Cuban Thaw: Assessing the Normalization of U.S.-Cuban Relations Through the Lens of Applied History

By: Aaron Stagoff-Belfort

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In Graham Allison’s piece  “Assessing an Iran Deal: 5 Big Lessons From History,” he demonstrated the value of applying historical analysis to current policy issues by evaluating the Iran Deal in the context of previous nuclear arms deals. After studying Cold War-era SALT agreements and strategic arms deals with countries from Ukraine to Libya, he concluded that these agreements are largely effective in reducing the risk of nuclear proliferation and protecting American interests. In addition, Allison studied the breakdown of the U.S.-North Korea nuclear arms deal to understand how to avoid non-proliferation failures. Applying a similar historical lens to the U.S.’s history of embargoes and diplomatic normalization with countries in Southeast Asia such as Myanmar and Vietnam reveals the impact that ending the Cuban embargo may have on the country’s political and economic institutions. The development of democratic institutions and human rights standards in Vietnam has stalled, while Myanmar has pursued modest, but encouraging, reform. However, the history of the U.S.’s efforts at normalization in these cases demonstrates their significant economic, diplomatic, and strategic foreign policy advantages for both the U.S. and the partner nation. Because embargoes in Myanmar and Vietnam also failed to encourage democracy, the U.S. should reject the Cuban embargo to reap the benefits of normalization even if it does not necessarily achieve our most lofty political aims.  


Since 1958, the United States has enforced a commercial and economic embargo on Cuba, with the aim of weakening its Communist system and pressuring the Cuban government to achieve "democratization and greater respect for human rights.” From 2014 to 2017, the Obama and Castro administrations engaged in diplomatic negotiations to reverse nearly six decades of hostility between the two countries. Cuba has been removed from the U.S.’s State Sponsors of Terrorism list, foreign embassies in both countries have been reopened, and certain travel restrictions to Cuba have been lifted. To complete the process of normalization, the United States Congress would have to lift an embargo that has damaged the Cuban (and American) economy by prohibiting trade and other economic activity between the two nations (the embargo costs the U.S. $1.2 billion a year in lost sales and exports, and approximately $685 million annually for Cuba). While 63% of Americans approve of President Obama’s decision to renew diplomatic relations with Cuba, the move has come under fire from a bipartisan coterie of Congressional leaders, such as Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL). They believe that normalization will validate the human rights abuses of the Cuban regime, and prevent the development of a more democratic Cuba.  

Case Studies in Southeast Asia

To consider the impact of lifting the Cuban embargo, policy makers should consider the cases of two Southeast Asian countries, Myanmar and Vietnam. Like Cuba, both nations faced poverty, political isolation, and periods of autocratic or communist rule before U.S. normalization efforts. Another parallel is the asymmetrical relationship between the U.S. and these countries in terms of military power, economic resources, and established global diplomatic ties. All three countries possessed “strong security identities rooted in their Cold War-era opposition to the West.” In addition, regime change in Myanmar (its ruling party the SPDC stepped down in 2011) and Vietnam (turnover in Communist Party leadership spurred the country to pursue “doi moi” reforms in the 1980s), set the preconditions for diplomatic engagement with the U.S. With the death of Fidel Castro, a similar opportunity exists in Cuba, although normalization talks began before his passing. Finally, U.S. efforts to politically and economically isolate Myanmar and Vietnam failed to catalyze democratic movements in these countries, just as similar policies have been futile in Cuba.

The economic and diplomatic benefits of trade liberalization and sanction reduction for Myanmar and Vietnam (as well as for the U.S.) are unquestionable. The U.S. embargo on Vietnam was lifted by President Clinton in February of 1994, and diplomatic relations were formally restored the following year. The Vietnamese economy exploded in this period, growing at an average rate of 7.5% from 1991-2000, culminating in the country’s joining the World Trade Organization in 2007. Simultaneously, Vietnam experienced rapid international political acceptance, forming diplomatic relationships with over 170 countries and joining the UN Peace Keeping Operation in 2014. Ending the embargo dramatically improved U.S.-Vietnamese relations: 78% of Vietnamese people view the U.S. favorably as of 2015 and Vietnamese students are now the eight largest international student group in the U.S. Vietnam is now the U.S.’s 26th largest goods importer, bringing $17.5 billion annually into the country. Myanmar has fared similarly since President Obama significantly reduced restrictions on the country in 2012 (reserving the right to prevent foreign investment in the nation’s military and sanction human rights abusers): “After nearly half a century of isolation, followed by five years of reform-driven growth, Myanmar’s economy is currently expanding at a record rate.” Since normalization in 2011, GDP has grown at an average of 7.5%. In September 2016, President Obama and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi held a joint conference to lift all sanctions. With high literacy rates and a skilled labor force, Myanmar’s human capital potential has yielded benefits for U.S. companies who have invested in the country’s robust natural gas, precious minerals, and fishing sectors.

Efforts at spurring democratic political development in Myanmar and Vietnam have been less fruitful. Vietnam ranks 131 out of 167 countries in The Economist’s democracy index. While the communist party controls a state-run capitalist system and encourages some private ownership, Vietnam is still governed by an authoritarian regime. While activists in the country have pushed for greater freedom in recent years, the country does not hold free elections, and its human rights record is poor. Myanmar, rated 113th in the Economist’s index, is no longer classified as an authoritarian country, and has shown modest signs of development in the past five years. The country does not have an independent judiciary, its Muslim Rohingya minority has continued to face persecution, and 25% of seats in its legislature are still reserved for the military. However, Myanmar held its first free election in 2015, where opposition party leader Kyi won a majority, and the country has begun to relax media censorship: “The military regime has transformed into a nominally civilian government and has taken important steps to place the country on the road towards ‘normalization’ and democracy.” Since the U.S. normalized relations with Myanmar, the country has also released over 200 political prisoners, established a National Human Rights Commission, and enacted labor law reform.

While normalizing relations with Vietnam and Myanmar has produced a mixed to poor record of encouraging democracy, the unilateral sanction regime that preceded it was a clear failure in this regard, according to a Cato Institute study: “Sanctions are an inherently flawed strategy because the kind of regime likely to become the target of U.S. sanctions—an authoritarian regime in a less developed country such as Burma—is also the least sensitive to unilateral U.S. economic pressure.” Many developed countries including China and Singapore have invested prominently in Myanmar, and unilateral sanctions merely reduced the influence the U.S. had on the country’s politics. Cato’s broader historical analysis found that unilateral sanctions failed to change political behavior 87% of the time, including in Vietnam, Myanmar and Cuba.

While advocates of sanctions argue that they were effective in crippling authoritarianism in Haiti, Iraq, and South Africa, a closer study of these cases reveals the examples to be false historical analogies. South Africa faced sanctions from a multilateral partnership of its largest trading partners and had a sizeable domestic opposition movement. Political change in Haiti and Iraq was only spurred by U.S. military force or the threat of force. Embargoes against Myanmar and Vietnam existed in the context of entirely different economic, diplomatic and military pressures. Furthermore, embargoes against Myanmar and Vietnam served as useful scapegoats, allowing leaders in these countries to blame the U.S. for the material despair of their citizenry rather than accept any accountability: “Most analysts attribute Burma’s poverty not to U.S. sanctions, but rather government mismanagement and corruption. Nevertheless, the Burmese government blamed the U.S. for its problems, and ultimately believed its own rhetoric, as Suu Kyi observes. This gave the sanctions an outsized importance.” While the U.S.-Cuban embargo has certainly limited the nation’s economic development, it has allowed the Castro regime to largely blame the U.S. for its sluggish economy and lack of political reform. Analyzing the impact of U.S. embargoes against Vietnam or Myanmar, or unilateral sanctions more broadly, clarifies that these policies fail to encourage democratic development without special preconditions, and likely impede democratic growth.   

Normalizing relations with Myanmar and Vietnam also provided the U.S. with strategic geopolitical allies to combat China’s influence in the region. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, creeping communism posed little threat to envelop Southeast Asia (if it ever really did). Without the ideological divide that defined U.S. national interests in the second half of the 20th century, the embargo in Vietnam (and Cuba) lost its sense of urgency as a means of ensuring geopolitical security. Since the Sino-Vietnamese War, diplomatic relations between China and Vietnam have been tense, and lifting the embargo has allowed the U.S. to cultivate an ally in Southeast Asia to combat Chinese soft power in the region. While Myanmar, ruled by a military junta body from 1988 to 2011, was not a Cold War enemy of the U.S., it has enjoyed a special trading relationship with North Korea and China, which is its largest supplier of arms. Since lifting the embargo, the U.S. has been able to restore USAID missions in the country, providing over $500 million to support economic and political reforms, and met with government officials, human rights activists, and religious leaders. The U.S. trained over 7,300 political party members in anticipation of the 2015 election. Cuba is one of Russia’s closest allies in the West, and U.S. foreign policy making in Vietnam and Myanmar demonstrates that cultivating a relationship with Cuba would fit naturally into the framework of the last two decades of American diplomacy.


The major impediment to a fully defrosted Cuban thaw is also the central difference between the Southeast Asian case studies and the Cuba dynamic. The Cuban-American community, largely hostile to ending the embargo, has leveraged political influence as a voting bloc in states like Florida and through its seven congressional representatives. Two Cuban-Americans, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, ran for President in the 2016 Republican primary, ardently opposed to lifting the embargo. In addition, it is unclear how U.S.-Cuban relations will evolve during the Trump Administration. However, reviewing the history of embargoes and diplomacy with countries in Southeast Asia that parallel the U.S.-Cuban case demonstrates the considerable economic, diplomatic, and foreign policy advantages of terminating the embargo for the U.S. and its Southeast Asian partners. While democratic development since normalization has been far less encouraging (although reform in Myanmar has been promising), the sanctions regime that preceded these efforts failed, and likely contributed to political decay. The same opportunity to advance U.S. (and Cuban) interests in other respects exists with the Cuban embargo, but only if the U.S. government rejects an anachronistic policy that has been a losing proposition for both sides.