How Do We Know the US’ Cuba Policy Failed?

By Kindred Winecoff

Dan Drezner has a good post on the US-Cuba détente and how it is consistent with Obama’s foreign policy pattern of seeking to alter undesirable status quo situations. I agree with all of it but the ending:

…it’s hard to deny that America’s Cuba policy had failed.

It’s worth asking what objective motivated America’s Cuba policy before concluding that it failed. Several possibilities:

1. Limiting the expansion of global communism into the Western Hemisphere (c. 1960-1990).

It’s easy to forget that this actually was a thing once upon a time. Castro’s early Cuban government was not only brutal on the island but also actively sought to export revolution elsewhere, and provided material support to rebels pursuing that end. Castro encouraged Khrushchev to deploy nuclear weapons during the Missile Crisis and, at least for a time, sought those weapons for himself. The embargo did limit Castro’s material influence during the Cold War, and thereby cut off one of the main potential routes of activity for the USSR in the West. It meant that Castro would no longer be able to credibly promise to assist those seeking to overthrow US-friendly governments. And, among other things, this ensured that on the occasions where the Cold War hotted up it would not be near the US’s territory.

2. Limiting the influence of left populists in the Western Hemisphere (c. 1990-2010).

The post-Cold War era was greeted triumphantly in many parts of the West, but not so much in Latin America. The devastating effects of the debt crises of the 1980s and 1990s, along with IMF-mandated structural reforms, reinforced anti-American sentiment in the region. There remained a pervasive idea that Latin America was stuck in a dependent relationship with the US that would forever forestall development. Faced with this and rapid development elsewhere in the world, new leaders like Chavez, Morales, and Correa looked to the Cuban regime as a model of resistance and pushed for solidarity in opposition to the US-led international order. Discrediting this idea — using both carrots and sticks — has been a key objective of the US in the years since, and as regional alternatives to the US stagnate or collapse that goal looks closer to being achieved than it possibly ever has.

3. Winning elections in Florida (c. 1990-present).

Who says the embargo was about primarily about foreign policy objectives in the recent past? Successive presidential elections more or less came down to several thousand votes in Florida (or were expected to do so), and until quite recently the Cuban expat community has vociferously opposed normalization with Castro’s regime. There’s a pretty simple electoral math here: keep the anti-Castro Cuban-Americans happy, or you could lose to the person who does.  

4. The end of the Castro regime.

Was this a true foreign policy goal of the US after the Kennedy Administration? Maybe they would have liked to see it happen, but Castro was very much contained and the US foreign policy apparatus has traditionally been comfortable containing regimes it doesn’t like. There doesn’t seem to be much evidence that the US was pursuing regime change per se at any point since the 1960s, and it certainly isn’t doing so today. Regime change is risky, and the US has had no compunction about isolating, but otherwise tolerating, distasteful governments.

So did the US’ Cuba policy fail? The answer depends on what is meant by the question, but it seems to have achieved much of what it wanted to achieve at very little cost. I’d call that a limited win or, at the very worst, a slightly aggravating stalemate. Given that it had achieved limited success, and that the course of history rendered other objectives moot, the Obama administration was quite right to change the policy. But that does not constitute an admission of failure.


5 thoughts on “How Do We Know the US’ Cuba Policy Failed?”

  1. I concur with many of the points you listed here. The verdict on the efficacy of the US policy is largely based on the question you seek to answer. Likewise, the first thing people in the present must do when seeking to evaluate policies formulated in the past is understand the social conditions, political climate, and other factors unique to that time. This can be incredibly hard to do, but it is an important part of historical scholarship and provides us with the “lenses” we need to better view these events.


  2. In the spirit of spitballing a devils advocacy, I’m going to say I’m not sure the failed/succeeded dichotomy is necessarily the way to look at it. Certainly it served a purpose (as you lay out) at various times during its implementation, but (as you also hint at) if there *were* gains then they were probably minimal. (and the costs arent really examined)
    So what’s the ‘no embargo’ counterfactual ? Does the Cuban Revolution spread, or at least is Castro more interventionist than he was, without the embargo ? What effect does a more friendly relationship between the US and Castro have on post 80s left populism in Latin America ? With no embargo is there even a Cuban vote to placate ? (obviously the political capital to be gained by being tough on the sanctions doesnt exist in this scenario,as perhaps doesn’t the Cuba lobby in general – which can only be a good thing)
    So I buy the history you’ve laid out, which helps explain the context that led to the policy, but I don’t see how there are any answers to the specific question of whether it succeeded or failed, because there were so many alternative paths, unnoticed side effects (good and bad) and ambiguity around what they hoped to achieve from the embargo* that the question itself is really unanswerable in a meaningful way.

    Having said all that, I think I’d read Drezner as making a more general point that US policy towards Cuba (rather than this specific policy) has ‘failed.’ And I think that seems largely correct. US policy towards Cuba for the past 50 years plus seems heavy handed, reactive and working(at least rhetorically) from an insanely inflated threat level (which isnt a criticism, that’s pretty much built into policy choices in these kinds of situations afaict)
    In that case I’d be happy to say that with the benefit of hindsight, and from a liberal perspective and all that implies preference wise, that although I can see the steps that led to US/Cuban relations taking the turn they did, and understand the political benefits built into the policy over the years, that as a whole US policy towards Cuba has been a failure. Or at least that the benefits were negligible.

    * My own impression – which is probably wrong – is that it developed in retaliation for the nationalisations of US industry in Cuba, and ‘containing/overthrowing Castro’ was a post hoc rationalisation for the policy.


  3. Hi RF, sorry for the slow response.

    The “failed/succeeded dichotomy” is inevitable when we discuss policy. That doesn’t mean we have to be truly binary about it: policies can achieve some of their objectives and still fail (Iraq War?) or fail to achieve some things and still be successful.

    The Cuban embargo was part of a suite of Cold War policies which were, broadly speaking, quite successful in their biggest aim: stopping the spread of global communism. It is quite clear that Castro and those in his regime (notably but not only Che) viewed their revolution in international terms and had international aims. Those goals have so far been thwarted, even accepting that Chavez and others tried to incorporate elements of the Cuban revolution into Bolivarianism. So I believe that the US was successful in its single biggest goal, and the Cuba policy was part of that.

    Now of course the Cuban situation is unique insofar as there has been a large and politically active group in the US dedicated to punishing the Cuban regime for distinctly local reasons. This is not true of, say, Vietnam, and this can probably explain why sanctions against Vietnam ended as part of the post-Cold War euphoria of the early-1990s but did not for Cuba. But since the Bay of Pigs calamity, US policy has not been tailored to the Cuban expat group’s goal of regime change (even if US leaders occasionally mention that outcome as desirable). Nor has it been a blockade. For many years the US has been Cuba’s biggest supplier of food, for example.

    All of this cost the US very little. So how do we judge a policy with few costs that appears to have facilitated several significant domestic and international goals? Doesn’t sound like a failure to me. Heavy-handed? Maybe. Reactive? Sure, insofar as the US didn’t oppose Castro until he declared his opposition to the US (the embargo followed from the missile crisis, not the other way around). But it’s not clear what other policy options would have yielded better results under the circumstances.


    1. Yeah, fair points. I probably overmade my case a bit(which can be chalked down to commenting after returning from the pub + recently reading, and not fully understanding, a book on causation and counterfactuals. A deadly mix!)
      Interesting post though, as always.


  4. an additional benefit of the u.s. embargo against cuba comes from my two years in the u.s. treasury dept. long ago. since the embargo kept u.s. banks from loaning money to a deadbeat cuba, we were happy then to just stand back and watch international debt restructuring talks from the sidelines as the euros, canada and japan tried to get cuba to pay up. now obama has bought us a seat at that sorry and stupid table.


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