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US-Cuba Sanctions: Are They Working Yet?

Por: Christopher Sabatini*

Agosto 2020


*PhD, Senior Research Fellow for Latin America, Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House)

It’s easy to take a look at the array of economic and diplomatic punitive policies that the sanctions-happy Trump administration has slapped on individuals and countries from Argentina to Iran and conclude that they have failed to achieve their oft-stated lofty objectives.  With US oil sanctions on Venezuela, trade sanctions on select Argentine and Brazilian exports, and the tightening of the US embargo on Cuba, sanctions have become a go-to tool of the administration of President Donald Trump.  And that only includes those in the Western Hemisphere; don’t even mention those the White House has imposed on Iran and China, all intended to achieve political and economic goals. 


Have they worked so far?  Some have.  Some have not.  All of this leads to a legitimate question: when do they? The most extreme example, the US embargo on Cuba -- first imposed by executive order under the Trading with the Enemy Act in 1961 and then codified into law by the unironically titled the Cuba Democracy Act (1992) and Libertad Act (1996) passed by Congress  --has failed miserably, but remains an article of faith among its advocates, the bulk of them in South Florida.  In case anyone hasn’t noticed, the 1992 Democracy Act and 1996 Libertad Act have failed to produce either democracy or liberty in Cuba… yet their potential efficacy persists in the collective imaginations of their supporters.  Why?


Let’s start with the basic notion of policy efficacy.  Any policy needs to have an explicit goal and with it an implicit or explicit theory of change.  Whether it’s trade negotiations or putting a warning on cigarette packages that “smoking kills”, these efforts share an explicit idea of the change they seek to foster and the causal relationships to achieve them.  In the case of the former, it’s that integrating countries into a norm-based trade deal will incentivize better governance and more accountability on matters of customs, the environment, and labor rights.  In the case of the latter, it’s that smokers reaching for their next cigarette will notice the warning of cancer, birth defects, or impotence (in the case of Brazil) and reconsider. And the best thing is that all of these are testable and, in theory, subject to course correction if they are not meeting their intended goals.  Has advertising reduced the incidence of smoking?  Are workers better paid and receiving better health benefits and labor protections under the trade agreement several years on?


None of those has applied on the US’s embargo on Cuba.  First, the policy goals have changed.  In some cases, it has been stated that the limitations on US commerce and travel to the island is to reduce the regime’s international support for autocratic regimes.  But as Cuba’s to-the-death support of the Nicolas Maduro government in Venezuela has demonstrated this is not working.  Arguably it has had the opposite effect: by making impoverishing the state-centered Cuban economy the embargo has made the regime more dependent on the oil that Venezuela supplies the island nation.  In other cases, the state goal has been regime change as the titles of the 1992 and 1996 acts reveal.   The latter even lays out a set of conditions that must be present in Cuba before the Congress can lift the trade and diplomatic isolation the US has imposed on the island unilaterally. Those include the release of political prisoners, the absence of any Castro family members from decision-making, and credible steps toward free and fair elections.  In case anyone hasn’t been paying attention, 24 years after the passage of the Libertad Act, Cuba is no closer to achieving not just one but any of those goals despite the putative incentive of a full and complete lifting of the embargo.  


The question here is the implicit theory of change for the embargo.  Here, embargo supporters have never been clear about this link – I suspect because it would bind them to objective evaluation and (heaven forbid) a potential questioning of whether almost 50 years of policy deserves re-evaluation.  This is the best that I can discern from their slavish faith in an embargo’s potential success.  (Note: this is not unique to Cuba but undergirds US administration’s sanctions policy toward Venezuela and Iran).


First, there is the implied hope that sanctions will impose such costs and suffering on the general population that the masses will rise up and shake off autocratic rule of their overlords.  There are several problems with this.  One is that general sanctions that reduce access to foodstuffs and finances – as has been the case in the US embargo on Cuba and sanctions on Venezuela – lowers the incentives for protest.  It concentrates the government’s political and economic control over the population rather than weakening it.  More, people who are hungry living under a repressive government simply are not that likely to rise up; they are often more concerned with the day-to-day survival. Second, there is this inexplicably optimistic notion that either those in power or those around them will see the light of day and decide to step down.  I’ll confess that this one has always confused me.  Promoters of sanctions often have a cold-eyed reality of the nature of evil of autocratic governments, which is good.  So why do they believe in some hidden decency among its inner circles?  In truth, the purveyors of this view deny the basic and laudable basis for their hatred of autocrats: their bottomless cruelty and disregard for their own people. 


There is also a growing body of research on the efficacy of sanctions.  Sadly, promoters of sanctions as a US foreign policy tool remain blissfully ignorant of it – whether for reasons of intellectual lack of curiosity or inability to reckon with cognitive dissonance. That comparative research has revealed a number of conclusions, none of which appear to have been considered by current policymakers in the White House or State Department.


The first of these is that sanctions work when they are implemented broadly by a wide coalition of governments.  Most of the sanctions that have succeeded in their intentions have been along those lines including the UN sanctions on Iran to push the country to a nuclear deal.   The second is that the goals of sanctions should be narrow and clearly defined.  Successful cases, as Daniel Drezner who wrote a book on the topic has detailed, have been tied to specific goals.  Regime change is not one of those.  It is too broad and amorphous – though as I say above also unrealistic in its logic between intended effect and the targeted individual. 


A third element of successful sanctions is keeping them flexible and credible. As detailed in a Council on Foreign Relations backgrounder “the target must believe that sanctions will be increased or reduced based on its behavior.”  That’s never been the case with Cuba sanctions under the Democracy or Libertad acts.  Instead, sanctions relief is presented as a binary choice: democracy or nothing.   There are no provisions for intermediate steps that could potentially incentivize changes of behavior toward loosening state control and reducing human rights abuses.  The recent tightening of the US embargo that have included restrictions on US travel to the island and financial transactions under the Trump White House has been disconnected from any specific policy changes in the island.  In this case, human rights conditions had not taken a dramatic turn for the worse that the changes were linked to or intended to punish.  They were instead intended to simply ratchet up pressure for an embargo which advocates felt was too leaky and hope for a collapse that would weaken the Maduro regime.


That is precisely the problem for many of the most strident advocates of the US-Cuba embargo: the policy has become the objective, divorced from one-the-ground realities and incentives to move them forward.  Yes, there is the legitimate concern that the sanctions hurt the very people that the policy claims to defend.  And yes, they also serve as a rallying point for the Castro regime and a way to cover up for its own economic failures.  But the most damning indictment of the embargo is that in its almost 50-year history it has failed to achieve its objectives. In fact, it hasn’t even come close.


If the matter is the efficacy of sanctions, then the US embargo on Cuba does not meet the test.  It’s not limited to Cuba.  None of the cases of regime change that many of the embargo advocates love to cite, communist Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union and South Africa had embargos as tight or isolating as those imposed on Cuba for nearly half a century.  There’s a reason for that.  It’s logic, or lack of it.

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