U.S. Foreign Policy Sanctions: Cuba

Sanctions on Cuba are the United States' lengthiest and least successful sanctions program. The sanctions have been tightened frequently since 1960 when President Eisenhower first imposed them. They have included a full trade embargo, restrictions on travel and remittances, and extraterritorial sanctions that have created frictions with U.S. trading partners. Cuba sanctions were originally a component of the U.S. effort to overthrow the Castro regime, contain Soviet influence and subsequently to constrain Cuba's efforts to export revolution in Latin America and Africa. In recent years, their objective has been to exert pressure on Cuba to liberalize its political and economic system. The UN General Assembly has routinely condemned U.S. Cuba sanctions since 1992.

In October 1960, Eisenhower revoked Cuba's sugar quota and invoked the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917 in response to nationalization of U.S. companies in Cuba, many of which still have claims against the Cuban government. This action prohibited all U.S. exports to Cuba, excluding food and medicine, but including oil. In September 1961, President Kennedy signed the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, which authorized the President to impose a total embargo on trade with Cuba, which President Kennedy exercised in February 1962. The Act had an extraterritorial reach, banning transport of U.S. goods on ships owned by companies that do business with Cuba and prohibited foreign assistance to countries that provide assistance to Cuba. In February 1963, President Kennedy issued an Executive Order prohibiting travel to Cuba and all financial and commercial transactions with Cuba.

The Jackson-Vanik amendment to the Trade Act of 1974 denies Cuba most-favored-nation trading status with the United States, but the following year the United States began to experiment with loosening the embargo. In August 1975, President Ford issued an Executive Order allowing foreign subsidiaries of U.S. companies to sell products in Cuba and announced that the United States would no longer penalize other nations for trading with Cuba. In March 1977, President Carter issued an Executive Order allowing U.S. citizens to travel to and spend dollars in Cuba. In 1978, the Carter Administration allowed remittances by Cuban-Americans to Cuba and visits by them to Cuba. After the 1980 election, the Reagan Administration tightened the embargo. In April 1982, President Reagan reauthorized the travel ban and the prohibition on U.S. citizens spending dollars in Cuba. In 1985, the Administration extended the ban to travel to the United States by Cuban officials and scholars. The codification of Cuba sanctions, which had been largely based on Executive Orders, began in October 1992, when President Bush signed the Cuban Democracy Act, also known as the Torricelli Act, which prohibited foreign-based subsidiaries of U.S. companies from trading with Cuba, required the interning of foreign flag ships traveling from Cuba, prohibited travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens, and restricted family remittances to Cuba.

The Clinton Administration restored some of the policies of the Carter Administration, especially on travel and remittances, but acquiesced in a major expansion of Cuba sanctions. In March 1996, President Clinton signed the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act ("Libertad"), also known as the Helms-Burton Act, which imposed extraterritorial sanctions on foreign companies doing business in Cuba, denied entry into the United States of executives of foreign investors in Cuba, and in Title III, permitted U.S. citizens to sue foreign investors which were utilizing expropriated U.S. property. The purpose of the law was to tighten the embargo to force political reforms in Cuba. President Clinton annually suspended enforcement of Title III, although the Administration did deny visas to senior executives of Sherritt International, a Canadian company accused of "trafficking" in confiscated U.S. property. Canada and the EU enacted blocking statutes in retaliation. One consequence of the Torricelli and the Helms-Burton acts was harsh penalties for U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba. However, in 1997 the Clinton Administration approved licenses for U.S. news organizations to open bureaus in Cuba and in 1998 allowed direct passenger flights to Cuba. In 1999, the Clinton Administration issued an Executive Order permitting sales of some food and agricultural products to Cuba. In October 2000, President Clinton signed the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act, which allowed sales of U.S. food and medicine to Cuba (and all other sanctioned countries), but required that commodities exported be paid for by cash in advance and financed by third country financial institutions. Exceptions to the travel ban were included for business travelers, subject to OFAC licenses, but not for tourists.

The George W. Bush Administration sought ways to tighten the embargo, reinstating the travel ban. President Bush issued an Executive Orders restricting travel to Cuba by Cuban-Americans to one visit every three years and limited remittances to $300 a year. In 2004, President Bush signed an Executive Order banning vessels from traveling to Cuba from U.S. ports. Cuba caucuses were formed in the Senate and the House advocating repeal of the travel ban and legislation was regularly and unsuccessfully introduced for its repeal.

President Obama eased the travel restrictions of the Bush Administration without addressing the broader sanctions program. In March 2009, he signed the Omnibus Appropriations Act authorizing an easing of travel restrictions and the following month amended the Cuban Assets Control Regulations (CACR), ending restrictions on Cuban-Americans and business travelers to Cuba and authorizing up to $3,000 in remittances by Cuban-Americans. President Obama also authorized U.S. telecommunications network providers to establish fiber-optic cable and satellite telecommunications facilities between the United States and Cuba. In January 2011, President Obama eased CACR restrictions on people-to-people exchanges between the United States and Cuba, and restored a Clinton-era provision allowing remittances by non-Cuban-Americans. Although the President has broad authority to modify the CACR by authorizing general licenses, especially for humanitarian purposes, the Helms-Burton law prevents the President from lifting core sanctions unless its conditions have been met. In January 2012, Cuba imported a Chinese deep-water oil rig raising the possibility that disputes over drilling rights and protection from oil spills could require further adjustments in the sanctions program.


The Case for a New Cuba Policy
Jake Colvin 
New Ideas Fund
December 2008

Options for Engagement: A Resource Guide for Reforming U.S. Policy Toward Cuba
Anya Landau French, The Lexington Institute
April 2009

Nine Ways to Talk to Cuba
Center for Democracy in the Americas
January 2009

More than half of Cuban Americans believe the embargo should end
Florida International University/Brookings 2008 Poll
December 2008

In Our National Interest: The Top Ten Reasons for Changing U.S. Policy Toward Cuba
Center for Democracy in the Americas
Introduction by USA*Engage
January 2007

Economic Sanctions: Agencies Face Competing Priorities in Enforcing the U.S. Embargo on Cuba (GAO Report)
Why is the U.S. Treasury Department is investigating more cases related to Cuba than all of the other sanctions programs it administers combined?
November 2007

More than 60 percent of Americans believe that the United States should establish diplomatic relations with Cuba
January 2007

A group blog covering various corners of the cultural, political, military and economic dimensions of US-Cuba relations.

The Cuban Triangle
Havana-Miami-Washington events and arguments and their impact on Cuba 

For more information

Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA)  – CDA is devoted to changing U.S. policy toward the countries of the Americas by basing our relations on respect and dignity, recognizing positive models of governance in the region, and fostering dialogue particularly with those governments and movements with which U.S. policy is at odds. CDA advocates reforming U.S. policy toward Cuba through its "Freedom to Travel to Cuba" campaign.

New America Foundation – The New America Foundation's U.S.-Cuba 21st Century Policy Initiative seeks to take advantage of recent internal developments to redirect U.S.-Cuba policy and relations towards a more sensible, mutually beneficial direction and forge a new consensus of national stakeholders in an engagement strategy with Cuba rather than the decades old tried and failed strategy of isolating Cuba and its citizens.

Center for International Policy (CIP) – The Center for International Policy's Cuba Program seeks to bring about a more sensible U.S. policy toward Cuba.  There may have been a time during the Cold War when there was some rationale for a containment policy, including an embargo. But, with the end of the Cold War, that rationale has vanished, and our policy toward Cuba is now not only obsolete but actually counterproductive in terms of real U.S. interests and objectives.

Latin America Working Group (LAWG)  – The Latin America Working Group and its sister organization, the Latin America Working Group Education Fund, carry out the coalition's mission to encourage U.S. policies towards Latin America that promote human rights, justice, peace and sustainable development. As a coalition, LAWG represents the interests of over 60 major religious, humanitarian, grassroots and policy organizations to decision makers in Washington. Among its many efforts, LAWG has helped to ease restrictions on the sale of food and medicine to Cuba.

Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) – WOLA's Cuba program encourages U.S. policy-makers to move towards normalized relations with Cuba. the U.S. embargo on Cuba does nothing to promote human rights and social justice on the island. It is based on outdated Cold War ideology and special interest group politics. The Bush Administration's policy of tightening the embargo, and waiting until Fidel Castro leaves the scene, is misguided and counter-productive. Engagement with Cuba is a more sensible, more effective, and more humane strategy for promoting human rights and social justice.