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For Educators:
The U.S. Trade Embargo on Cuba
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Lesson Plan

Impact and Solutions
This lesson is designed for Grades 9-12

Lesson Objectives

In this lesson, students will:
  • Examine perspectives for and against the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba.
  • Investigate the historical background of the embargo.
  • Develop a position on the embargo.
  • Articulate viewpoints in a public forum.

Related National Standards

This lesson addresses the following national content standards outlined by McREL at

US History
Era 10, Standard 30
Understands developments in foreign policy and domestic politics between the Nixon and Clinton presidencies.

Era 9, Standard 27
Understands how the Cold War and conflicts in Korea and Vietnam influenced domestic and international politics.
Level IV, Benchmark 1
Understands U.S. foreign policy from the Truman administration to the Johnson administration (e.g., American policies toward independence movements in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East; U.S. policy regarding the British mandate over Palestine and the establishment of the state of Israel; Kennedy's response to the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile crises; how the Korean War affected the premises of U.S. foreign policy; the Kennedy-Johnson response to anti-colonial movements in Africa).

Standard 23
Understands the impact of significant political and nonpolitical developments on the United States and other nations.
Level IV, Benchmark 3
Understands the effects that significant American political developments have on other nations (e.g., immigration policies; opposition to communism; promotion of human rights; foreign trade; economic, military, and humanitarian aid).

Standard 22
Understands how the world is organized politically into nation-states, how nation-states interact with one another, and issues surrounding U.S. foreign policy.
Level IV, Benchmark 3 Understands the major foreign policy positions that have characterized the United States' relations with the world (e.g. isolated nation, imperial power, world leader).

Estimated Time to Complete Lesson

Two to three class periods to set up and discuss lesson issues; however, students will need additional time to conduct research and write position papers. Time frames are flexible depending upon teacher priorities for the lesson.

Materials Needed

  • Timeline organizer
  • Viewing organizer
  • Assessment rubric
  • Copy of 9/20/02 NOW WITH BILL MOYERS broadcast and TV/VCR, or copies of the transcript for the segment of the program featuring the U.S. embargo on Cuba
  • Internet access, or copies of relevant pages
  • Suggestion: A video camera or use of television production facilities to make an archival videotape of the session.

Backgrounder for Teachers

Just 90 miles from Key West, the island of Cuba has been the source of both enormous economic profits and problems for the United States. During the late 19th century, the U.S. controlled the Cuban sugar industry and purchased 87% of Cuba's exports. Significant U.S. economic investments in Cuba motivated continued U.S. involvement in Cuban affairs. A history of U.S. relations with Cuba is outlined in a detailed timeline provided by 'NOW with Bill Moyers.'

Fidel Castro assumed control of Cuba in 1959. As part of his revolutionary reforms, the Cuban government expropriated large U.S. estates, oil refineries, and other economic assets. He also allied himself with the Communist Party and fostered a strong ally in the U.S.'s Cold War enemy, the Soviet Union. As a result, U.S. relations with Cuba were cut off both diplomatically and economically, the U.S. tried unsuccessfully to overthrow Castro, and Cold War tensions escalated dangerously and dramatically during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Today, Castro is still in power, U.S./Cuban relations remain cool, and the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba continues.

This lesson looks at current U.S. policy towards Cuba and examines the question of whether or not the economic embargo on Cuba should be lifted.

For additional background information, please consult the Related Resources found at the end of this lesson.

Assumed Student Prior Knowledge

It is assumed that students have some background on the causes of the Cold War and the rise of Fidel Castro. This lesson could be especially effective following study of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Some knowledge of the benefits of international trade would also be helpful.

Teaching Strategy

1. In preparing for the lesson, review the timeline of U.S./Cuba relations and select five key events that outline U.S. relations with Cuba leading up to the embargo. Suggested events include:

a. 1880's - U.S. is dominant trade partner with the Spanish colony of Cuba
b. 1898 - U.S. helps Cuba achieve independence from Spain in Spanish American War
c. 1901 - U.S. protects its financial interests in Cuba with Platt Amendment to the Cuban constitution (permits U.S. intervention in Cuban affairs and blocks Cuba from establishing treaties or financial relationships with other countries.)
d. 1960 - Cuba nationalizes U.S. corporate assets, resulting in U.S. sanctions and a partial embargo on Cuba.
e. 1961 - U.S. cuts all diplomatic relations with Cuba and tries to overthrow Fidel Castro in the botched Bay of Pigs invasion. Total embargo of Cuba put in place
2. Begin the lesson by distributing copies of the timeline organizer (PDF file) and your list of chosen events that outline U.S. relations with Cuba leading up to the embargo. Be sure the list of events is not provided in chronological order. Challenge students to place events on the timeline in the appropriate sequence. After five minutes or so, ask students to reveal what they think came first chronologically, and why they chose that event. Continue in like manner through the rest of the events, filling in a timeline organizer that everyone can see (i.e. on an overhead projector, the chalkboard, poster paper, etc.).

3. As part of the timeline discussion, be sure to define the term "embargo" if students are unfamiliar with it. Also, provide additional background by explaining that Castro espoused a Marxist-Leninist philosophy and cultivated close relations with the Soviet Union under his regime. While the U.S. was angry with Cuba for taking over American economic assets on the island, the U.S. was also worried that having a communist nation so close to American shores could threaten national security. Such fears took center stage during the Cuban Missile Crisis, greatly increasing U.S. distrust of Cuba. Ongoing ties between Cuba and the Soviet Union perpetuated poor relations between the U.S. and Cuba during the Cold War. The U.S. embargo on Cuba is still in place today, but has been eased somewhat to allow American medicines and food into Cuba. The class will now explore the question of whether or not the embargo should continue to remain in place.

4. Introduce the next activity by telling students that they will be playing the role of White House staff members who have been asked to form committees to review whether or not the U.S. embargo on Cuba should be lifted, and then to make a policy recommendation to the president based on the results of their research and discussion. Explain that since various views on the issue need to be considered while developing policy, students will form six groups that will research supporting information for their viewpoint and then develop a "position paper" related to their area of focus. Each group will then use their paper to advocate for their viewpoint to the entire advisory group (the class) in the effort to formulate a policy recommendation for the president.

5. Organize students into the following six groups (the number of students in each group will depend on the number of students in the class):

Position: Remove the EmbargoPosition: Keep the Embargo
Political Committee (focused on what political advantages and disadvantages would occur with rescinding the embargo)Political Committee (focused on what political advantages and disadvantages would occur with rescinding the embargo)
Economic Committee (focused on what economic advantages and disadvantages would occur with rescinding the embargo)Economic Committee (focused on what economic advantages and disadvantages would occur with maintaining the embargo)
Humanitarian Committee (focused on what humanitarian advantages and disadvantages would occur with rescinding the embargo)Humanitarian Committee (focused on what humanitarian advantages and disadvantages would occur with maintaining the embargo)

You may wish to designate, or have students select a group chairperson whose role it would be to direct research and guide the individual committee sessions, and a secretary, who would take notes of the session and either draw up the committee report or direct the construction of the report.

6. Provide students with your expectations for the "position paper." It is suggested that the paper include the following:

  • A definition of terms related to the topic (embargo, trade, etc.)
  • A history of the situation/problem
  • Issues with the current system, or what is correct about the current system
  • Communal solutions to problems identified by the group
  • Proper grammar and spelling as well as accurate historical facts

7. In addition to organizing groups, assign one student to be the "Chief of Staff" for when the groups present their viewpoints to the presidential advisors (entire class). Since there is bound to be friction between groups in regard to their position on the embargo, the "Chief of Staff" can act as a moderator, summarizing various viewpoints, as well as helping groups to reach some sort of consensus on various issues. In addition, the "Chief of Staff" should be prepared to act as a "discussion leader," ensuring that all sides get a fair hearing, and that any student wishing to speak has an opportunity to do so. The "Chief of Staff", as a White House employee, doesn't necessarily actually contribute to any one group, but he/she does have a pivotal role in helping the groups work toward a consensus view that they can present to the president as a policy recommendation

8. Once the students are organized and understand their task, jump start each group's research process by showing the approximately 16 minute NOW WITH BILL MOYERS segment on the U.S. embargo on Cuba. Distribute copies of the Viewing Organizer (PDF file) to help students capture information presented in the video. (Note: A free transcript of this segment is available on the NOW Web site. Teachers may also tape the broadcast off-air and use it in the classroom for one year. Alternatively, programs are available for purchase from ShopPBS (

9. The following outline of the segment (with approximate timings) will help you identify areas where you might want to pause the video and discuss what students are seeing.

00:23Interview with U.S. tourists in Cuba
01:19Interview with former CIA agent Philip Agee, who is in favor of lifting the embargo
03:14Scenes of Cuba prior to Castro's revolution
03:54References to the development of the U.S. embargo, as well as Cuba's reliance on Soviet aid
04:50Changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba, including delivery of food products after Hurricane Michelle
06:15Interview with Cuban official in charge of imports to Cuba (Pedro Alvarez)
08:00Interview with Archer Daniels Midland executive, in favor of lifting the embargo (Tony DeLio)
09:06Interview with State Department official Otto Reich (Cuban refugee opposed to lifting embargo)
10:05Interview with Illinois Governor George Ryan, who is in favor of lifting the embargo
11:47Segment showing various economic problems currently facing Cuba due to Castro regime and embargo
14:04Segment interviewing several Cuban natives who are in favor of stronger economic ties between Cuba and the U.S.
16:04Final comments from Reich, who notes that US tourists and companies are putting money in the hands of a "Communist dictator"

It is suggested that the video remain available for further review by student groups during the project.

10. Students should now continue the research and development of their position papers. (A list of related Web sites is provided toward the end of this lesson plan.) As they work, circulate among the groups and be sure students are on track with meeting their committee's objectives. If students seem stuck, teachers could cue students with the following:

a. Political committees: What issues related to the embargo could impact the president's chances for re-election? Keep in mind the importance of Florida, with its significant electoral votes and a high percentage of Cuban refugees.

b. Economic committees: Lifting the embargo could benefit both Cuban and U.S. economies. In the U.S., Cuban trade could absorb U.S. industrial surpluses and increase corporate profits. In Cuba, U.S. trade could repair a declining Cuban infrastructure and economy, and possibly encourage Cuban politicians and businesses to adopt U.S. business and political practices.

c. Humanitarian committees: Open U.S. trade with Cuba would provide more food, medicines, tourism, and consumer goods that could improve the Cuban quality of life.

11. After a suitable amount of time for research and writing, have each group present their view before the presidential advisors (the entire class), with the "Chief of Staff" managing the process as described in step 7. Remind students that while they should not completely give up on their viewpoint during discussion, they should be prepared to compromise and work with other students in the class to develop a consensus policy recommendation that will give the best advice to the president. Allow time for debate after group presentations, as well as the opportunity for groups to amend or revise their positions. In melding committee positions into one policy recommendation for the president, one approach might be a "committee meeting" of the six committee chairpersons, with other committee members acting as staff persons to assist the chairs in creating the final "position paper." Alternatively, the Chief of Staff could be responsible for generating the final policy recommendation to submit to the president. (Note: The goal of the "staff meeting" is to reach a consensus to advise the president as to what course he should take. However, as in real life, it may be impossible for the groups to achieve consensus. Should this happen, you could carry over the committee meetings to the next class period or ask the Chief of Staff to summarize the views at that point in time and submit that as the final committee report, possibly noting dissenting viewpoints briefly as cautionary statements.)

Assessment Recommendations

Use the provided assessment rubric (PDF file) for evaluating each group's performance in the lesson's main activity.

Extension Ideas

1. If time permits, classes could duplicate the session with the students switching sides - with those on the side to rescind becoming the side to maintain the embargo, and vice versa.

2. Smaller classes could pursue a "class debate" format instead of the activity outlined in the lesson. In a debate, students would argue "pro" or "con" in regard to a resolution, such as "RESOLVED: The United States' trade embargo against Cuba should be ended." Generally, debates tend to be more adversarial than the activity discussed above. Teachers wanting to investigate a more formal debate structure may do so by reviewing the resources at Debate Central (

Related Resources

A variety of sites have been provided below to save time and assist with research. How many sites to use and which ones have been left up to you.

Carefully evaluate the following sites before sending students to them, noting that some sites may also contain content that could distract students from their task at hand and/or be questionable to your school's Internet policies. Also, it is suggested that time be taken with the class to discuss proper ways of doing Internet research, including determining the validity of a source.

(Note: If Internet access is problematic, it is suggested that the teacher bring printed copies of pages from relevant sites for class groups to use for their research.)

Keep the Embargo

Should the World Maintain Sanctions Against the Castro Regime? An essay on maintaining sanctions in Cuba, posted on the Florida International University site.

Agricultural Economist Discuss Embargo
A report from the University of Florida stating that Florida agriculture might be adversely affected if the embargo was lifted.

America's Embargo of Cuba: What Result After 35 Years?
A Christian Science Monitor story examining the impact of the embargo and why neither the Castro regime nor the U.S. government would want the embargo lifted.

Remove the Embargo

American Anthropological Association Statement on Cuban Trade Embargo
A statement from the American Anthropological Association condemning the trade embargo.

Editorial: Let's Lift the Cuban Trade Embargo
An editorial from the St. Anthony Messenger suggesting the embargo be lifted.

"Opinion: Cuban trade embargo hurting U.S. farmers"
A Puget Sound Business Journal editorial that asserts that the embargo hurts U.S. farmers.

Collection of Anti-Blockade Articles
A Cuban site with numerous writings against the embargo.

Current U.S. Policy Towards Cuba

State Department: Cuba
Information on current U.S. policy toward Cuba, provided by the State Department. Additional State Department resources on Cuba, including a map, can be found at Archived information from the Clinton Administration can be found at

President Bush Announces Initiative for a New Cuba
The text of President George W. Bush's speech announcing that he will not end the embargo.

Detroit News
A Detroit News story from May 2002 discussing President George W. Bush's decision to go against former President Jimmy Carter's suggestion to end the Cuban trade embargo.

Cuba Policy Foundation
An anti-embargo group, The Cuba Policy Foundation tracks U.S. legislative policy toward Cuba.

Cuban News Sites

Cuba Free Press
The Cuba Free Press site, a privately funded news organization in Miami, Florida. Stories are provided in both English and Spanish.

The CubaNet site, a news organization operating in Florida, but with journalists in Cuba calling in stories daily.

News sanctioned by the Cuban government, including a report on ending the embargo at

Other Sites

Fidel Castro Interview
A 1985 MACNEIL/LEHRER NEWSHOUR interview with Fidel Castro discussing human rights, political prisoners, and dissent in Cuba.

Fidel Castro's Speeches
A database of Castro's speeches provided by the University of Texas.

University of Texas: Sources on Cuba
A directory, provided by the University of Texas, of online resources for academic research of Cuba.

NewsHour: Life in Cuba
A 2001 NEWSHOUR WITH JIM LEHRER spotlight on life in Cuba.

Photo Essay: Cuba
A Washington Post photo essay on Cuba.

CIA World Fact Book, Cuba
The CIA "World Fact Book" page on Cuba, including a map, plus economic, social, geographic, and political information on Cuba.

U.S./Cuba Trade and Economic Council
The site for the U.S./Cuba Trade and Economic Council, based in New York. The organization's goal is to provide information and analysis on U.S./Cuba political and economic relations. (Site mostly includes highlights.)

The Center for a Free Cuba
The site for The Center for a Free Cuba, an organization "promoting human rights and a transition to democracy and the rule of law on the island."

The site named in the NOW WITH BILL MOYERS segment, providing tourism information for Cuba.

About the Author

Michael Hutchison teaches social studies at Lincoln High School in Vincennes, Indiana, and is a part-time instructor at Vincennes University. In 2002, Michael was awarded the "Technology-Using Teacher" award by the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), and was also named "Teacher of the Year" by the Indiana Computer Educators. In 1999, he was named Midwest regional winner in Technology and Learning Magazine's "Teacher of the Year" contest, and in 1996 and 1997, he was national first place prizewinner in Rifkin and Associates' 21st Century Teacher competition. In addition, Michael hosts a regular online social studies (teachers') forum in TAPPED IN, serves as a faculty member for Connected University, and has authored several lessons for PBS programming, including "The Civil War." He is also a member of the PBS TeacherSource Advisory Group.

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