After thousands of Cubans poured into the streets in early July to protest the island nation’s Communist government, President Joe Biden said America “stands firmly” with the people of Cuba.
The demonstrations were prompted by short-term shortages of food and COVID-19 vaccines, as well as long-term dissatisfaction with the hardships created by Cuba’s strict economic controls. Protesters clashed with Cuban police, and the government cracked down on the island’s already-limited internet access in order to quell the uprisings that were organized spontaneously over social media.
Biden’s words of support for the protesters—some of whom waved American flags as they demanded “libertad“—are nice. Actions would be better. And there is plenty the U.S. could, and should, do to aid Cubans in their fight against authoritarian communism.
For starters, Congress could lift the 59-year-old U.S. trade embargo against the island country.
Some leftists blame the embargo for impoverishing Cuba, but this is misdirection. Communism has destroyed Cuba’s once-prosperous economy. Still, the trade embargo, in place since 1962, has plainly failed to accomplish its primary goal of toppling the Cuban regime. If anything, it has helped to strengthen it by giving former President Fidel Castro and his successors a way to deflect blame for communism’s failures—a strategy that Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel also deployed during the initial wave of protests in July.
From America’s perspective, what has the embargo accomplished? That it remains in place nearly three decades after the fall of the Soviet Union suggests that America has failed to learn the primary lesson of the Cold War: Economic development is the best weapon to aim at communism.
Americans who support the embargo argue that increased trade and tourism would enrich and strengthen the Communist regime while failing to aid most Cubans. “There is zero reason to delude ourselves into believing that ‘engagement’ will get the tyrants in Havana to change their ways,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R–Fla.), the son of Cuban immigrants, wrote in January.
But where is the evidence that disengagement is working? Demanding political reforms before economic changes is exactly backward—and again ignores the lessons of the Cold War.
Economic freedom is the key to other kinds of freedom. Consider what happened when the Obama administration loosened some of the rules on American travel to Cuba as part of an effort to reestablish diplomatic relations. Even with the trade embargo still in place, that slight policy change induced then–Cuban President Raul Castro to relax state controls on private commerce. While accurate figures on Cuba’s economy are understandably difficult to come by, a 2017 Brookings Institution report estimated that “the number of authorized self-employed people (cuentapropistas) rose from some 150,000 in 2008 to about 580,000 in 2017.”
Increasing entrepreneurship reduces Cubans’ reliance on the Communist state. And when people are allowed a little freedom, they tend to want more of it.
Since taking over as Cuba’s president in 2018, however, Díaz-Canel has cracked down on the island’s private sector. Former President Donald Trump inadvertently helped him by reversing some of Obama’s attempts to normalize relations between the two countries and by slapping new economic sanctions on Cuba just before leaving office in January 2021.
Biden could undo those Trump-era policies even without the congressional approval that would be necessary to end the full embargo. He could also lift the 1996 order banning privately owned American vessels from entering Cuban waters. If Americans want to bring food or supplies to Cubans, they should not face prosecution for doing so.
A more radical (and exciting) plan, initially proposed by Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, calls for the White House to allow private companies to beam internet service into Cuba to circumvent the government’s blackout and help protesters organize. Technologically, this is possible: Balloons anchored miles offshore could broadcast mobile internet signals into Cuba. The same tech was deployed near Puerto Rico after two devastating hurricanes crippled the island’s digital infrastructure in 2017.
Even if Biden does nothing more than re-instate Obama’s travel and economic policies and call on Congress to end the failed trade embargo, it would signal to the Cuban people—and to the country’s potential future leaders—that the United States recognizes trade and tourism as vital economic and political lifelines for the island’s long-suffering residents. It also would remove the biggest excuse that Cuba’s government uses to distract people from the failings of communism.