Road to Democracy: The Impact of US Sanctions on Cuba

By Menendez, Robert | Harvard International Review, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

Road to Democracy: The Impact of US Sanctions on Cuba


Menendez, Robert, Harvard International Review


ROBERT MENENDEZ (D-NJ) is one of three Cuban-American members of the US House of Representatives and is a ranking member of the House International Relations Committee.

Cuba first began to feel the impact of the US sanctions when the Soviet Union collapsed and was unable to continue its massive subsidization of the Cuban economy. That jolt, coupled with the ban on US subsidiary trade with Cuba in the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act, sent the Cuban economy spiraling into what Fidel Castro terms the "Special Period." The 1996 Helms-Burton Act further tightened the economic noose around Castro's failing economic policy.

These successive economic blows have irreparably damaged the Cuban economy. According to Vice President Carlos Lage, Cuba's gross domestic product (GDP) is expected to expand by only 2.5 percent this year compared with 7.8 percent in 1996. Cuba's hard currency reserves are negligible, its trade deficit has grown to over US$1.8 billion, and the sugar harvest, the engine of Cuba's economy, is expected to have its worst year since the 1959 revolution due to poor weather and scant financing.

Cuba's severe economic deterioration is the result of nearly forty years of centralized planning and economic mismanagement, a strategy that has proven incapable of fostering development and prosperity. Cuba may realistically aspire to achieve economic viability only when profound structural changes are implemented on the economic front, accompanied by political reforms that allow development in a climate of peace and stability.

The Failure of Engagement

Trade policy, foreign aid, and sanctions are the principal tools of peacetime diplomacy. While businesses may not appreciate the value of these tools, they make-up three of the four components of our foreign policy arsenal. The remaining tool is international opinion, but it is valuable only to the extent that it matters to the country in question.

If the business community is successful in restricting Congress's ability to impose sanctions, the ability of the United States to conduct foreign policy will be damaged. While sanctions should never be our first policy choice, they are a necessary tool after other policy options have failed to achieve our foreign policy goals.

In the case of Cuba, public opinion is an ineffective tool. The Cuban government's downing of two unarmed civilian aircraft in international airspace on February 24, 1996, an action which killed four people, demonstrates the disregard the Cuban regime holds for world opinion. Similarly, the engagement policy of Canada and the European Union has proven that foreign aid and trade are equally useless tools in facilitating political and economic change in Cuba.

Canadian Prime Minster Jean Chretien's recent visit to Cuba underscores the inability of engagement to affect Castro. Chretien sought the release of four of the best known political dissidents in Castro's prisons, members of the Internal Dissident Working Group. The dissidents were imprisoned for publishing a document entitled "The Nation Belongs to Everyone," a blueprint for peaceful change and reconciliation in Cuba.

Chretien's visit was something of an embarrassment for Canada. Castro's refusal to discuss human rights, refuted Canada's claim that it could successfully press for change in Cuba by engaging Castro. Canada is now faced with a choice: either it must abandon its efforts to press for reforms in Cuba or it must tie future efforts to Canadian economic interests in Cuba. This incident has proven that so long as Castro can dictate the terms of engagement, engagement alone will not lead to change in Cuba.

True Assistance

US policy is not inflexible. If Cuba begins the transition to democracy, the United States will respond by making appropriate changes in policy. The lifting of US sanctions is contingent upon changes in policy by Castro, but to date, Castro has undertaken no steps which merit a change in US policy. …

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