Beyond Embargo: Realigning US-Cuba Relations for a Multipolar World (Marcellus Policy Analysis)

By Jack McGrath, Fall 2023 Marcellus Policy Fellow

A decade after the Obama Administration embarked on a historic rapprochement with Cuba, relations between Washington and Havana have returned to an impasse. The trade embargo implemented in 1962 is still constricting Cuba’s economy more than sixty years later. The Trump Administration derailed the Obama Administration’s path to economic normalization by re-instating travel restrictions, expanding unilateral sanctions, and re-designating Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism (SST). The Biden Administration has adhered to Trump’s approach, which exacerbates a humanitarian crisis and hinders private sector development without advancing human rights or democratization.

The embargo has long been ineffective at achieving U.S. objectives and it is actively counterproductive to American interests in an international order shifting towards multipolarity. By ignoring the international community’s near-unanimous opposition to the embargo, Washington disregards an ascendant and assertive Global South (broadly consisting of Latin America, Asia, and Africa). Washington’s refusal to engage with Havana leaves Cuba economically dependent on nations willing to violate U.S. sanctions for trade and investment, providing rivals with a strategically located client state.

Washington’s approach toward Cuba must evolve beyond Cold War enmity to address the contemporary interests of both nations through dialogue and engagement. The lucrative benefits of normalized trade with the United States would drastically reduce Cuba’s reliance on adversarial states and incentivize Havana to maintain positive relations with Washington. By prioritizing mutual interests over accumulated grievances, the United States and Cuba can resume engagement and end 63 years of economic estrangement.