What Was the Purpose of the U.S.-Cuba Embargo?
Americans and Cubans both have been living for so long with the U.S. embargo that it’s hard to remember how it all got started.
After he studied law at the University of Havana, Fidel Castro traveled abroad to participate in attempted revolutions against right-wing governments in the Dominican Republic and Colombia. Learning from those experiences, he returned to Cuba with a plan to overthrow Cuban President Fulgencio Batista. He led a failed attack on the Moncada Barracks in 1953 and was imprisoned for a year. After his release from jail he traveled to Mexico where he formed a revolutionary group, the 26th of July Movement, along with his brother Raúl Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara. That group then returned to Cuba, beginning a guerrilla war against Batista's forces from the Sierra Maestra.
When Batista was overthrown on New Year’s Eve, 1958-1959, Castro to assumed military and political power on the island. Because the U.S. had backed Batista and because of the backdrop of the cold war, Castro revolutionary and nationalist rhetoric made him appear to U.S. leaders as an adversary and the U.S. opposed Castro’s revolutionary changes government. Although Castro was initially said that he was “not a socialist” the U.S. government announced their opposition to his regime. Realizing that he would need an ally if he were opposed by the U.S., Castro reached out to the Soviet Union and later declared the Cuban state to be a Marxist-Leninist republic under the control of the Cuban Communist Party.
The U.S. opposition to Castro’s regime was both hostile and robust. The U.S. actively aided Cuban exile groups seeking to overthrow or disrupt the Castro regime, most, mostly famously including the invasion at the Bay of Pigs by a CIA-backed exile group in 1961. By some estimates there have been more than six hundred attempts to overthrown or assassinate Castro with either active or tacit U.S. support.
Under the tutelage of the Soviet Union, Castro allowed the Soviets to begin installing nuclear-capable missiles on the island. After the U.S. discovered the effort through U-2 spy plane pictures taken in 1962, the U.S. under President Kennedy confronted the Soviets, imposed a naval blockade on the island, and eventually negotiated the removal of the missiles from Cuba in exchange for reciprocal disarmament efforts on the part of the U.S. in Turkey.
The U.S., however, never changed its stance of opposing the Castro regime and the Congressionally-imposed economic embargo has continued, with only a few exceptions, since 1962. At first, the embargo was an arm of U.S. policy, seeking to oppose and isolate the Castro regime and encourage “regime change” through domestic Cuban opposition and Cuban exile groups. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1989, however, the rationale shifted, as the U.S. could no longer point to Cuba as a proxy state of the Soviet Union. Since 1989, much of the rational for the embargo has been described in more vague or moral terms, with policy-makers insisting that the embargo remain until the Cuban government liberalizes its approach to civil rights and pluralism.
Politically, the embargo was embraced by Cuban exile groups, largely in South Florida and, because of the role of Florida as a battleground state for U.S. presidential politics, leaders in both the Democratic and Republican parties have often supported the continuation of the embargo in varying degrees. The death of Fidel Castro and the shifting preferences of second and third-generation Cuban-Americans away from the idea of retaking power in Cuba have undermined much of the original rationale for the embargo.