Camp and abroad programs topic brief: The United States should lift its embargo against Cuba

John Harper

· Topics

The topic that will be debated at our camps in Beijing and Shanghai, and at the tournaments we will be attending in Stanford and Harvard is:

The United States should lift its embargo against Cuba.

In this post, we will give you some background information on the topic and suggest potential areas of argument on each side. We will be sending a comprehensive research packet, sample cases, and other information by email to participants in the coming weeks. Remember that as with any debate topic the arguments we mention are not the only arguments you can make, or indeed necessarily the best. It is always important that you think about the issues yourself and come up with your own ideas.


An embargo is when a country prevents people from trading with another country, by making it illegal for people in their country to sell specific things to the other country. It is used as a diplomatic tool to lessen trade and commerce between the countries, with the purpose of serving a particular national interest. This is not to be confused with a blockade, which requires a physical military presence, used to block all contact with a country as a first step towards war. [We define the embargo here to help you understand the topic. But this is not an “official” definition; you are free to define an embargo in some other way.]

The embargo placed on Cuba by the United States is a collection of different pieces of legislation passed by the United States that started underneath the U.S. presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower. The reasoning behind using this economic tool can be traced back to the rise of Fidel Castro to power.

During the early part of the 20th Century, relations between Cuba and the United States were strong, with U.S.-backed President Fulgencio Batista allowing the sale of sugar and other commodities to American businesses. U.S. oil and casino interests were also important in the country, with the nation acting as a vacation spot for many American celebrities up until the 1950’s. This all came to an end with the overthrowing of the Cuban presidency by revolutionary Fidel Castro, who proceeded to declare the country the first communist nation in the Western Hemisphere.

After taking power, Castro seized all American assets totaling upwards of $1.8 billion dollars. In response, in 1960 President Eisenhower put in place a partial embargo against Cuba and ended formal diplomatic relations. Over time the strength of the embargo with Cuba has increased and then decreased with whichever U.S. President and political party is in power. Under President John F. Kennedy in 1962 (after the Cuban Missile Crisis), and with the full backing of congress, a full embargo was put in place which made all trade and travel between the west and Cuba illegal.

During President Carter’s term, there were plans to try and repair the relationship with Cuba. But these were quickly dropped and in 1992 the embargo was made even stronger with the Helms-Burton Act; a piece of legislation which established steep fines and jail time for any U.S. company, or affiliate, that did trade with Cuba. This Act also penalized foreign countries who traded with Cuba, angering the international community.

It was not until 2010 that travel restrictions were loosened for academic and diplomatic reasons, and in 2014 President Barack Obama re-established full diplomatic relations with Cuba. With the new U.S. strategy of embracing the international community scholars and policymakers have started calling for a re-examination of the Cuban embargo. This long and complicated history with Cuba makes examining the topic, from a debating standpoint, tricky.

Exact data detailing the effectiveness of the embargo tends to be vague and misleading. Many ‘facts’ pertaining to the economic and political consequences of the embargo could easily be used to support, or go against U.S. trade prohibitions with Cuba. Despite this topic, in the literature, seeming pro-sided there are several arguments that the con team could make in a debate.

Potential Lines of Argument:

One of the first and easiest arguments in favor of keeping the embargo is the simple reason that Cuba has failed to meet the terms and conditions for lifting it. Under the conditions set forth in the Helms-Burton Act, the Cuban government would have needed to transition to fair and free elections, while making significant steps in recognizing human rights. Currently, Cuba holds a one-party system with the Castro’s at the helm; with Raul Castro in his 80’s, and no clear change in leadership lined up for succeeding him, there is significant uncertainty in lifting the embargo. It continues to arrest, imprison and torture people the regime dislikes without trial or due process.

There are two other arguments that we foresee in debates on this topic. One that will be brought up is national security concerns. There is evidence that Cuba has given aid and safe haven to several different organizations listed on international terrorist watch lists (although Cuba was officially removed from the State-Sponsors of Terrorism list in 2015). An embargo would hopefully dissuade Cuba from sponsoring future acts of terrorism.

Another line of argument that’s quite strong, but this time for the con-side, is effectiveness. Currently, 90% of the Cuban economy is state-owned with only a fraction of profits going to Cuban people. It could be argued that the embargo allows the U.S. to provide humanitarian aid directly to everyday citizens while putting pressure on a government that still has an estimated 6,000 unlawful political detentions a year.

The pro-side of the topic will have more research materials on their side, but also much more uncertainty to deal with as the embargo has been in place for over 50 years. Many who wish to end the embargo argue that it is completely ineffective in achieving its goals of forcing Cuba to adopt a representative democracy. If it has not worked so far in causing regime change, it is unlikely to do so in the future.

As a ‘relic’ of the Cold War, the embargo has cost the United States, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, $1.2 billion annually and Cuba much more. Certain lifesaving medications and technologies are also denied to Cuba due to U.S. patents, impacting the lives of everyday Cubans. Since the U.S. is trading with countries on many of the same watch lists as Cuba, the embargo can be perceived as hypocritical and mean-spirited.

The United Nations General Assembly every year since 1993 has also passed a resolution stating their dissatisfaction with the Cuban embargo. Describing it as a violation of human rights and as harming free and fair trade. This is ironic as human rights are one of the primary reasons the U.S. claims it continues to support having an embargo against Cuba.

As demonstrated by this topic analysis, this resolution requires lots of preparation before you enter your first debate round. Due to the complicated situation between Cuba and the United States, you will need to do more than present a list of points for or against the embargo. If you do only that, you let your opponents declare that their impacts are more important, or else leave it to the judge to pick and choose. Instead, you must act like a judge, weighing different consequences and explaining why some are more important than others.

This topic is extremely timely and things may change rapidly with the new U.S.-presidential administration. So in the coming months, read the news and watch this space for advice on how to research this topic.

We wish you the best of luck!



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