More than a half century ago Fidel Castro took power in Havana. In the midst of the Cold War the Kennedy administration understandably feared that Cuba would serve as an advanced base for the Soviet Union, as evidenced by the Cuban Missile Crisis. Moreover, Soviet aid could both sustain Havana and enable it to spread revolution elsewhere in the region. Having tried and failed to overthrow the regime militarily, Washington saw an economic embargo as the next best option.
But that didn’t work either. Even after the Soviet Union collapsed and Moscow ended subsidies for Cuba, sanctions achieved nothing. The Communist system tottered along, with 1950s U.S. cars held together with wire and tape, buildings looking like they were last painted during the Jurassic Period, and food in short supply. But where Americans would not trod others cheerfully brought their money. When I visited Havana (legally) a decade ago, my journalism group stayed at a Dutch hotel. Dollar stores for those with access to “hard” currency were filled with foreign goods and Fidel Castro reluctantly allowed private business—it was easy to find restaurants with good food if not fine furnishings. And individual Cubans were eager to talk, and especially to cadge a few bucks off foreign visitors.
Today the system continues to stagger along. Fidel alive but in retirement. Raul in charge, but nearing the end of his rule. Low‐key political purges mixed with limited economic reform. Everyone assumes the system cannot last much longer, but two decades ago people were saying the same thing when the U.S.S.R. left Cuba. The only certainty is that economic sanctions have failed.
Failed to bring down the regime. Failed to spark a second revolution. Failed to liberalize the system. Failed to free any political prisoners. Failed to initiate open elections. Failed to shift the Castros’ allegiance from Moscow, Caracas, and other anti‐American regimes. Failed to win the return of nationalized assets. Failed to prevent foreign investment. Failed to transform the economy. Failed to isolate Cuba. Failed to achieve much of anything useful, at least.
After more than 50 years.
But that should surprise no one, least of all free market conservatives. Sanctions are most likely to work if they are universal and narrowly focused. For instance, a detailed study by the Institute for International Economics of 120 cases figured about a one‐third success rate for economic sanctions. However, even that overstated their efficacy. They did best with limited objectives, such as destabilization and disruption (economic consequences of economic action) or “modest” policy change (small political concessions due to economic action).
For instance, the U.N.-approved ban on oil sales by Iraq was vastly more effective than America’s commercial restrictions on Cuba, yet even the former was hard to enforce. Moreover, limits on Iraqi oil sales were designed to cut Baghdad’s revenue, not end Saddam Hussein’s rule. Voluntary regime change is unknown, with governments more likely to treat sanctions as war and strike out if they have the means to do so, such as Japan in 1941.
The latter point is critical. A Government Accountability Office review noted that “sanctions are more effective in achieving such modest goals as upholding international norms and deterring future objectionable actions” than in forcing major changes, such as committing political suicide. Get most everyone in the world to insist that Havana behave a certain way in a specific circumstance on a discretionary issue, it might agree. Unilaterally demand that it hold free elections, release political prisoners, return property, allow an opposition press, okay foreign ownership, and permit public demonstrations? Get real. For the regime, sanctions obviously are the lesser evil.
It’s the same elsewhere. U.S. and European commercial restrictions, in conjunction with the sharp drop in oil prices, are imposing real harm on the Russian economy and its people, but the Putin government isn’t likely to retreat from policies in Ukraine which it views as vital. The North Korean regime has withstood years of Washington‐led impositions, maintaining political repression and developing nuclear weapons, both considered to be foundations for its system of monarchical communism. International sanctions have helped push Iran to negotiate over its nuclear program, but diplomacy has gotten this far, and still may fail, only because the West is united and not demanding political surrender.
Yet for a half century Washington has been insisting that the Castros dismantle their Communist dictatorship. A great goal and the right choice for the Cuban people. But until Havana’s Gorbachev appears, it ain’t going to happen, whatever sanctions the U.S. imposes.
The embargo also is advanced as moral recompense, punishing dictators and thieves, the Communist revolutionaries who oppressed the Cuban people and stole their property, or at least that of many people who fled to Florida. Of course, the same could be said of most every other government arising from revolution, insurrection, coup, putsch, and sometimes even election. Democratic governments are known sometimes to seize property without adequate compensation. (Even the U.S. authorities have been known to do so!) Why single out Cuba, other than the politics of Florida?
Moreover, if Raul Castro & Co. is being punished, those in charge don’t seem to notice. General embargoes hurt average folks far more than elites, who are most able to manipulate the system. This led to the famous question about what justified the death of a half million Iraqi babies put to then-U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright (who callously responded: “We think the price is worth it”). In 1998 I met Zoran Djindjic, head of the Democratic Party and opponent of Yugoslavian dictator Slobodan Milosevic. Djindjic, later assassinated as prime minister, criticized Western sanctions, which led “to centralization of the management of the economy.” The politically well‐connected took advantage of the restrictions while his followers couldn’t even afford gasoline to drive to a rally, he explained.
The embargo also has provided the regime with a wonderful excuse for its failings. Even though plenty of investment funds and trade opportunities are available with the rest of the world, the Castros could always point to Yanqui Imperialism as the cause of the Cuban people’s travails. Never mind collectivist economic policies which have failed everywhere else in the world. Blame the embargo! It’s why many Cuban dissidents were not much enthused with sanctions. Some regime opponents, such as Elizardo Sanchez Santa Cruz, who I met on my trip a decade ago, criticized U.S. policy.
Perhaps the worst consequence of the embargo, however, was helping to turn a murderous windbag into a towering international figure. Fidel Castro never much mattered because Cuba never much mattered. With good government and liberal economics the island would become a prosperous vacation haven. But it’s hard to imagine what a hostile Cuba could achieve on its own. Visualize Cuban hordes conquering the Caribbean, let alone the world. Nah!
Castro’s relationship with the Soviet Union made him dangerous, but that was resolved by the settlement to the Cuban Missile Crisis. After that his government intervened to varying degrees elsewhere, such as in Africa, but Havana’s activities had minimal effect and were little different than those conducted by Moscow. He became a symbol of resistance to America only because Washington focused attention on him. Ignoring him and flooding his island with tourists and businessmen would have denied him his global podium and claim of victimhood.
Encouraging travel and trade would promote regime change better than all the money spent on Radio Marti. There’s no need to oversell the political impact of commerce. Political tyranny is difficult to overthrow, even when everyone knows the system is a grotesque fraud and failure. But it’s hard to name a dictatorship anywhere ended by isolation. And if the latter policy hasn’t worked for 50 years in Cuba, it’s time to try something else.
Perhaps most disappointing is how fevered embargo advocates never let the facts get in the way of their arguments. Impose an embargo on Communist Cuba when it appears to pose a security threat and other countries are willing to back your approach. But don’t steadily ratchet up restrictions as everyone else shifts to engagement. And admit after a half century that sanctions have failed to achieve any of your objectives.
Then back away gracefully. Don’t act as if your policy would work if just given a little more time—say another 50 years or so. And don’t shout expletives at your opponents, as if letting people trade and travel was an unheard of concession never before imagined in the world.
There are plenty of good reasons to criticize President Obama and his cast of liberal but incompetent hawks. However, he’s got Cuba policy right, in contrast to Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and most of the cast of GOP presidential wannabes. It long ago was evident that the embargo had failed and deserved to be repealed. (And that America’s embassy should be reopened, as the president also has proposed.) If conservative Republicans believe in recognizing reality and getting results, as they claim, they should back trade and engagement with Cuba.