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Definition: embargo from Philip's Encyclopedia

Obstruction of the movement of cargo to prevent its delivery. In modern terms, it refers to complete suspension of trade with a country or withholding crucial goods.

Summary Article: Cuba, U.S. Embargo of
From Encyclopedia of United States - Latin American Relations
  • Keywords
  • Cuba
  • Diplomatic and Military Policy
  • Economics and Trade

The Cuban Embargo, called the Blockade in Cuba, is not just one law; rather it consists of many presidential orders as well as laws that prohibit trade, travel, and political relations between the United States and Cuba. The basis for the presidential powers behind the embargo lies with the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917. The act has been amended many times since 1917 and provides the president the power to restrict trade between the United States and its enemies in times of emergency. The goal of the embargo has been to bring about a democratically elected government in Cuba, one without the leadership of Fidel or Raúl Castro. In addition it has had the goal of bringing capitalism to the island. The embargo has been in place in one form or another since 1960. Virtually every president in the United States since 1960 has altered the embargo in some way. The embargo is a part of U.S. foreign policy and it became codified into law in 1992.

Escalating Tension to Full Embargo

Castro and his revolutionary government came to power in January 1959. U.S. concerns about Cuba grew when the Cuban government enacted the Land Reform Law on May 17, 1959, which confiscated property for the state, including property owned by U.S. citizens. The U.S. government did not agree with the measure of compensation offered to the previous owners.

The next act that sparked U.S. reaction was a trade agreement in February 1960 between Cuba and the Soviet Union in which Cuba purchased crude oil from the Soviet Union, and the Soviet Union bought sugar from Cuba, sold raw materials to Cuba, and provided $100 million in credit. Consequently, with the encouragement of the U.S. government, U.S. and British oil companies refused to refine the oil. Castro responded by nationalizing the oil companies. In retaliation, in July 1960, the U.S. government cut the Cuban sugar quota. Castro countered by nationalizing U.S. companies in Cuba, including U.S. banks. The U.S. reaction was strong. On October 19, 1960, President Dwight D. Eisenhower stopped virtually all trade with Cuba except food and medicine. On January 3, 1961, the United States broke off all diplomatic relations with Cuba.

In April 1961 relations between Cuba and the United States spiraled downward as a result of an invasion in Cuba by American-trained, anti-Castro Cuban exiles. This invasion, called the Bay of Pigs, was specifically supposed to bring down the Cuban government; it was easily thwarted, however, by the Cuban military. Castro became incensed, and on May 1, 1961, he announced that Cuba would become a socialist republic. Aid from the Soviet Union rose substantially. The United States did not stand idly by. On September 4, 1961, Congress passed the Foreign Assistance Act that prohibited aid to Cuba and authorized the president to establish and maintain a total embargo on all trade between the two countries. In addition, on February 7, 1962, President John F. Kennedy stopped all trade with Cuba, including the reexport of Cuban goods from other countries. Finally, on August 1, 1962, Congress prohibited any aid to countries that assisted the Cuban government.

  • Keywords
  • Cuba
  • Diplomatic and Military Policy
  • Economics and Trade

A paladore or home restaurant permitted to operate in public following Cuba's economic meltdown in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of its economic assistance in 1991. The U.S. embargo on Cuba only intensified following the fall of the Iron Curtain.

source:Thomas M. Leonard Collection

Unilateral sanctions by the United States had effectively closed relations with Cuba, but the U.S. government began to push for multilateral sanctions as well. In response to this pressure, the Organization of American States (OAS) excluded the Cuban government in 1962. By 1964 the OAS had imposed a commercial embargo on Cuba as well.

In 1962 the United States and Cuba became embroiled in the most intense standoff to date, and one that had global ramifications. The Cuban government had begun building missile bases on the island. The United States already had missile bases in Turkey, within range of the Soviet Union. Therefore the Cuban bases were seen as a prelude to war between the United States and the Soviet Union. After negotiations, however, the missile bases were dismantled. Relations continued to worsen, however. In 1963 Kennedy expanded the embargo by banning any travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens and any U.S. citizen from engaging in any financial or commercial transactions with Cuba. Moreover the Department of Commerce tightened restrictions on exports of food and medicine to Cuba and Congress restricted aid to any country that traded with Cuba.

1975–1982: A Brief Thaw

In contrast to the 1960s, the years between 1975 and 1982 witnessed a reduction of restrictions against Cuba, both multilaterally and unilaterally. On July 28, 1975, the OAS voted to end its sanctions against Cuba. By this time many countries in the organization had already begun trading with Cuba again. In addition, Gerald Ford began to reduce some of the restrictions on U.S. trade with Cuba. For example he eased limitations on exports to Cuba by foreign subsidiaries of U.S. companies. Subsequently President Carter used his presidential prerogative not to renew earlier regulations. For example he did not renew the regulations on U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba and did not renew the regulation against spending U.S. dollars in Cuba. By 1978 Cubans could send money to their families, and by 1979 they were allowed to visit their families in Cuba.

1982–1996: Renewed Restrictions

After the lenient Ford and Carter years, the next presidents, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, began tightening the restrictions again. Reagan strengthened the trade embargo by imposing more travel restrictions. In April 1982 he stopped all charter flights from Miami to Cuba.

President George H. W. Bush tightened the embargo more than it had been in decades. The U.S. government believed that because of the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, and therefore the end of substantial aid to Cuba from the Soviet Union, increased sanctions against Cuba would cause Cuba's communist government to fall. Therefore in 1992 he signed the Cuban Democracy Act or the Torricelli Act. The Torricelli Act forbade U.S. companies, including subsidiaries abroad, from engaging in any trade with Cuba. The most controversial part of the act was a stipulation that any ships that had entered Cuban ports would not be allowed to enter U.S. ports for a period of 180 days. It also prohibited foreign-based subsidiaries of U.S. companies from trading with Cuba. Any company that did not adhere to these measures could be fined up to $50,000. Moreover it decreased aid to countries that traded with or provided aid to Cuba, travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens was again tightened, and it severely restricted remittances to Cuba, including food and medicine.

The next momentous change in the embargo came in 1996. On February 24, 1996, two U.S. planes in Cuban territory that carried members of Brothers to the Rescue were shot down. As a result, on March 12, 1996, President Clinton signed the Helms-Burton Act or the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act. It finally made into law the sanctions against Cuba. It tightened sanctions against Cuba in several ways; in particular the Legislature was now able to override the Executive Branch in some cases regarding the embargo. It barred any foreign company from any business with confiscated Cuban property. Ships docking at Cuban ports were not allowed to dock at U.S. ports for six months. The bill also allowed U.S. nationals to file suit in U.S. courts against persons “trafficking” in their confiscated property. In addition foreign companies that invested in Cuba, especially property that the Cuban government had seized, could be sued in the United States. Other countries reacted strongly against the Helms-Burton Act. For example both Mexico and Canada passed laws that prohibited the Helms-Burton Act in their countries.

1998–2010: The Slow Loosening of the Embargo

Perhaps in response to Pope John Paul II's visit to Cuba in January 1998, sanctions began to loosen. By March of that year U.S. citizens were allowed to send up to $1,200 annually to relatives in Cuba, and direct flights between Cuba and the United States were permitted. Travel was still banned, however, if it was not for humanitarian purposes or professional research or sale of pharmaceutical goods.

In response in part to lobbying by agriculturalists in the United States, the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act was passed by Congress in October 2000. The act allowed the sale of agricultural goods and medicine to Cuba for humanitarian reasons. Cuba did not accept this overture until after Hurricane Michelle in November 2001. President Bill Clinton allowed students to visit Cuba to study and people to send remittances to their families, but he also tightened the laws regarding Cuban immigrants. They now had to prove that they were political exiles. After the turn of the century, partly as a result of anti-embargo lobbying, many aspects of the embargo were lifted. By 2007 the United States was the largest food supplier of Cuba and its sixth largest trading partner.

In 2009 President Obama eased restrictions on travel to and from Cuba by Cuban Americans. In addition he allowed for more money to be sent to Cubans from Cuban American family members. In August 2010 the Obama administration hinted that it would again ease restrictions on travel to Cuba, especially for cultural, educational, and sporting purposes. After the November midterm elections, however, where the Democrats lost seats in the house and senate, any official move by the Obama administration toward opening travel stopped. Obama did make it easier to obtain licenses for travel under the existing regulations, however.

In its fifty-year history the embargo has not succeeded in its primary goal: to end the communist government in Cuba. As of 2010 there were several congressional members, especially from agricultural states, that were against the embargo because they wanted to trade with Cuba. Moreover many other countries believed the laws to be illegal under international law and had their own trading and political relations with Cuba.

See also Bay of Pigs Invasion, 1961; Bush, George H. W.; Carter, Jimmy; Castro Ruz, Fidel; Clinton, William J.; Communism in Latin America; Cuba, U.S. Relations with; Cuban Democracy Act, 1992 (United States); Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, 1996 (United States); Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962; Cuban Revolution, 1956–1959, U.S. Policy toward; Dictators, U.S. Policy toward; Ford, Gerald R.; Helms, Jesse; Obama, Barack H.; Reagan, Ronald W.

  • Kaplowitz, Donna Rich. Anatomy of a Failed Embargo: U.S. Sanctions against Cuba. London: Lynne Rienner, 1998.
  • Kaufman, SusanRothkopf, David, eds. Cuba: The Contours of Change. London: Lynne Rienner, 2000.
  • Roy, Joaquin. Cuba, the United States, and the Helms-Burton Doctrine. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000.
  • Schwab, Peter. Cuba: Confronting the U.S. Embargo. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.
  • Smith, Wayne S.Dominguez, Esteban Morales, eds. Subject to Solution: Problems in Cuban-U.S. Relations. London: Lynne Rienner, 1988.
Copyright © 2012 by CQ Press, an Imprint of SAGE Publications, Inc.

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