Should the US lift its embargo on Cuba?

Backfiles –


In 1959, Fidel Castro instigated a revolution in Cuba that resulted in the overthrow of the current government. After the revolution, foreign companies, including US companies, were nationalized and became property of the Cuban government.

For the next thirty years, there was virtually no foreign investment in the country. During this time, the only countries that Cuba traded with were the Soviet Union and the Soviet Union’s satellite countries. Cuba exported sugar, nickel, citrus, and electricity. Cuba imported machinery and 98% of its fuel needs. This economic isolationism was facilitated both by Cuba’s own decision to limit foreign investment and by significant US sanctions that were placed on Cuba after nationalized the US companies.

Shortly after this revolution, the US developed a comprehensive economic embargo on Cuba. The Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 was the first piece of legislation that prohibited foreign aid to Cuba and it established the authority for the President to institute a comprehensive embargo. Under the authority of the Foreign Assistance Act, President Kennedy issued Proclamation 3447 in 1962, which established a total economic embargo on Cuba. The proclamation prohibited the importation of goods from Cuba and also ordered the Commerce Department to continue a prohibition on exports first established by the Export Control Act of 1949. The Cuban Assets Controls Regulations (CACR) prohibits a number of trade and financial transactions between a person subject to U.S. jurisdiction and Cuba or a Cuban national.

Although the acts permitted some exceptions, the US continued to legislate restrictions on trade with Cuba. Towards the end of the George H.W. Bush administration, the Cuban Democracy Act (CDA) was passed in attempt to hasten the downfall of the Castro regime. The Act banned US foreign subsidiary trade with Cuba and prohibits vessels from unloading or loading freight in the U.S. if they have engaged in trade with Cuba within the previous 180 days. Although the act substantially limits trade, it does authorize donations of food and the export of medicine and medicinal supplies, as well as telecommunications support. More than $750 million in aid has been authorized, but Cuba has not accepted all of the aid.

After two Cuban military jets shot down two US civilian planes in 1996, killing for US nationals, Congress passed the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act. This act is more commonly known as the LIBETAD Act or Helms-Burton. The Act increased sanctions on the Cuban government and expanded authorities to provide support to the Cuban people. This Act legislatively codified the CACR regulations as being in existence until the President determines that a transition government is in place in Cuba.

The embargo noose was loosened a bit in 2000 when Congress passed the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000 (TRSA). TRSA directed the President to end unilateral medical and agricultural sanctions against Cuba. The law required the Commerce Department to authorize the export of agricultural commodities to Cuba. However, TRSA does not allow for U.S. government or private assistance to finance these exports.

In 2008, the George Bush administration reduced restrictions on certain information technologies, especially involving telecommunications. This action was consistent with statutory mandates because the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 specifically authorized telecommunications, though the LIBERTARD Act prohibited US companies from investing in Cuban telecommunications; it only allowed Cubans to pay US companies for telecommunications services.

In April 2009, the Obama administration expanded travel opportunities for those with family in Cuba and increased the value of remittances that U.S. citizens could send back to Cuban families. In 2010, an estimated 1,000 people per day traveled to Cuba. As of October 1, 2010, journalists and support personnel; full-time professionals to conduct research or to attend professional meetings and conferences; those involved in the production or distribution of agricultural products, medicines and medical devices; and U.S. telecommunications service providers can all travel to Cuba. 

When Trump came into office in January of 2017, he largely reversed Obama’s opening

By restricting travel by Americans and commercial activity with Cuba, President Donald Trump has made significant strides toward his promise to reverse his predecessor President Barack Obama’s Cuba policy.

The Trump administration made it harder for Americans to visit the island by getting rid of the “people to people” group travel, preventing cruise ships from stopping in Cuba and restricting U.S. airlines and charter flights from flying to any city other than Havana. 

Trump’s team also increased financial and banking restrictions against the Cuban regime and increased restrictions regarding shipping to Cuba. The administration refused to name a U.S. ambassador to Cuba. (The U.S. Embassy in Havana is led by  someone in a “Chargé d-Affaires” role instead.) The administration also ordered Marriott to close its hotel in Havana by August.

“In overall policy direction, there has been a complete reversal, with the tone changing from engagement to isolation and confrontation. In implementation, there has been a substantial, though not complete, reversal,” said Pedro A. Freyre, chair of the Akerman law firm’s international practice in Miami.

Biden reversed some of Trump’s work, but most of the restrictions remain in place.  According to the Congressional Research Service on August 11, 2022

In May 2022, the Biden Administration announced several changes to U.S. policy toward Cuba, with the overarching goal of increasing support for the Cuban people. The changes, which emanated from a policy review begun in 2021, fall into four broad areas—facilitating family reunification, expanding authorized travel, easing restrictions on remittances, and supporting Cuba’s private sector. According to a State

Department spokesperson, the changes will provide Cubans with “additional tools to pursue life free from Cuban government oppression and to seek greater economic opportunities.” The Administration has begun implementing the policy changes through various steps and regulatory changes undertaken by relevant U.S. departments and agencies.

Although the changes have involved easing some restrictions on travel and remittances, including amendments to the Cuban Assets Control Regulations (CACR; 31 C.F.R. 515), the United States maintains comprehensive economic sanctions on Cuba, including restrictions on transactions with entities on a “Cuba Restricted List” that are controlled by the Cuban military, intelligence, or security services. Administration officials assert that human rights issues will remain at the center of U.S. policy towardCuba. In the aftermath of the Cuban government’s harsh response to government-wide protests in July 2021, the Administration imposed several rounds of targeted financial sanctions and visa restrictions on Cuban officials found to be responsible for the repression. 

Although the embargo has been in place for 70 years, it is very controversial there are continued debates about its desirability.


*The people of Cuba suffer economically because the embargo limits the development of their economy and prevents US citizens from sending remittances to relatives

*The cuban embargo harms the US economy by restricting trade

*We deal with much more ruthless countries – like China and Saudi Arabia

*It increases engagement between the two countries which can lead to reform

*The embargo  are really just a failed attempt at regime change in Cuba

* For 70 years the embargo has failed to meet its goals
*International opposition to the embargo

UN Voters overwhelmingly to end the embargo

The Embargo and sanctions on Cuba are not like successful sanctions

US embargo has failed

The embargo on Cuba is like a hurricane that never ends October 2022

The Cuban embargo costs the US much more than it does Cuba.

Understanding the failure of the US embargo on Cuba 

UN General Assembly calls for an end to the Embargo on Cuba

Its time for the embargo to end


*The embargo creates pressure for the Cuban government to change

*Cuba is a repressive regime that violates human rights

*The US will look weak if we lift the sanctions on cuba

*Cuban Americans support the embargo

*The embargo should remain Cuba has been proven to be involved with terrorism

The Cuban government uses arbitrary detention, violates human rights and suppresses freedom of expression

Human Rights Watch report on Cuba

The human rights violations have worsened since 2021

Additional Pro/Con from Previous Topics


Cuba economy. It is easy to find evidence that the Cuban economy is in trouble and that lifting the embargo will improve the economy.  Lifting the embargo would provide essential goods the Cuban people need, allow them to export products, and to collaborate with US companies to improve their own operations. US companies would likely substantially invest in Cuba and banks would be more willing to provide capital. This economic growth would likely reduce poverty and could prevent instability.
In particular, investments could occur in agriculture, biotechnology, education, and health care, leading to general economic growth but also saving lives directly.

Moral criticisms of the embargo.  Although they are somewhat tied to the last advantage, teams can independently argue that the embargo is immoral because it deprives the Cuban people of essential medicines and foods, it is genocidal because it condemns them to poverty, that it is a violation of human rights because of this denial, and that it is grounded in racism and imperialism.  I think these are strong advantage areas, at least if tied into the practical side of the first advantage, because they provide a strong refutation to the negotiation Con strategy. We certainly should not use human rights violations and genocide as negotiating tactics.

US economy. Lifting the embargo means that US companies can export more products to Cuba and develop more business there. It is easy to find evidence that this will produce more jobs for Americans in all sectors, including agriculture, biotechnology, and tourism. While this advantage will be persuasive to some judges, the strategic weakness is that US market access to Cuba may be best accomplished through negotiations.

US benefits. Beyond the economic benefits of engagement to US businesses, there is good evidence that the US health care sector will benefit because Cuba has valuable drugs and other medical technologies that have not been developed in the United States. Although it is not a strong, there is similar evidence about educational applications and environmental technologies.

US foreign relations.  The embargo on Cuba is opposed by (I think) every country in the world.  There is good evidence that the embargo undermines US soft power and that it generally undermines relations with Latin America. At has also hurt our relations with Canada. These advantage areas are strategic because increases in things like soft power can solve other impacts that Con teams may read, but I’m not sure how strategic they are vis-a-vis a negotiated removal of the embargo.

International law/sovereignty. The Helms-Burton law/Libertard Act arguably violates international law because it sanctions companies from other countries that do business in Cuba.  It arguably violates the sovereignty of Cuba because it attempts to manipulate the affairs of another country.
Terrorism. There are a few reasons the embargo increases the risk of terrorism.  One, economic decline in Cuba could increase terrorism risks. Two, a lot of time and resources are spent enforcing the embargo that could be better directed to fight the war on terror.

Oil spills/environmental cooperation.  There is good evidence that in the status quo there is an increased risk of oil spills in the Carribbean because Cuba and its oil drilling partners (Russia and Spain) lack modern drilling technology and safety regulations. An argument can be made that cooperative drilling with the US would make such drilling safer, reducing the risk of spills.  There is also general evidence that cooperating with Cuba will lead to improvements in environmental protection.

Ethanol.  There is good evidence that ethanol that is produced with sugarcane instead of corn is better because corn ethanol competes with a food source, driving up food prices. Corn ethanol also takes more land to produce, threatening the environment. Since Cuba produces ethanol with sugarcane, this could result in less demand for corn ethanol, lowering food prices and protecting the environment.

China/Russia influence. Both China and Russia are strengthening their ties with Cuba. Lifting the embargo could therefore reduce their influence in Cuba and the region generally. I think it will be difficult to establish a significant, persuasive impact to this, but it is nonetheless an area for Pro advantages.
As you can see, there are many problems with the embargo, giving you a choice of many advantages to choose from. We have included all of these with our initial release and we will be updating them throughout the month.  When choosing your advantages, please keep in mind the considerations I discussed above.

The Con

There are far fewer offensive arguments that the Con can make, but I will discuss them all and highlight some strategic options.

Political liberalization/Democracy.  The purpose of the embargo is to push Cuba toward political liberalization and democracy. You can argue that simply lifting it will undermine that goal and read both general and Cuba specific democracy impacts.

Human rights/political prisoners.   Another purpose of the embargo is to push Cuba to protect human rights, especially not to take political prisoners. If the US simply lifts the embargo, Cuba may take more political prisoners and/or not release the ones they have taken.

While human rights and democracy are the primary rationales for continuing the embargo, I have never seen a piece of evidence that says the embargo actually works to accomplish either of these ends, and we’ve obviously had a long time to see any evidence of this.

As it is, the embargo has become more of a symbolic commitment against Cuba because it is not democratic and doesn’t respect human rights.  There is certainly some evidence that defends this approach (“Shunning”), but from a practical perspective it is hard to win in debates.

Negotiations. I previously discussed the negotiations argument, but the basic idea is to more slowly negotiate a draw-down of the embargo through a tit for tat negotiation that would include items such as the protection of human rights, political liberalization, and potentially market/export access to Cuba.  Since this is what will likely transpire in the status quo, the Con doesn’t have to defend this as a counterplan and the argument dovetails well with the human rights and democracy arguments just discussed.
The focus of these previous arguments was on using the embargo to gain leverage over Cuba to achieve some end the US desires. There are also a couple categories of arguments as to why it is bad to lift the embargo.

Capitalism. The capitalism/neoliberalism bad critique is common in Policy and Lincoln-Douglas debate and lifting the embargo would likely promote such an economy in Cuba.  Con teams can argue that is bad.

Environmental harms. There are many reasons that lifting the embargo could hurt the environment –
(a) Tourist disruption of sensitive environmental areas
(b) Increased oil drilling
(c) Industry development without accompanying environmental regulations
(d) A shift away from sustainable agriculture
(e) Greater sugarcane production
(f) Generally increased consumption

Solvency arguments. Pro advantages that depend on Cuba reacting to the US lift by supporting US business investment can be refuted with arguments that even if the US lifts the embargo that Cuba won’t reform its economy in a way that permits investment.  For example, companies won’t invest in Cuba if Cuba doesn’t respect private property. Cuba also is currently using two currencies, which makes it difficult to trade. And Cuba requires that all business investment is in the form of joint ventures.  These are just a few examples of barriers to investment by foreign companies.

These solvency arguments can also complement the negotiations alternative that argues that the US will need to do things like get Cuba to at least agree to these economic reforms in exchange for lifting the embargo.  Con teams can argue it will be otherwise difficult for the Pro to solve their advantages.