Yesterday, the United Nations General Assembly voted 188-2 urging that United States ends its embargo on Cuba. Although John Kennedy started off the embargo back in 1962, the Cuban Democracy Act, which strengthened the embargo, was signed about twenty years ago. Under normal circumstances, I am disinclined to agree with the United Nations because they have an anti-Israel bias, they have no grasp of human rights, and they are responsible for such scandals as the Food for Oil Programme and UN troops committing sexual assault. Even though I am hardly a fan of the United Nations, I have to agree with the United Nations in this instance because although the embargo might have a nice intention (like most government interventions), the truth of the matter is that liberalized trade works much better than economic sanctions do.
Although Cuba has a while to go in terms of freedom, Raúl Castro has made some marginal improvements in way of economic reforms (see recent end of dual currency), as can be seen by Freedom House and the Heritage Index of Economic Freedom. The United States offered Romania, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary normal trade relations after they started to make marginal reforms back in the 1970s, even in spite of their past human rights violations.
If the embargo has essentially been in effect since 1962 and has done nothing to liberalize Cuba's economy or free its people from Communism, why bother having the embargo? Cuba has not been an economic or militaristic threat for quite some time. All the embargo does is that it turns America into a scapegoat so that Cuba can avoid dealing with its own issues, and the all while, the embargo is pushing Cuba towards nations that are not friendly towards the United States, such as Colombia and Venezuela.
The embargo is simply not a matter of doing nothing to liberalize Cuba. There are also economic effects of the embargo. In 2009, the United States Chamber of Congress and United States International Trade Commissions estimated that the embargo costs United States approximately $1 billion in exports per annum. Although one could argue that the state-owned government would receive a good chunk of the economic benefits, trade would still relieve the Cuban government of dollars more quickly, at which point the United States could reclaim those dollars.
Furthermore, the Unites States does plenty of trade with countries that have egregious human rights records, most notably China, which is one of the United States' largest trading partners. Looking at foreign policy history, the United States has a precedent of supporting authoritarian regimes, including Pinochet's Chile, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Batista's Cuba, the very regime that was so oppressive that it triggered Castro to rise to power. With all the other nations out there with lousy human rights, why is Cuba the one nation singled out with an embargo? Also, if improving upon human rights is a basis for the embargo, doesn't it seem hypocritical for the United States to try to promote democracy while prohibiting travel to Cuba? You know something is off when it is easier for an American to travel to North Korea than it is to travel to Cuba.
The embargo on Cuba is nothing more than a vestige from Cold War-era foreign policy. It has done nothing to alter the path of the Cuban government, and it has not liberated a single Cuban citizen. What the embargo has done is stifle trade and economic progress. Its failure should not be a basis for its supposed eternal necessity. History teaches us that countries have a much better chance to acquire freedom if they are allowed to trade in the global economy. China's Open Door Policy of 1978 is a good example of that. We started trading with China, and before we knew it, China's policies have been heading more so in the right direction over time. Even with uncertainties of Cuba's future, the Cuban nation would have a much better chance of succeeding if the United States removed the embargo than if it continues with this antiquated, failed policy.
12-17-2014 Addendum: Since Obama is considering removing the embargo on Cuba, I figured I should post this piece from Vox on seven reasons why the embargo is bad policy.