Exchanges and Embargoes: What’s the deal with Cuba?

Cuba: Bigger and closer than most Americans realize…

Last week, the White House announced plans to ease US-Cuban relations, with more flights, looser restrictions for U.S. travelers, and a lifting of limits on the amount of money people can send from the U.S. to Cuba. This isn’t surprising–like many Biden policies, the move is a continuation of Obama-Biden era policies and a reversal of Trump-era policies. Obama lifted some of the decades-old embargo restrictions in 2014, then Trump reinstated them in 2017. Is Cuba just a pawn in this partisan game, or are there bigger issues going on?

Cuba is not a strictly partisan issue. Cuban-Americans on both sides of the aisle are critical of efforts to normalise relations with Cuba. Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, both Cuban-Americans, signed onto a joint statement with other Republicans condemning what they called Biden’s “appeasement” and “rewarding” the Cuban government. Cuban-American New Jersey Democratic Senator Robert Menendez serves as the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and he reacted to the announcement this week, saying, “I am dismayed to learn the Biden administration will begin authorizing group travel to Cuba through visits akin to tourism…To be clear, those who still believe that increasing travel will breed democracy in Cuba are simply in a state of denial.”

This is a brilliant contemporary example of the debates that have been taking place for the past 60+ years over the ideas that underpin exchange diplomacy. Does it work? Does intercultural interpersonal contact win hearts and change minds? Did the “Cuban Thaw” have any measurable impact?

One interesting angle is the idea that opening up US-Cuban tourism might encourage democracy in Cuba. Looking at Cuba’s tourism statistics over the past couple of decades, there’s been a significant rise in international tourism, but no corresponding political shift.

Source: World Bank

Pre-pandemic, Cuba was receiving over 4 million international tourists each year from 2016-2019. The Obama-era easing of restrictions in 2014 boosted tourism from 3 to 3.5 million tourists between 2014 and 2015, but the 2017 reversal by the Trump administration doesn’t seem to have reduced numbers. So, why aren’t these policy shifts more evident in the data? Because the figures are not just American travelers–Cuba is a tourist destination for millions of people around the world. I never realized this until living in England, but it’s a thing–there are deals for flights to Havana in travel agency windows all over the UK, right alongside Jamaica or the Bahamas. Over a million Canadians visited Cuba each year from 2015-2019!

The fact that so many people from democratic, capitalist countries like the UK and Canada visit Cuba does somewhat undermine the suggestion that intergroup contact can bring political changes. There’s a tendency (a relic of the Cold War) for Americans to think of Cuba and the Cuban people as being isolated and to assert that the communist regime would surely lose its hold on power, if only the people could be exposed to the ideas of democracy and capitalism.

This Cold War mindset ignores 2 things–1) Cuba is already open to most of the rest of the world, and 2) the Internet. Thanks to the Internet, state control of information just isn’t as powerful as it used to be. We’re seeing some interesting stories about Russia’s state media and the war in Ukraine, for example, but many Russians do know the reality of what’s going on. They’re protesting in the streets, or even choosing to leave Russia altogether. In China, too, where state control over media is quite strong, people know how to get around the Great Firewall, and how to talk about taboo subjects on WeChat and Weibo using codes and memes.

Overall, I do hope that Cuba can have a friendlier relationship with the US, if only for the benefit of the families that are divided between the two countries and the Cuban-Americans who would love to be able to visit. It seems crazy that a million Canadians a year go to Cuba, and yet the Cuban-Americans living in the Little Havana neighbourhood of Miami can’t travel the short distance to real Havana!

2 thoughts on “Exchanges and Embargoes: What’s the deal with Cuba?

  1. Justin Collier

    Dear Professor Bettie,

    My name is Justin Collier and I am a Political Science and International Relations grad student here at the University of Delaware. I recently read an article of yours on exchange diplomacy (2019) and I wonder if you have time for a Zoom chat. If this isn’t possible, I am more than happy to email them to you- but I figured it may be easier to have a chat instead. If this is possible, kindly provide the best day and time for you and I will try to accommodate your schedule. Thank you for your time.

    Best regards,

    Justin Collier


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