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A useless embargo

The U.S. has imposed economic sanctions on Cuba for 50 years to force change, without success.

October 29, 2008

Among New York's rites of autumn -- the marathon, the rainbow of leaves in Central Park, the sudden profusion of wool overcoats -- a new one has emerged at the United Nations. In each of the last 16 years, the General Assembly has voted to condemn the United States for its embargo of Cuba. This year's ceremonial vote takes place today, and if it's anything like last year's, it will be overwhelming. Only Israel, the Marshall Islands and Palau stood with the U.S. in the 184-4 tally last October.

Washington doesn't and shouldn't design its laws around U.N. opinion, but it's instructive to learn what even this country's closest allies think of the Cuban embargo. Colombia, one of only a handful of Latin American countries whose government remains firmly pro-U.S., stated in a U.N. report on the issue that it "thinks this kind of action should stop and that member states should move ahead with building relations of friendship." In the same report, the European Union said that it and its member nations "have been clearly expressing their opposition to the extraterritorial extension of the United States embargo."

More astonishing than our willingness to raise the ire of nearly the entire world with our embargo is that it has survived this long in the face of overwhelming evidence of its failure. For 50 years, this country has been trying to produce regime change on the island by strangling it economically. Last we checked, a Castro was still in power, and even the economic devastation wrought by the two worst hurricanes in Cuba's history weren't spurring mass popular uprisings. U.S. sanctions worsen poverty and its attendant ills but only strengthen the Castro regime, which can blame all of the country's problems on Washington rather than addressing their true cause -- Havana's misguided economic policies.

The presidential election offers a rare opportunity for change. John McCain favors business as usual with Cuba, but Barack Obama believes that Cuban Americans should have unrestricted rights to travel to the island and send remittances. It is absurdly contradictory to allow Americans to travel freely to Iran and Venezuela, which are genuine security and economic threats, but not to Cuba, which poses no threat at all. U.S. ideals would be more influential if Cubans were more frequently exposed to them by American visitors; our interference with remittances, meanwhile, hurts only the poor.

Cuba is an anti-democratic country with little respect for human rights, and its leaders must be held to account. But targeted sanctions that punish the regime without punishing the people would be far more effective than the blunt instrument of an embargo. Obama's proposals don't go far enough, but they're a good start.

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