EDITOR'S NOTE: The following piece was written before the announcement that The United States will restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba and open an embassy in Havana for the first time in more than a half-century. Although the decades-old American embargo on Cuba will remain in place for now, the administration signaled that it would welcome a move by Congress to ease or lift it should lawmakers choose to.

In late October, the Greater Des Moines Partnership, in conjunction with the Ankeny Area Chamber of Commerce and the Urbandale Chamber of Commerce, led a group of 70 Central Iowans on a cultural exploration mission to Cuba. Although tourism and travel restrictions to Cuba remain in place, our group was able to legally travel through a people-to-people program that was officially licensed through the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. During the trip, participants were able to observe the Cuban economy firsthand, meet with the Cuban people and learn more about the recently implemented economic reforms. The trip was the latest activity in Partnership efforts dating back almost 15 years to ease travel and trade restrictions with Cuba.

Since 1960, the United States has maintained a trade embargo on Cuba. The more than five-decade-old ban on trade was enacted in response to the Castro regime’s post-revolution seizure of U.S. properties and maintained to pressure the Cuban government to adopt free markets and representative democracy. Increasingly, Americans are questioning whether this policy makes any sense. In fact, many have argued that the embargo has actually helped prop up the Castro regime. 

It is a common misconception that all travel or trade with Cuba is prohibited by the U.S. government. People-to-people exchanges like the one we led this fall have been going on for a number of years and are becoming much more common. Today there are five flights daily between Miami International and Jose Marti/Havana airports, packed with both Cubans visiting the United States and American citizens on humanitarian, cultural or church mission trips.  

There is no doubt that Cuba’s poverty is the direct result of a half century of failed Marxist economic policies. However, the embargo has allowed the Castro regime to blame its problems on Washington, D.C. The U.S. represents a natural trading partner for Cuba and its 11.2 million residents, located just 90 miles from our shores. Due to the embargo, American farmers and businesses have missed out on significant economic opportunities.  

The U.S. now readily engages in trade with China, Vietnam and other countries that have historically embraced communism — but not Cuba. Europeans, Chinese, Japanese, Canadians and other competitors can travel and conduct business in Cuba without restriction. As a result, the impact of the U.S. sanctions are limited, and U.S. businesses and farmers are placed at a competitive disadvantage. The embargo also encourages Cuba to collaborate with other countries in the region that may not be friendly to American interests.  

Prior to the embargo, the U.S. accounted for nearly 70 percent of Cuba’s international trade. In 2000, under the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act, the U.S. began to allow the limited sale of agricultural and medical products to Cuba. Despite heavy regulation, U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba rose from less than $1 million to $392 million by 2004. In 2008, exports to Cuba reached $718 million.

The Partnership has been advocating for an end to the embargo and travel ban for many years. Our reasoning is straightforward: If the U.S. travel ban is lifted, allowing a projected 2 million American tourists to visit each year, entrepreneurial spirit will soar and the Cuban system of central planning will collapse on itself. In September 2002, the Partnership helped Iowans open the door to a new food and agricultural market by leading a delegation of Iowa agribusiness and state government leaders to the first U.S. Food and Agricultural Exhibition in Havana. FC Stone LLC, with operations in West Des Moines, made the first sale of Iowa corn and soybeans to Cuba following that trip. In 2003, the Partnership led another trade mission to this Caribbean nation to promote Iowa’s economic relations. Ten Iowa companies participated, and state and local leaders signed a memorandum of understanding with  Cuba’s import agency in regard to agricultural opportunities between the Central Iowa business community and businesses interests in Cuba.  

Both countries have much to gain by developing closer trade and cultural ties. Lifting the embargo has the potential to transform Cuban society and would help create thousands of American jobs. A 2010 study by Texas A&M University estimates that this policy shift could result in up to $365 million in additional sales of U.S. goods, boost the U.S. economy by $1.1 billion, and create 6,000 new jobs. Specifically for Iowa, ending the embargo would result in Cuba emerging as an important market for our food and agricultural products. Reasonable estimates suggest that Iowa would gain more than $70 million worth of food and agricultural exports to Cuba, and the U.S. may find a market worth as much as $1 billion annually. But we stand to gain more than increased exports — we will be able to create links between our agribusinesses, tourism, government leaders and the Cuban people. A complete lifting of the travel ban would flood the Cuban market with U.S. tourists, democratic ideals and free market principles. 

The cost of the embargo to the United States has been high, but it has been even higher for the Cuban people. Repealing the embargo would be consistent with previous American precedent of lifting trade and travel restrictions to countries that demonstrate progress toward democratic ideals. The progress being made in Cuba pursuant to the recent reforms could be accelerated through the assistance of additional humanitarian relief and business and technical assistance.

Continuing to maintain a trade policy with Cuba based on an antiquated Cold War dispute no longer makes any sense. Ending the embargo would remove Cuba’s excuse for economic failure, help promote a transition to democracy and a free market economy in Cuba, improve the lives of the Cuban people and bring significant economic opportunities to American farmers and businesses.  

The time for change is long overdue.