top of page


Foro Cubano: Economic Sanctions in Cuba and Venezuela

Por: John Polga-Hecimovich, issue coordinator*

Agosto 2020


*John Polga-Hecimovich ( is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the U.S. Naval Academy. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of or endorsement by the Naval Academy, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government

States and international organizations impose economic sanctions to try to alter the strategic decisions of state and nonstate actors for foreign- and security-policy purposes. Broadly speaking, sanctions may be targeted, blocking transactions by and with particular groups or individuals, or comprehensive, prohibiting commercial activity with regard to an entire country. More specifically, they can take the form of travel bans, asset freezes, arms embargoes, capital restraints, foreign aid reductions, and trade restrictions. As such, sanctions constitute a form of foreign intervention that is lower-cost and lower-risk than war, although potentially costlier than non-coercive diplomacy, especially to the target country’s population.


Since the end of the Cold War, the United States (US), the European Union (EU), the United Nations (UN), China, and others have employed sanctions to achieve a wide range of foreign policy objectives, including counterterrorism, counternarcotics, nonproliferation, democracy and human rights promotion, conflict resolution, and cybersecurity. As of 2020, the UN has sanctioned 15 states, the EU 30 states, and the US 25 states as well as a number of individuals, businesses, and non-state actors. The use of sanctions has increased throughout the 2000s. China, for example, long criticized unilateral US sanctions but has now begun to employ them for their own geopolitical purposes. Meanwhile, under President Donald Trump (2017-present), the United States has turned to coercive economic measures as the primary instruments to deal with adversaries such as North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, and Russia.


This issue of Foro Cubano brings together a diverse group of scholars to explore dimensions of sanctions that the United States and others have imposed against Cuba and Venezuela. The 11 articles examine weaknesses with existing sanctions frameworks, their inability to achieve political liberalization in the two countries, the humanitarian costs involved, strategies the governments have used to bypass sanctions, and suggestions for improving the effectiveness of economic coercion.


The authors’ evaluations of sanctions’ usefulness seem to depend in part on the country of focus. The US has used sanctions for a long time in Cuba and, as the authors here show, this unilateral economic embargo has not worked to foment any change in political regime or noticeably improve human rights in the country. As such, the articles on Cuba tend to find little of value with the existing sanction frameworks. By contrast, the pieces that focus on Venezuela are generally more accepting of or even sanguine about sanctions—in part, because they are not all unilateral in nature and because they have been in place for far less time. Many of these authors instead take issue with the particulars of how the sanctions are designed or how they are applied.


To begin, Christopher Sabatini examines why US sanctions against Cuba have failed to produce democratization. He begins by pointing out that any policy needs to have an explicit goal and with it an implicit or explicit theory of change. In the case of Cuban sanctions, Sabatini makes the case that US policy goals have been inconsistent over time, while the theory of change that undergirds the sanctions is based more on a naïve hope than realism. He goes on to show how these sanctions deviate from what academic studies show to be the most efficacious practices, like multilateralism, narrow and clearly defined goals, and retaining flexibility and credibility.


Ricardo Herrero compares US policy towards Cuba under President Barack Obama to policy under President Donald Trump, focusing on how the Trump administration methodically reversed its predecessor’s policy of détente. He explains that the Obama-era policy of Cuban engagement was acknowledgment that 55 years of US embargo policy had failed to yield tangible change. While opening diplomatic relations with Cuba did not result in regime liberalization on the island, Herrero shows that it helped improve many Cubans’ lives. By contrast, a return to pre-Obama era policy under the Trump administration has yet to produce demonstrable progress toward fostering democratization, has deepened the ties between the Cuban and Venezuelan governments, and has simultaneously harmed ordinary Cubans. Like Sabatini, Herrero is pessimistic about the prospects for the current sanctions framework to achieve its designers’ goals.


Arturo López-Levy is even more critical about the intention of economic sanctions against Cuba. He argues that the economic embargo is a relic of the Cold War that seems to exist for purely punitive reasons rather than to promote human rights or democratization. In fact, turning to precepts of international law as well as the policy positions of other countries in the international system, López-Levy claims that US sanctions constitute a violation of human rights that undermines US government rhetoric to the contrary. He concludes that any political debate in the US that seriously considers human rights in its Cuba policy must advocate for a dismantling of sanctions.


Related to this issue, Laritza Diversent asks if the US embargo is justification for the restricting or suspending the human rights of the Cuban people. She begins by arguing that the economic blockade has served as a justification for the Cuban state to breach its own international commitments and human rights obligations. Then, explain the different articles of international law that the state uses to support this justification. Without underestimating the potential independent effect of the sanctions on Cubans’ human rights, Diversent concludes that the Cuban state’s explanations for imposing restrictions or limitations on individual rights have little legal merit.


The rest of the pieces focus on Venezuela. Among these, Celina Realuyo’s article summarizes the rationale behind sanctions and describes the different types of tools in the US sanctions toolkit. She then provides a broad overview of the logic behind and growing scope of US sectoral sanctions against Venezuela. Realuyo notes that while the United States has progressively ratcheted up economic pressure on the Nicolás Maduro government, these sanctions have not led to the desired transition to democracy. At least part of the reason, she believes, is sanctions evasion.


Two other articles expand upon this topic to examine precisely how the Nicolás Maduro government has blunted the effect of sanctions. Each argues for ways to make US pressure more successful at realizing a democratic transition.


Adriana Boersner describes the menu of strategies used by Maduro to mitigate the effects of economic coercion. These solutions include diverting crude exports to other buyers; seeking gasoline imports from alternative markets; diversifying trade partners; making changes to remittance regulations; extracting profits from illegal mining; keeping proceeds from illegal narcotics; using of shell companies; engaging in money laundering; and turning to digital currency. Boersner suggests that secondary sanctions will be vital to deterring foreign companies and individuals from doing business with the Venezuelan government. Similarly, disrupting illicit funding sources and non-state actors that aid the Maduro government should also be a priority.


Similarly, Ryan Berg explores how sanctions have incentivized Maduro to seek proceeds from illicit markets, especially that of gold, in order to give his administration an economic lifeline. He recommends expanding Venezuela’s sanctions perimeter and plugging the gaps in the sanctions architecture by engaging in secondary sanctions against third parties that help the Maduro government circumvent its primary sanctions. Berg believes this could lower the government’s exit costs and increase the likelihood of a political transition.


Beyond ways of improving the effectiveness of sanctions, others examine their failure to bring about change as well as their humanitarian consequences.


María Puerta Riera assesses the impact of US sanctions on the worsening humanitarian and political crisis in Venezuela. She argues that the crisis is largely the responsibility of the Maduro government and its policy decisions, although she also recognizes that US economic pressure has added to Venezuela’s misery. Puerta Riera argues that sanctions themselves are not the problem, but the Trump administration’s policy goals towards which it has applied those sanctions. Specifically, instead of directing pressure on modifying the Venezuelan government’s behavior, the US has insisted on pushing for regime change.


In their piece, Anna Ayuso and Susanne Gratius examine measures of coercion against the Venezuelan government applied by both the United States and the European Union. In comparison to their foreign policy towards Cuba, and despite some differences in policy, both the US and the EU have a similar policy goal in Venezuela. Nonetheless, Ayuso and Gratius argue that inconsistencies in how the sanctions are formulated, coordinated, and applied actually impede rather than promote a peaceful democratic transition, and may actually help further entrench Maduro in power by pushing him towards other authoritarian states. Specifically, they fault the prolonged nature of the sanctions, their unilateral application (in the case of the US), and their low effectiveness in authoritarian or hybrid regimes, especially in the absence of achievable and concrete objectives.


Focusing exclusively on consequences, Maryhen Jiménez evaluates the inability of sanctions to bring about re-democratization as well as their negative effects on the civilian population. She uses the academic literature to illustrate the limited scope and shortcomings of economic sanctions, explaining how they can lengthen the resilience of authoritarian regimes and negatively affect the poor and vulnerable groups, public health and education, NGOs, and civil society. Then, using data from Venezuela, Jiménez shows how sanctions have had the unintended effect of hurting Venezuelans and weakening Venezuelan civil society—which in turn undercuts the type of activism that can aid regime liberalization.


Building on this, Geoff Ramsey’s piece focuses is on what he perceives to be the misguided US employment of sectoral sanctions against Venezuela.  He argues that to the extent that sanctions have had any impact on internal dynamics inside the Maduro government, there is more evidence of the effectiveness of targeted individual sanctions than of the effectiveness of those aimed at businesses or the economy. Sectoral sanctions, meanwhile, have contributed to a deterioration of living standards which make it more difficult to mobilize the population. Ultimately, Ramsey suggests that the Trump administration may be employing these measures more as a virtue signal to advance its domestic political interests than a tool meant to maximize the potential for a democratic transition.


In short, all of these articles agree that the current sanctions’ frameworks in place for Cuba and Venezuela are inadequate: Cuba has managed to muddle along for the better part of 60 years without significant democratic overtures or signs of a break in the Communist regime, while Nicolás Maduro has constructed ways to bypass at least some of the restrictions imposed by US sanctions and remains firmly entrenched in power. The articles disagree, however, on what needs to change, with suggestions that range from the elimination of sanctions to easing sectoral sanctions to better applying secondary sanctions or doubling down on existing frameworks. Regardless of their prescriptions, the authors bring expertise and nuance to the public debate on the application of sanctions as a tool of international pressure.

bottom of page