The Sanctions Malaise: The Case of Cuba

By Sanchez, Omar | International Journal, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

The Sanctions Malaise: The Case of Cuba

Sanchez, Omar, International Journal

'WHEN A COUNTRY DOES SOMETHING WE DO NOT LIKE we express our disaffection. Rhetoric is not enough and we don't want to send the marines. Sanctions are still popular but their effectiveness is dubious. Politically there is a reason to do it. It allows politicians to say "I am tough on Iran because I voted for sanctions; the president is the one who's soft." '(1) These words from Lee Hamilton, who until recently chaired the International Relations Committee of the United States House of Representatives and is widely respected for his expertise in foreign affairs, point to the inherent flaw in economic sanctions as a tool of foreign policy. Sanctions are a compromise between two undesirable options - inaction or full-scale military action - and a decision to impose them may, therefore 'be taken less on its intrinsic merits than because of its attractions in relation to the alternatives.'(2) And, unlike potential military intervention, which is usually given careful analysis, sanctions are often imposed hastily. More alarming is the fact that they have proliferated at a dangerous pace. The numbers are staggering: in 1993-6, 61 US laws and executive actions authorized unilateral economic sanctions against 35 countries comprising 42 per cent of the world's population.(3) These figures give a strong hint that Washington has used this (questionable) tool of foreign policy in a knee-jerk, indiscriminate, and therefore uncritical fashion.

This article explores the use of US sanctions against Cuba to illustrate what is dangerous about their haphazard use: their goal of encouraging democracy is far too ambitious; they cause tension between the United States and its closest allies because they violate international law; they are dictated by an interest group that by definition cannot be said to have global US interests in mind; and not only are they unsuccessful in changing Fidel Castro's policy behaviour but they also provide nationalist fuel to legitimate Castro's rule. Furthermore, the most recent sanctions variant, the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act (LIBERTAD, better known as Helms-Burton), strips from the president the power to lift sanctions and gives it to Congress, where the influence of interest groups is strong. Nor has there been any study that compares actual to intended effects and no independent government review of US-Cuban relations since 1960. Indeed, nothing approximating a reasonable cost-benefit analysis - to the extent that one is feasible - informs Washington's policy towards Cuba. A complex amalgam of factors, including policy inertia, has kept this anachronistic cold war policy frozen in time.


Policy goals of such scope as altering a state's military behaviour or changing its regime or internal political structure are delicate matters. Prior to 1914, war was viewed as the only means of bringing about such change; in the aftermath of the First World War, economic sanctions came to the fore as a more humane liberal alternative to war. David Baldwin argued that: 'Reasonable people may differ with respect to the utility of war as an instrument of policy, but there is little to be said in defense of unnecessary wars... It would be a pity - perhaps a global disaster - if a contemporary American president were to resort to war solely because the nature, implications and consequences of economic statecraft had been misrepresented to him by his advisors.'(4)

Indeed, compared to the human cost of war, this policy tool cannot help but be seductive. The landmark scholarly work in support of sanctions as a policy tool is Economic Sanctions Reconsidered.(5) In 115 cases identified between 1914 and 1990, the authors report success in 34 per cent. Because it is the only study to use a large enough database to derive statistically significant conclusions, sanctions supporters constantly cite it to bolster their views. However, the results do not settle the debate. First, a tool that is effective one-third of the time is hardly foolproof; second, many have raised doubts about the methodology of the study and its authors' generous definition of success. …

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