13. Memorandum From Senator George McGovern to
President Carter1


  • Merits and Tactics of Partially Lifting the Cuban Embargo

Objectives of Cuba Policy

The objectives of U.S. policy toward Cuba should be three-fold:

(a) Geopolitical—to gain some influence on Cuba’s international conduct;

(b) Bilateral—to achieve progress on certain specific issues of U.S. concern; and

(c) Humanitarian—to assist, or at least not impede, the Cuban Government’s genuine effort to foster a better life for a people historically plagued by poverty and illiteracy.

The Value of Moving to Normalize Economic Relations

All three of these purposes can be served by a gradual restoration of economic relations between the United States and Cuba:

(a) Geopolitically, President Castro understands that U.S.-Cuban trade, once begun, would constitute an important economic interest for Cuba, which the Cuban Government would thereafter have to weigh carefully in setting its other policies, domestic and international. Indeed, Castro perceives—I think correctly—that the political risk involved in opening economic relations is almost entirely on the Cuban side, because in accepting the economic benefits, Cuba would inevitably have imposed on it certain constraints. This does not mean that Cuba would tolerate any attempt to impose explicit conditions, but the constraints, though circumstantial, would nonetheless be very real. In addition, an obvious corollary of an enhanced U.S. role in Cuban economic life is a diminution of the relative influence on Cuba of the Soviet Union.

(b) Concerning bilateral matters of U.S. concern—such as extending the hi-jacking agreement, negotiating on expropriation claims, and diminishing Cuban agitation on the Puerto Rican issue—it is clear that [Page 31] any progress is now dependent on the U.S. lifting the embargo, at least partially. To be sure, the U.S. has already taken certain affirmative steps—by allowing travel to Cuba and negotiating on a fisheries agreement that Cuba needs. But it must be recognized that, in the overall process of normalization, the Cuban negotiating position is relatively weak, so U.S. policy cannot be premised on the idea that each step must involve equal and reciprocal benefits. To get on to those issues we care about, we will have to take action of some kind on the embargo. While a full lifting right away might deprive us of certain useful leverage, a partial lifting would create a favorable climate for negotiating on a number of issues—without sacrificing the strength of our negotiating position.

(c) Humanitarian considerations also favor a lifting of the embargo, at least partially, to allow the Cuban people access to U.S. food and medicine.2 Moreover, over the longer term, the restoration of normal relations will serve other humanitarian interests. Cuba is already strong in those areas of human rights which pertain to the right of people to be free from hunger, ignorance, and disease, but is obviously weak as regards the free movement of people and ideas. A gradual normalization—involving expanded economic and cultural relations with the U.S. and the reunification of families—will obviously serve to open up Cuban society.


In the early 1960’s, a complicated pyramid of executive and legislative prohibitions was erected against U.S. economic relations with Cuba, and it will now require cooperative action by the two branches if that pyramid is to be entirely disassembled. As matters now stand the President acting alone can take a number of major steps, but there may be political wisdom in involving Congress at an early stage, to lessen the possibility that the normalization process will be undercut at mid-point by Congressional intransigence. One way to obtain such early Congressional involvement would be to enact the partial lifting of the embargo (for food and medicine), which might involve a small amount of controversy but which would, if and when successful, explicitly commit Congress to a movement toward normalization. This, at the beginning, would provide considerable latitude for subsequent Executive action. If a Congress-first approach is to be followed, all that is required on the part of the Executive Branch is that it not oppose the [Page 32] enactment of the food-and-medicine provision which I now intend to append to the annual State Department authorization bill.

Whatever approach is taken—Executive action or Congressional—it should be remembered that the policy is reversible. Even if Congress were to enact the partial lifting, the President would retain full authority to reimpose a total embargo at any time. Thus the partial lifting of the embargo can and should be viewed as a concession to Cuba which could, in the worst case, be withdrawn.

With regard to the American public’s reaction to normalization moves, there would seem to be no formidable barriers, either economic or political. On the economic side, the principal potential Cuban export to the U.S. is sugar, which is already on the world market so that its effect on prices is being felt even now. If import quotas were at any point to be imposed, Cuba could be dealt with under whatever criteria were then established. On the positive side, there are of course many U.S. companies interested in selling to the Cuban market. As regards the political or ideological side of public opinion, polls seem to vary. But my own poll—taken personally among the dozens of conservative South Dakotans who traveled to Cuba for the basketball games—showed unanimous support for the opening of economic relations: “I don’t agree with everything they’re doing down here, but if we can trade with China and Russia, why not Cuba?”

George McGovern
  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Brzezinski Office File, Country Chron File, Box 11, Cuba, 5/77. No classification marking. A stamped note on the first page reads, “The President has seen.” Carter wrote in the margin, “To Cy & Zbig. Brief comment.” McGovern was a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
  2. On January 18, McGovern had introduced S.314, a bill to amend the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 to terminate the embargo on the export of food and medicine to Cuba. The bill was referred to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.