Embargoes and delusions

Sanctions backfired because they provided the regime with an excuse to shun its responsibilities, and impoverishing the average Cuban made him altogether more state dependent. Español.

Farid Kahhat
4 February 2015
Cuba is 90 miles south of Florida.

Cuba is 90 miles south of Florida. Wikicommons. Some rights reserved.Quite understandably, back in the 1960s, it was hard to foresee that economic sanctions against Cuba would not achieve their main objective, namely the end of the Communist regime.

Allowances can also be made for the fact that neither was it anticipated that sanctions would turn out to be counterproductive, for they hurt the average citizen and strengthened the regime. But to keep on repeating in 2015 the old mantra over and over, without logic or remorse, deserves to be compared to a pun in a play of the Theatre of the Absurd. For if there is something we do not need today in order to know the truth about what we were unaware of fifty years ago, it is evidence: sources such as the Threats and Imposition of Sanctions (TIES) database are available for free on the internet to anyone who cares to go through them.

But the evidence is clear: sanctions with maximalist purposes, such as regime change, are hardly ever successful. And partial sanctions to achieve more limited purposes - such as, in 1960, seeking compensation for the expropriation of US citizens’ property - have a somewhat higher chance of succeeding, but are still in the lower range. It might have been expected, even in the 60s, that one would not obtain any compensation from a regime one is trying simultaneously to overthrow by every means to hand.

That sanctions would backfire because they provide the regime with an excuse to shun its responsibilities, and since impoverishing the average Cuban made him altogether more state dependent, such conclusions could also have been reached through the research gathered in recent decades. Daniel Drezner, for example, found that authoritarian regimes usually redistribute the impact of sanctions, so that their cost falls on vulnerable groups or political rivals, but not necessarily on the regime itself. Worse still, sanctions can be used to reward the regime’s allies - for instance, the Iranian government grants companies linked to the Revolutionary Guard a prominent role in smuggling operations and the black market, thereby reinforcing their loyalty.

 Another way of thinking has it that sanctions are beginning to be lifted precisely when they had at last a chance to succeed. The argument goes that, given the severe economic crisis in Venezuela, it is now possible that this country will reduce - or even stop - its subsidies to Cuba in the near future. This is a counter-factual argument: considering that sanctions are being lifted gradually, we shall never know if they would have worked out had the chosen scenario been maintained.

The problem with this argument is that the scenario invoked here is hardly new. Cuba lost even larger subsidies after the disappearance of the Soviet Union in 1991, and Hugo Chávez took office as president of Venezuela for the first time in 1999: this interregnum is called Período Especial (Special Period) because it was particularly dramatic for Cuba’s economy. 

Deploying a similar argument, the US Congress followed the line of strengthening the embargo - from the Democracy in Cuba Act in 1992 to the Helms-Burton Act in 1996 -, without the Cuban regime giving any signs of imminent collapse. This was the case, perhaps, precisely because the Special Period made growing sectors of the population increasingly dependent on transfers from the regime for their daily subsistence. It is worth noting that this Period does not record significant activist bustle on the part of the Opposition: practically all relevant initiatives on the part of  Cuban dissidence (the Varela Project, the Patriotic Union of Cuba, the Ladies in White…) came with the new century, when the economy was showing signs of relative improvement.

The very last argument by the supporters of the embargo is that, unlike China (the world’s second largest economy) or Saudi Arabia (the world’s second largest oil reserve), there are no reasons of national interest in the case of Cuba suggesting the convenience of looking the other way as the regime violates the rights of its citizens: the embargo should be maintained as a matter of principle, even if ineffective.

If this were to be the case, however, one would have expected an indignant reaction on the part of Republican supporters of the Senate report on CIA torture. Not only because they were perpetrated by their own government, but also because, as Leon Panetta, then Director of the CIA, declared, these tortures produced either false information or information that was gathered simultaneously through other means – that is, they did not advance the purpose of ‘national interest’. Or one would have expected from these Republicans a fierce opposition to president Obama’s decision in 2012 to resume aid to the Uzbekistan regime, accused by both Human Rights Watch and former British ambassador Craig Murray in his book Murder in Samarkand, of drowning its opponents in boiling water.

However, as we know, with some remarkable exceptions – such as John McCain’s –, the very same Republican congressmen who consider the Cuban regime an intolerable affront to human consciousness had no objection to the CIA subcontracting the Uzbek regime to perform some of the torture. In this case, however, without any geopolitical alibi, for Uzbekistan’s relevance is hardly comparable to that of China or Saudi Arabia.

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