Lifting the 60 Year Embargo: Cuba’s Successes Make the Country a Model, Not an Enemy

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In 1962, President John F. Kennedy announced an embargo on all trade with Cuba. This proclamation followed an organized effort by the United States to isolate the country from any communist influence. [1] The United States had positioned Cuba as a security threat and moral antagonist and introduced the embargo as a means of confronting it. Now, 60 years later, the embargo remains one of the most persistent economic sanctions in the history of the United States. It has left the people of both countries to question what threat Cuba really poses, and if the United States’ record can truly serve as an example of democracy, and human rights, for other countries to follow.

American rhetoric against Cuba since 1962 sheds light on why the embargo persisted for so long. Kennedy’s proclamation was followed by President Ronald Reagan’s tightening of the embargo’s restrictions on Cuban immigration and the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act, which aimed to push political reform within the country. [2] The Helms-Burton Act, which punished foreign countries that conducted international trade with Cuba, followed shortly after in 1996. [3] Each of these measures was explicitly designed to push for democratic reforms in Cuba and ensure the United States served as an example of what a possible democratic future should look like. [4] 

In recent years, the United States has continued to justify the embargo through appeals to human rights. In a 2021 statement by the U.S. Department of State, Secretary Blinken expressed “The United States has imposed additional sanctions on Cuban military and security leaders in response to the Cuban regime’s continued violent suppression of freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly…We stand in solidarity with every brave Cuban in their call for human rights and fundamental freedoms.” [5] After 185 countries at the United Nations 2022 General Assembly voted in favor of a resolution calling for an end to the United States embargo on Cuba, the United States defended its vote against the resolution by claiming the Cuban government engaged in repression. [6] This rejection of such a resolution by the United States came only two years after the United States Embassy in Georgia criticized the prospect of Cuba joining the United Nations Human Rights Council. The embassy released a statement in 2020 claiming Cuba held a “dismal record on human rights” and engaged in the repression of LGBT, Afro-descendant, and human rights activists. [7] 

The United States’ long-standing insistence that Cuba has engaged in repression and failed to protect human rights, however, is hypocritical in light of women’s and LGBTQ rights in both countries. On September 25th, 2022, Cuba enacted a new family code in the Cuban constitution that is largely recognized as one of the most progressive in the world. [8] The new family code solidifies rights for LGBTQ couples to marry and adopt, expands rights for grandparents, promotes equality between women and men in the home, and includes measures against gender-based violence. [9] Mariela Castro Espin, Director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education and niece of Fidel Castro, praised these new changes as “revolutionary.” [10] The passage of the family code, which 66.9% of voters participating in the election voted in favor of, followed 15 years after Cuba’s minister of public health signed Resolution 126, securing full coverage of gender-affirming care for all trans people. [11] It also followed 60 years after the island legalized abortion, fully covering abortion under its national healthcare system today. [12]

The Cuban election responsible for one of the most progressive family codes in the world was held only months after the United States overturned Roe v. Wade, effectively removing the precedent for abortion rights. [13] Trans people in America were also met with hundreds of pieces of legislation targeting their healthcare, educational, and public accommodation rights during the same year, and the year after to follow. [14] As people all over Cuba overwhelmingly voted in favor of new constitutional protections for women and LGBTQ people, American citizens began rallying against a state that rolled back these very protections. [15] This contrast between the policy efforts of the two countries is absent in the United States’ continuous justification for the embargo against Cuba. President Biden, like officials before him, continues to insist the embargo is solely a defense of human rights and freedom for the Cuban people. [16] 

According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, protections for LGBTQ people and full reproductive autonomy to women are indicative of a country’s commitment to human rights. [17] It is clear that, even while facing consequences from U.S. economic punishments, Cuba has successfully met these expectations. U.S. arguments for upholding such economic punishments can no longer be credible.

As the people of the United States grapple with growing threats to abortion access and LGBTQ rights, Cuba’s successful defense of these rights serves as an example for the United States to follow. It is time for the United States to lift the 60-year blockade against Cuba and begin allowing the island to serve as an example. Not as an enemy.


[1] Kennedy, John. “Proclamation 3447—Embargo on All Trade with Cuba | the American Presidency Project.”, February 3, 1962.

[2] Wong, Kam. “The Cuban Democracy Act of 1992: The Extraterritorial Scope of Section 1706(A).” University of Pennsylvania Journal of International Business Law 14, no. 4 (1994).; Reagan, Ronald. “Proclamation 5517 — Suspension of Cuban Immigration.” Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum, August 22, 1986.

[3] Hoffmann, Bert. “The Helms-Burton Law and Its Consequences for Cuba, the United States and Europe,” 1998.

[4] Solis, Anthony. “The Long Arm of U.S. Law: The Helms-Burton Act.” Loyola of Los Angeles International Loyola of Los Angeles International and Comparative Law Review 19, no. 3 (1997): 709–10.

[5] Blinken, Anthony J. “Sanctioning Cuban Officials in Response to Violence against Peaceful Protestors.” United States Department of State, August 19, 2021.

[6] “Adopting Annual Resolution, Delegates in General Assembly Urge Immediate Repeal of Embargo on Cuba, Especially amid Mounting Global Food, Fuel Crises,” November 3, 2022.; Kelley, John. “Explanation of Vote after the Vote on a UN General Assembly Resolution on the Cuba Embargo.” United States Mission to the United Nations, November 3, 2022.

[7] U.S. EMBASSY TBILISI. “Cuba’s ‘Outrageous’ Bid to Join the U.N. Human Rights Council.” U.S. Embassy in Georgia, September 1, 2020.

[8] Waller, Buchanan. “Cuba’s 2022 Family Code: A Different Model for Social Progress.” Minnesota Journal of Law & Inequality, n.d.

[9] “Cuba Overwhelmingly Approves Same-Sex Marriage in Referendum,” September 26, 2022.

[10] Frank, Marc. “Cubans Split over More Liberal Family Code as Referendum Nears.” Reuters, March 30, 2022, sec. Americas.; Kirk, Emily J., and Robert Huish. “Transsexuals’ Right to Health? A Cuban Case Study.” Health and Human Rights 20, no. 2 (December 1, 2018): 215–22.

[11] Frank, Marc. “Cubans Approve Gay Marriage by Large Margin in Referendum.” Reuters, September 27, 2022, sec. Americas.

[12] Mineo, Liz. “Lesson from Latin America for U.S. Abortion Rights Movement.” Harvard Gazette (blog). Harvard Gazette, October 26, 2022.; Grossman, Daniel, Kate Grindlay, and Bridgit Burns. “Public Funding for Abortion Where Broadly Legal.” Contraception, 2016, 453–60.

[13] General Customs of the Republic of Cuba. “Díaz-Canel Highlights Affective and Ethical Value of the Family Code,” September 6, 2022.; SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES. “Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization,” June 24, 2022.

[14] Redfield, Elana, Kerith J. Conron, Will Tentindo, and Erica Browning. “Prohibiting Gender-Affirming Medical Care for Youth.” Williams Institute, March 2023.; Astor, Maggie. “G.O.P. State Lawmakers Push a Growing Wave of Anti-Transgender Bills.” The New York Times, January 25, 2023, sec. U.S.; Thurston, Andrew. “How Will Anti-Trans Laws Impact Transgender and Gender-Diverse Youth Mental Health?” The Brink. Boston University, March 24, 2023.

[15] Reilly, Katie. “Emotional Scenes around the U.S. After Supreme Court Ends Roe v. Wade.” Time, June 24, 2022.

[16] Biden, Joe. “Statement from President Biden on Political Prisoners in Cuba.” The White House, December 9, 2022.

[17] Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. “Recognition of the Rights of LGBTI Persons,” December 7, 2018.; IACHR. “IACHR Urges All States to Adopt Comprehensive, Immediate Measures to Respect and Protect Women’s Sexual and Reproductive Rights.”, October 23, 2017.