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Cuba: When Sanctions and Embargoes Backfire

December 17, 2014

by J. Andrew Zalucky


The news about the normalization of relations with Cuba is rolling in, and though the story is still developing, I had some quick thoughts.

Despite their intention, economic sanctions and embargoes often produce the opposite of their intended effect. When geopolitical rivals bite each other economically, the most severe results often come down on ordinary citizens, not the leaders they are meant to target. And thus it has been the case with Cuba since the Eisenhower administration. Despite overtures of caring for the long-suffering Cuban people, the embargo only served to provide the Castro dictatorship with more ammunition to fire against “the great Satan” of America and the West.

Because sanctions and embargoes hurt the average person the most, this allows his or her leader to craft the narrative that “See?! This shows just how evil the decadent, zionist, capitalist pigs really are!” Sanctions haven’t helped the North Korean people see their rulers for the psychopaths that they are. It will be interesting to see if a similar normalization occurs there one day as well. This is not to say that sanctions are never necessary. It’s different when applied to countries of similar power, like in the case of Russia, where its used as an alternative to sending NATO troops into eastern Europe. Still, this doesn’t mean that Russian opinion of Putin will suddenly change, and Putin has been very skillful in painting the sanctions as a sign of the West’s ambitions to “bring Russia to her knees.”

Anyway, what I mean to do here is show that US policy has clearly been misguided from the start. Anyone still holding onto the idea that the Cuban people need to be punished because of their leadership need to be reminded that the Earth kept spinning after 1991- despite dreams to the contrary.
As Daniel Larison writes in The American Conservative:

It is the removal of a barrier that has been senselessly maintained for more than five decades. If anyone is being punished by the embargo, it is the people in America and Cuba that would otherwise have productive commercial and cultural exchanges. The U.S. gains nothing by persisting in the embargo. On the contrary, it needlessly alienates Latin American governments and puts the U.S. in the absurd position of defending a Cold War relic. Normalization is twenty years overdue, and nothing will be gained by delaying it any longer.

There is obviously no incentive for the other government to change its behavior when there is no realistic chance of gaining relief from the punitive measures that the U.S. imposes. The only value that sanctions might conceivably have is in the concessions that can be gained by promising to lift them, but when there is no willingness to relax or repeal punitive measures their value evaporates. Our Cuba policy should be taken as a cautionary tale of how a failed policy of using punitive measures against another government can survive thanks to its own continued failure, and we should also adjust our policies elsewhere accordingly.

The note about commercial and cultural exchanges is extremely important. People tend to forget that democratic civil society functions best with an economically empowered, property-owning middle class which has the leverage to keep elitist factions in check. Under a dictatorship, no such check exists, and can only change when material, economic conditions move and force the change upon the regime. Sanctions only prolong the pain, making the exchanges needed to foster the demand for goods, services and labor impossible or only feasible through a black market.

Though I’m sure there will be a lot of Cold-War revivalist chatter on a certain side of the political spectrum today, I think time will show the Obama administration made the right call.

Man, I haven’t said that in a long time.

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