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From White House's Perspective, Cuban Embargo Hasn't Worked


That embargo remains in place, but as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, the Obama administration said today that it's pushing for as much trade and travel as it can under existing law.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: From the White House perspective the embargo on Cuba just hasn't worked. As President Obama pointed out, U.S. policy hasn't changed much in his lifetime.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I was born in 1961; just over two years after Fidel Castro took power in Cuba and just a few months after the Bay of Pigs Invasion, which tried to overthrow his regime.

KELEMEN: Castro's brother, Raul, is now president. And though the U.S. has tried to isolate the communist nation, no other nation has joined the U.S. in this and Obama says the embargo, which cuts off most commercial activity, has had little effect. Though he can't lift it - Congress would have to do that - Obama says he will take steps to increase trade and allow more Americans to travel to Cuba.


OBAMA: Nobody represents America's values better than the American people and I believe this contact will ultimately do more to empower the Cuban people.

KELEMEN: A former U.S. diplomat who once ran the U.S. interest section in Havana, Vicki Huddleston, echoes that.

VICKI HUDDLESTON: The embargo always helped the Cuban government control the people. It made them. It made them have less access to international communications. So now that the Cuban people have much greater access, or will have, that will speed change.

KELEMEN: She's pleased to hear that the U.S. plans to upgrade its diplomatic post from an interest section to an embassy. Huddleston says it's an important symbolic move.

HUDDLESTON: It tells the United States public and the Cubans that this Cold War between the United States and Cuba is over.

KELEMEN: President Obama came to office trying to forge a new relationship with Cuba. Those efforts came to a halt when U.S. government contractor Alan Gross was jailed in 2009 for trying to set up an Internet system outside Cuban government controls. U.S. and Cuban diplomats met secretly for the past year. The Vatican also got involved. That culminated in the return of the 65-year-old Gross, who now welcomes what he calls a game changer in relations.


ALAN GROSS: Five-and-a-half decades of history show us that such belligerence inhibits better judgment. Two wrongs never make a right.

KELEMEN: The U.S. also released three Cubans who were jailed in 1998 on charges of spying on anti-Castro groups in Florida. They were swapped for a U.S. intelligence asset, a Cuban, who spent 20 years in jail there. The U.S. is also taking steps to take Cuba off a list of state sponsors of terrorism. That's significant, says Carl Meacham of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

CARL MEACHAM: If after the review the decision is to revoke that or to change that designation that will open up commercial dealings in a way that we haven't seen with the island for decades.

KELEMEN: Meacham, a former congressional staffer, says many lawmakers would support that though there are still strong proponents of the embargo on both sides of the aisle. He also says the Cuban government is interested in boosting ties in part because it's major benefactor - Venezuela - has seen its economy crumble with low oil prices.

MEACHAM: I don't think Cuba wants to go through another period like the special period they lived post the Soviet Union and its funding of Cuba. For both economic and political reasons it would be untenable.

KELEMEN: Meacham says all that contributed to the changing relationship we're saying today. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.