1960, Cuba received a large shipment of crude oil from the Soviet Union in exchange for Cuban sugar. [10] As a result of the exchange, the United States "ordered the United States oil companies located in Cuba to refuse to refine the Soviet crude oil." [11] President Dwight D. Eisenhower's issuance of the Determination of Cuban Sugar Quota Proclamation, on July 6, 1960, virtually eliminated Cuba's sugar quota with the U.S. [12] In a series of brazen moves the Cuban government retaliated by changing its national laws in ways that allowed for Cuba to engage in the "nationalization of American properties located in Cuba." [13] For example, Cuba seized all the U.S. refineries located in Cuba that refused to process the crude oil imported from the Soviet Union. [14] In 1960, the U.S. Congress amended the Sugar Act of 1948 to permit a drastic reduction of the sugar quota from Cuba. [15] The reduction of the Sugar quota was another blow to the fragile trade relations between the United States and Cuba. President Eisenhower's announcement of a trade embargo on all instances of trade between the United States and Cuba was an extension of the amended Sugar Act of 1948. Unfortunately, the harsh sanctions imposed in the early 1960s led to Cuba's increased dependence on the Soviet Union. Instead of forcing Cuba to relinquish its ties with the Soviet Union, the U.S. embargo initially forced Cuba into the waiting arms of the then powerful Soviet Union.

Cuba is an island nation and it has an immense reliance on imports for food and medicine and on exports for its economic viability. [16] The embargo against Cuba resulted in a reduction of imports from the U.S. from "543 million in 1959 to $244 million a year later." [17] The Soviet Union was able to assist Cuba after the initial implementation of the United States embargo. However, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 was yet another dramatic blow to the economy of Cuba. [18] Even with the fall of several Soviet bloc States the Castro regime remained in power. The embargo did not bring about the intended demise of Fidel Castro. Given these results, an analysis of the continuing embargo is merited.

III. Analysis

Currently, settlement of the many claims for property seized during the beginning of Castro's rise to power is not yet settled. [19] The issue of restitution has been of interest in the United States for several decades. The United States Congress, in 1964, created the Cuban Claims Program (CCP) which was charged with determining "the amounts of claims on expropriated property by U.S. nationals against the Cuban government." [20] A plethora of U.S. statutes and regulations have been "implemented with the ultimate goal of restricting trade with Cuba as completely as possible" since the trade embargo against Cuba was first imposed in the early 1960s. [21] The Trading with The Enemy Act (TWEA) was the statutory foundation of the embargo against Cuba. [22] Interestingly, the TWEA was also the statutory basis for the embargo previously placed upon Vietnam. However, on "February 4, 1994, President Clinton lifted the embargo against Vietnam." [23] Since Vietnam was removed from the veil of the TWEA, it seems plausible that Cuba can also be removed from the statutorily-based embargo under the TWEA.

The TWEA was the statute of choice when President John Fitzgerald Kennedy proclaimed "a formal economic embargo against all trade with Cuba" on February 3, 1962. [24] Another major restraint was placed upon trade with Cuba on October 23, 1992 when President Bush signed the Cuban Democracy Act into law. [25] The Cuban Democracy Act allows the United States President to impose sanctions against "any country that proffers or provides any favorable assistance to Cuba." [26] Even the Cuban Democracy Act was not enough to topple Fidel Castro's grip on power in Cuba. Arguably, the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (Libertad) Act of 1995 is more controversial than the Cuban Democracy Act. [27] The Libertad Act, commonly known as the Helms-Burton Act, "further tightens the embargo against Cuba by punishing foreign companies that do business in Cuba." [28] The goal of bringing down the Castro regime needs to be weighed against the expansive legislation passed to achieve the desired end. Attempts to extend U.S. law outside American jurisdiction, through the use of statutes, can pose conflicts with existing international law. International law currently allows a State to impose laws "governing all events within its own sovereign borders, but it may not reach outside the confines of its territory and impose its will on those subjects not validly under its jurisdiction." [29] The U.S. exerting itself beyond its own borders in international trade law and policy could cause trade retaliations from other nations. In addition, the U.S. could suffer reputational harm if countries decide to condemn the Libertad Act as an unlawful extension of American jurisdictional reach.

IV. Possible Resolution

Nearly fifty years after the trade embargo against Cuba was imposed, several things are quite clear. For example, the trade embargo increased Cuba's dependency on the Soviet Union. Prior to the Soviet's collapse, the Soviet Union sent billions of dollars worth of aid to Cuba. The aid previously given by the Soviet Union is now comparable to assistance given by another powerful leader. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has done much to help the ailing Cuban economy. Recent estimates state Mr. Chavez has provided the island of Cuba with "92,000 barrels per day of oil, and with other aid worth some $800 million in 2006 and $1.5 billion in 2007." [30] Sadly, all the economic support given by President Chavez has not trickled down to improve living conditions for many Cuban citizens. With salaries ranging from "400 Cuban pesos a month for a factory worker to some 700 for a doctor [$17-30]" Cuban citizens are still struggling. [31] Perhaps even more clear is that the embargo has not caused the fall of the Castro regime.

The restitution for property expropriated in the early 1960s is an issue that needs to be resolved. If Cuba wished to resolve the issue, it might decide to work out a payment plan for the property seized. However, fixing the tangled statues and regulations that govern the embargo against Cuba will require much more work. In addition, important to lifting the trade embargo is U.S. diplomatic engagement with Cuba. During the past eight years President Bush has been both steadfast in his support of the Cuban embargo, and in his determination not to engage diplomatically with Cuba. However, changes in trade policy between the U.S. Congress, the next president, and Cuba could lead to a removal of the trade embargo. Whether or not the embargo is actually lifted is currently a matter of speculation.

From an economic standpoint the U.S. should remove the embargo and open up to the billion dollar trade market available with Cuba. [32] Cuba would not be the only possible beneficiary if the embargo is lifted. For example, it is believed that "Cuba could eventually become a market for American farmers" because it "desperately needs food products, farming tools and machinery." [33] The economic benefits of lifting the embargo are numerous, and warrant consideration.

V. Conclusion

The direction that Raul will take Cuba is unknown. However, it is clear that the U.S. trade embargo has helped the Cuban economy to fall into shambles. Furthermore, Raul and his older brother Fidel are still in power of the island of Cuba. The goal of bringing the end of the Castro regime has not been realized in over 46 years, and the failed policy needs to be removed. Of course one reason to lift the embargo is to allow the U.S. to reap the economic benefits of free trade with Cuba. Yet, the most compelling reason to lift the embargo remains that it would help the citizens of Cuba. Dislike for the political system of Cuba is not a valid reason to allow the suffering of innocent Cuban citizens to go on. If the economic benefits do not persuade U.S. lawmakers and the President to lift the embargo, at least common sense should. 

[1] The Comandante's Last Move, ECONOMIST, Feb. 23, 2008, at 49.

[2] Young Blood, ECONOMIST, Mar. 1, 2008, at 41.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Cassandra LaRae-Perez, Note, Economic Sanctions As A Use Of Force: Re-Evaluating The Legality Of Sanctions From An Effects-Based Perspective, 20 B.U. INT'L L.J. 161-168, 162 (2002).

[6] James M. Cooper, Essay, Creative Problem Solving and the Castro Conundrum, CAL. W. INT'L L.J. 391-423, 395 (1998).

[7] Id.

[8] Alexander Williams III, Note, More Assistance Please: Lifting The Cuban Embargo May Help Revive American Farms, DRAKE J. AGRIC. L. 455 (2002).

[9] Larae-Perez, supra note 5, at 168.

[10] Williams, supra note 8.

[11] Id.

[12] Cooper, supra note 6, at 396.

[13] Id.

[14] Williams, supra note 8.

[15] David Mowry, Note, Lifting The Embargo Against Cuba Using Vietnam As A Model: A Policy Paper For Modernity, BROOK. J. INT'L L. 229-262, 235 (1999).

[16] Larae-Perez, supra note 5, at 169.

[17] Cooper, supra note 6, at 396.

[18] Larae-Perez, supra note 5, at 168.

[19] Mowry, supra note 15, at 259.

[20] Id. at 236.

[21] Id. at 237.

[22] Trading With the Enemy Act, 50 U.S.C. § 5(b) (2000).

[23] Mowry, supra note 15, at 254.

[24] Williams, supra note 8.

[25] See Cuban Democracy Act of 1992, Pub. L. No. 102-484, 106 Stat. 2575 (codified at 22 U.S.C. Sections 6001-10 (1994)).

[26] Williams, supra note 8.

[27] See Cuban Democracy Act of 1992, Pub. L. No. 102-484, 106 Stat. 2575 (codified at 22 U.S.C. Sections 6001-10 (1994)).

[28] Cooper, supra note 6, at 392.

[29] Id.

[30] The Comandante's Last Move, supra note 1.

[31] Id.

[32] Williams, supra note 8.

[33] Id.