03.17.21

Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy: The United States And Cuba

For more than half a century, the United States has imposed a labyrinth of punishing economic sanctions on Cuba, an impoverished island of 11 million people, in an attempt to pressure its government to hold democratic elections.  I certainly share the goal of democracy, but Cuba is no closer to free and fair elections than any time in its history.

Rather than continue a policy that had failed to achieve any of its goals and that holds Cuba to a standard we do not apply to many other repressive governments, President Obama tried engaging with Cuba.  Americans in record numbers traveled to the island, patronizing Cuban Airbnb hosts, restaurants, and other small businesses.  Cultural and educational exchanges flourished.  Republican and Democratic members of Congress, governors, and state legislators traveled to Cuba.  So did representatives of U.S. companies.  The two governments signed nearly two dozen agreements to discuss issues from property claims to law enforcement cooperation.  None of these positive developments have been acknowledged by pro-sanctions advocates, few if any of whom have visited Cuba since their families left many decades ago.

Two years later, declaring the Obama policy a failure in order to curry favor with Florida voters, former President Trump restored and further tightened sanctions.  The result:  Americans’ right to travel to Cuba was denied by their own government, Cuban-Americans’ right to send remittances to their relatives was severely curtailed, Cuban entrepreneurs went out of business, dissidents were arrested, and life got worse for the Cuban people. 

Today, according to press reports, the Biden administration says support for democracy and human rights will be at the core of its policy toward Cuba.  That is a righteous goal, and I hope it does the same for other repressive governments.  But the question is how to achieve it.  Unilateral sanctions almost never work, and they have failed miserably in Cuba.  If the Biden administration conditions our re-engagement with Cuba on steps we know its government will not take and that we do not demand of U.S. allies that are no less and in some cases more repressive, we will perpetuate a policy that has hurt, not helped, the Cuban people. 

The Saudi Crown Prince orchestrated the gruesome murder of a respected journalist.  Egypt, a military dictatorship that receives billions of dollars in U.S. aid, has imprisoned tens of thousands of people for their political beliefs.  They should be held accountable, but no one is suggesting that we impose an economic embargo against those countries or demanding that they hold free and fair elections if they want to remain allies of the United States.

Despite U.S. sanctions, Cuba remains a one-party state.  But it is also changing in positive ways, largely due to demographics and the Internet.  During this time, the U.S. can either be actively engaged, or watch as our competitors fill the vacuum, as they are already doing. There is only one logical choice.

# # # # #