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On December 17, 2014 President Obama announced new changes to the diplomatic and economic relationship between the U.S. and Cuba. These initial changes represented the first step in normalizing relations between the two countries since President Eisenhower initiated the first trade embargo on Cuba over fifty-six years ago.

Diplomatic relations further expanded on March 15, 2016 when even more restrictions were lifted ahead of President Obama’s visit to Cuba. The new policy allows U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba, expands Cubans’ access to U.S. financial institutions, and authorizes increased U.S. business presence in Cuba. The objective of this drastic shift in U.S. foreign policy towards Cuba was to empower the Cuban people and encourage the Cuban government under current president, Raúl Castro, to respond with political and economic reforms. Despite this progress, the official trade embargo still endures and requires an act of Congress for removal. Many in Congress remain outspoken against any reduction of sanctions. However, a shift away from isolationism may prove the most effective pursuit towards the improvement of human rights in Cuba.

The beginning of strained relations between the U.S. and Cuba dates back to the late 1950s and early 1960s after Fidel Castro overthrew a U.S.-backed regime and formed a socialist state aligned with the Soviet Union. Upon rising to power, Castro nationalized private land and companies, increased taxes on U.S. imports, and expanded trade with the Soviet Union. The United States responded with economic sanctions, which transformed into a full trade embargo under President Kennedy. Diplomatic relations further soured in 1961 following the Bay of Pigs invasion, a failed CIA-supported attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro. Only a year later, the Cuban Missile Crisis ushered in the height of the Cold War, resulting in distrust, animosity, and the severing of all ties.

Despite reducing illiteracy, improving health care, and increasing access to education and housing, Fidel Castro’s regime committed numerous human rights violations. Castro jailed many political opponents and dissenters and repressed freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. Today many of these violations continue under his brother and current Cuban president, Raúl Castro. Government dissenters, independent journalists, and human rights defenders are subject to arbitrary detention and short-term imprisonment. Government critics often face criminal prosecution. The Cuban government maintains strict control over media and access to information, greatly limiting public discourse. . These rights are preserved in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Articles 19, 21, and 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.  In conflict with the conventions of the International Labour Organization, Cuba has only one state-controlled workers’ union and the principles of freedom of association, collective bargaining, protection of wage, and the prohibition of forced labor are often ignored.  Despite holding a regional position on the UN Human Rights Council, Cuba frequently violates agreements and understandings in international law. As U.S. sanctions began to lift, the Cuban government has demonstrated some willingness to reform, releasing fifty-three political prisoners and agreeing to allow entry to international human rights organizations.

In light of Cuba’s history of human rights abuses, many in Congress and the U.S. government, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and President Trump, are vocal supporters of the trade embargo.  They believe that not enough concessions are being made by Cuba to warrant the restoration and normalization of diplomatic relations, citing concern for human rights violations and freedom for Cubans. These arguments are inconsistent as the United States sustains a number of diplomatic relationships with countries with enduring human rights abuses. Additionally, the trade embargo has failed in its role as a mechanism for economic and humanitarian reform. Rather it has created friction between the U.S. and the international community. The United Nations General Assembly has adopted a resolution twenty-three years in a row condemning the U.S. embargo and calling for its repeal. The General Assembly identifies the sanctions imposed by the U.S. as a blockade, which violates state obligations under the UN Charter and international law. A number of human rights organizations and policy centers have postulated that a positive relationship between the U.S. and Cuba could be the catalyst for human rights improvements in the country rather than its exacerbation.

The Cuban government, under President Raúl Castro, has allowed for more open debate and the freer exchange of information. Removal of the embargo would improve the livelihood of Cubans who continue to endure hardship under a struggling economy. A diplomatic relationship also has the potential to increase the monitoring of human rights in Cuba putting pressure on the government to address key issues. An increase in travel and social interaction between the U.S. and Cuba will naturally expand dialogue. While the road to political and social reform in Cuba is still long, a removal of the trade embargo has the potential to greatly impact the livelihood of Cubans for the better.