This an updated version of a post that originally ran March 30, 2016, edited to reflect the impact of the death of Fidel Castro on November 25, 2016.
Following the death of Fidel Castro, president-elect Donald Trump promised in a tweet to abrogate the existing rapprochement between the United States and Cuba if “Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people.” Like many of Trump’s policies, exactly what he means by a better deal is not yet apparent.
Any attempt to reverse the normalization of U.S.-Cuban relations would likely face significant opposition from Democrats as well as many Republicans in Congress, who see the next steps of lifting the sanctions and increasing commercial ties with Cuba as the best way to compel the Cuban government to democratize.
While keeping the sanctions in place is unlikely to democratize Cuba, neither, however, is lifting them.
Why didn’t the embargo succeed?
From the outset, the United States intended the embargo to create economic conditions so dire that Cubans would rise up and overthrow the government, holding it responsible for the embargo. This logic is not without reason. Economic crises are commonly associated with democracy protests. Pressures from below are significantly associated with democratization, and also with developing more robust democratic institutions and practices.
Yet, after 1965, Cubans stopped rising up en masse against their government. Even during the worst economic years — the early 1990s, when the economy shrank by almost 40 percent — the country remained mostly stable.
U.S. sanctions haven’t spurred regime change in Cuba for a number of reasons.
Some of those reasons have to do with the embargo itself. Embargoes are more likely to work if they are multilateral, if the targeted nation is desperate for trade, and if the domestic opposition in the targeted nation is organizationally strong. None of these has been true in Cuba.
Because it was the wrong kind of embargo
First, the embargo has been unilateral. The embargo has been rejected by almost all nations, including close U.S. allies like Canada, Mexico, and the United Kingdom. The embargo has also been porous. Despite the embargo, commerce with the U.S. has expanded, and goods are commonly shipped to and from the U.S. through other countries.
Second, Cuba itself has never been interested in opening its doors to U.S. businesses, despite what Cuban officials claim. During the Cold War, Cuba was comfortable trading with the Soviet bloc — it was, after all, subsidized trade. Since then, Cuba has profited from the embargo. The government doesn’t have to make concessions to U.S. businesses, and more important, the embargo gives Cuba leverage when dealing with other foreign investors: The government can offer other nations a business environment free of U.S. businesses.
And Cuba had the wrong kind of regime
The embargo hasn’t worked also because of the nature of the Cuban regime. After the Cold War, the government re-branded itself as a nationalist (rather than communist) experiment. This rebranding allowed the government to use U.S. sanctions as justification for repressing its opposition.
So when Donald Trump threatens to reverse normalization, he may inadvertently give the Cuban government a way to continue to profit from the embargo and, more generally, from heightened conflict with the United States. By threatening Cuba, Trump might be offering Cuba’s conservatives the excuse they want to return to darker times. Economic isolation does not help the Cuban people, but it helps hardline communists justify totalitarian control over politics.
One could argue that Cuba finally agreed to normalize relations with the United States because of economic pressure. But that says nothing about whether lifting the embargo will democratize Cuba.
Obama’s argument for ending the embargo
By the Obama administration’s logic, ending the embargo on Cuba could lead to democratization in several ways. First, lifting the sanctions could raise living standards, allowing Cubans to become less concerned with subsistence, and more concerned with democratic values of autonomy and self-expression.
Second, increased trade and investment could reduce inequality on the island, which has grown since the end of the Soviet Union, and make the country’s economic elite less fearful of the distributive consequences of allowing the masses a say in the government.
Third, lifting the sanctions could increase Cuba’s Internet access. Currently, only about 5 percent of Cubans can use the Internet. More Internet access would make it more difficult for the government to quash criticism, and easier for the opposition to organize.
We’re skeptical that lifting the embargo will bring about instant change
But lifting the embargo will do little to end what some have described as Cuba’s “second embargo” — onerous Cuban regulations blocking initiative and entrepreneurship.
Cuba’s government allows citizens to work for themselves in only 201 professions, most with low skills. Labor continues to be shackled with restrictions: for instance, workers don’t get to decide whom they can work for, and if they are lucky enough (or communist enough) to be allowed to work for a foreign firm, they cannot get paid in foreign currency.
Cuba’s second embargo also applies to foreign direct investment (FDI). Joint ventures in Cuba, despite enjoying monopolistic environments, still confront onerous regulations: high taxes, opaque and arbitrary rule enforcement, no control over labor contracts, no protection of property rights. Consequently, FDI to Cuba “has fallen short” of its potential.
Cuba’s second embargo is especially strict when it comes to information. While Cubans can own smartphones and computers, and buy Internet access, information in Cuba remains significantly “bootstrapped.” Access is too expensive (1 Cuban convertible peso per megabyte, in a country where the average salary is 25-30 pesos per month). Choice is too limited (Facebook is allowed but Skype, YouTube, and WhatsApp are not). Cuban online surveillance is not that sophisticated, but it is strong enough to deter most Cubans from using their devices for political ends. Just because more U.S. firms deliver more Internet does not mean that Cubans will engage in more political online surfing.
Will there be a “Cuban spring”?
Lifting the embargo is unlikely to spark massive protests like those seen in the Middle East and North Africa five years ago. It won’t change the economy much, and it won’t necessarily change the most important factors blocking protest in Cuba: state repression, social vigilantism, and exit.
No research shows that trade softens repressive regimes, unless treaties stipulate that ongoing trade depends on human rights practices and unless trade is rescinded when governments do not meet promised human rights standards.
There’s another reason the Cuban regime survives: its citizens collaborate in keeping the government alive. Every street in Cuba has a Committee for the Defense of the Revolution. Cubans still spy on each other because the incentives are attractive. Either the government rewards volunteers for reporting anything suspicious, or volunteers can bribe neighbors who are caught doing something illicit. Either way, vigilantism and repression win.
Finally, there is the exit option. Leaving Cuba is neither easy nor inexpensive, but it is not impossible. Those who are truly discontent spend more energy figuring out how to leave the island than how to overthrow the system.
Lifting the embargo is also unlikely to change the position of the military. Research on the Arab Spring shows that when the military sides with protesters, regimes can change. But in Cuba, the military remains fully aligned with the government. That’s partly because the military is perhaps the only sector that has been exempted from Cuba’s second embargo. The military can engage in a number of economic activities, including deals with foreigners. As the most important winner from the status quo, the military is therefore its most ardent defender.
So what happens next?
Democratization, if it comes, will probably come from domestic demands and potentially from protests from below – but not from the U.S. lifting its embargo. The embargo has had little effect on either hardening or softening the Cuban regime. Lifting it will have just as little influence.
And this is perhaps the best argument for lifting the embargo: in the end, it is too costly for both U.S. businesses and ordinary Cubans — while being mostly inconsequential for democracy.
Dawn Brancati is a Visiting Scholar at the Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University. She is the author of Democracy Protests: Origins, Features and Significance (Cambridge University Press, 2016).
Javier Corrales (@jcorrales2011) is Dwight W. Morrow 1895 Professor of Political Science at Amherst College, Amherst, Massachusetts. He is the co-author of Dragon in the Tropics: The Legacy of Hugo Chávez (Brookings, 2nd edition, 2015).