Today in 1962: The embargo against Cuba takes effect

February 7, 2014

Today in Legal HistoryIt has been almost 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, marking the symbolic end to the Cold War.

Despite the long passing of such tensions, there is still at least one significant relic from that age: the U.S. embargo against Cuba.  Today marks the 51st anniversary of the date that the embargo became effective.

The events leading up to the embargo’s creation occurred over a relatively short period of time.  Until the Cuban Revolution in the 1950s, the U.S. enjoyed very close relations with Cuba.  In the late 19th century, the U.S. was buying almost 90% of Cuba’s exports, and exerted significant authority over its sugar industry.

Prior to the revolution, which saw the overthrown of U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista, Cuba’s resorts and casinos were a major tourist destination for U.S. citizens, including some prominent ones like Ernest Hemmingway and Frank Sinatra.  After armed conflict broke out between Fidel Castro’s rebels and the Batista regime’s forces in 1958, the U.S. imposed an arms embargo against the island nation.

From 1959 to 1960, after taking control of the government, Castro seized $1.8 billion of U.S. assets in Cuba for nationalization.  Although Cuba’s new government offered the U.S. compensation for this seizure in the form of bonds or sugar exports, the U.S. refused.  Instead, President Eisenhower signed a partial embargo on exports to Cuba, exempting only food, medicine and medical supplies, and a select number of other items.  Cuban goods could still be imported into the U.S. under this partial embargo.

Eisenhower later proceeded to end diplomatic relations with Cuba, closing the U.S. embassy in Havana on January 3, 1961 (shortly before leaving office).

Relations between the two nations continued to deteriorate, with the failed attempt by U.S.-backed forces to overthrow Castro’s government in April of 1961 (known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion) only serving to further sour the relationship.

Finally, on February 3, 1962, President John F. Kennedy signed Presidential Proclamation 3447 on February 3, 1962, to declare “an embargo upon all trade between the United States and Cuba.”  The embargo effectively terminated all trade between the countries.

It’s interesting to note that, after Kennedy signed the proclamation but before the embargo took effect on February 7, 1962, he ordered his press secretary Pierre Salinger to procure as many Cuban cigars as he could (Salinger returned with a stash of 1,200 cigars).

After the embargo took effect, ties between the two countries strained even further, with tensions reaching their height during the Cuban Missile Crisis later in 1962.  Travel to Cuba was prohibited by the U.S. on February 8, 1963, and in July of that year, financial transactions with Cuba were prohibited.

The embargo was strengthened yet again in 1992 with the passage of a pair of laws that prohibited U.S. foreign subsidiaries from trading with Cuba, restricted remittances, and allowed sanctions against companies that invested in U.S. property seized during the revolution.

Under President Bill Clinton, the embargo was weakened to some degree, though not as much as Clinton would have liked due to political pressures (Clinton was a strong proponent of lifting the embargo, which he viewed as clearly “counterproductive”).

Following the destruction caused by Hurricane Michelle in 2001, the U.S. and Cuba agreed to allow U.S. companies to sell food to Cuba for humanitarian reasons.  Soon thereafter, the U.S. became (and continues to be) Cuba’s largest food supplier.

The debate over what to do about the embargo continues today, with no clear trajectory in any direction.

However, as the history of the embargo has demonstrated, intervening events can cause an unforeseen shift in policy regarding the sanctions.  Time will tell if and when such an event occurs to change the embargo’s course.