The U.S. embargo against Cuba is a series of trade and travel restrictions enacted in response to the Cuban Revolution.

The 1962 policy was intended to force Cuba into economic isolation and catalyze a popular movement toward overthrowing the Castro government. It is the longest-enduring trade embargo in history. 

While the president has the authority to amend regulations that govern certain aspects of trade with and travel to Cuba, the backbone of the embargo is codified in statute, which requires congressional action to amend or repeal. Despite the easing of restrictions made under President Obama, the embargo is still strictly enforced--companies have been fined $5.2 million for violations since December 2014. 

These statutes prohibit the majority of imports and exports between the United States and Cuba, with exceptions to exports that support the Cuban people, information dissemination, and humanitarian assistance. Americans are also restricted from traveling as tourists to the island. However, regulatory policy made by executive action allows for Americans to self-certify for 12 categories of legal travel.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates that the embargo costs the U.S. economy $1.2 billion annually, while Cuba cites its own losses at $753.69 billion.

 

The relative severity of trade and travel restrictions on Cuba has ebbed and flowed over time.

In the 1990s, Congress passed three major statutes that clarified and tightened sanctions on Cuba. After a period of harsh policy toward Cuba under President George W. Bush, President Obama announced in late 2014 that Washington and Havana would begin normalizing relations. To that end, the Obama administration achieved three pillars of normalization: 1) the removal of Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism; 2) the reestablishment of diplomatic relations; and 3) relaxed restrictions on travel and trade through executive action.

In 2017, the Trump administration reversed some of the changes made under President Obama, but the vast majority remain U.S. policy. Despite some tighter trade sanctions and limitations on authorized travel, there are still many legal pathways for Americans to export and travel to Cuba.

Regardless of the degree to which a U.S. president wishes to tighten or relax restrictions on Cuba, a complete repeal of the embargo will require congressional action.                      

Today, there are five main statutes through which the embargo is enforced: 

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FOREIGN ASSISTANCE ACT

The Foreign Assistance Act (FAA) authorizes the president to establish a total embargo of all trade between the U.S. and Cuba. It was cited by President Kennedy when he first imposed the embargo in 1962.

TRADING WITH THE ENEMY ACT

In 1962, the Trading with the Enemy Act (TWEA) of 1917 was amended to broaden the authority of the president to impose a travel and trade embargo on Cuba.

CUBAN DEMOCRACY ACT

The Cuba Democracy Act (CDA) prohibits foreign subsidiaries of U.S. companies from trading with Cuba. It also establishes the “180-day rule,” which prevents vessels from loading and unloading freight in the U.S. if it has aided trade with Cuba in the past 180 days.    

HELMS-BURTON ACT

The Helms-Burton or LIBERTAD (Cuban Liberty and Democracy Solidarity) Act outlines plans for democracy assistance to Cuba in the event it begins a democratic transition. Importantly, it also codifies the embargo into permanent law, including the Cuban Assets Control Regulations under the Department of the Treasury. It prevents the president from unilaterally lifting the embargo without congressional approval until Cuba meets certain democratic conditions. 

TRADE SANCTIONS REFORM AND EXPORT ENHANCEMENT ACT

The Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act (TSRA) authorizes certain agricultural, pharmaceutical, and medical device exports to Cuba, but stipulates that these transactions must be paid for by cash in advance, effectively prohibiting private financing for exports to Cuba. It also restricts tourist travel to Cuba.