US-Cuba Sanctions: Are They Working Yet?

The recent spate of sanctions limiting US travel to Cuba announced by the White House and the news that the Cuban regime has re-opened US dollar stores have sharpened the question: do sanctions work and when? Central to that question is how would they work?

Expert comment Published 20 August 2020 Updated 24 August 2020 3 minute READ
A taxi driver wears a face mask while driving tourists around Havana on 19 March 2020. Photo: Getty Images.

A taxi driver wears a face mask while driving tourists around Havana on 19 March 2020. Photo: Getty Images.

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 objectives. With US oil sanctions on Venezuela, trade sanctions on select Argentine, Brazilian and Canadian exports and the tightening of the US embargo on Cuba, sanctions have become a go-to tool of the current administration.

Have they worked so far? Some have. Some haven’t. 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 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 southern Florida. 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?

Conditions on Cuba

Any policy needs to have an explicit goal and with it an implicit or explicit theory of change. Whether it’s advertising that smoking kills on cigarette packages or trade negotiations, these efforts have behind them an explicit idea of the change they seek to foster and the causal relationships to achieve them. 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 labour 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 Cuba’s to-the-death support of the Nicolas Maduro government in Venezuela has demonstrated this isn’t working.

Arguably it has had the opposite effect: by impoverishing the state-centered Cuban economy, the embargo has made the regime more dependent on the decreasing oil that Venezuela supplies the island nation. In other cases, the stated goal has been regime change as the titles of the 1992 and 1996 act titles 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. 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. 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 aren’t that likely to rise up; they are often more concerned with the day-to-day struggles of getting by.

Second, there is a naïve notion that either those in power or those around them will see the light of day and decide to step down. Promoters of sanctions often have a cold-eyed reality of the nature of evil of autocratic governments. 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.

Do sanctions work?

There is also a growing body of research on the efficacy of sanctions. 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 behaviour.’

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 behaviour toward loosening state control and reducing human rights abuses.

The recent tightening of the US embargo that included restrictions on US travel to Cuba 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 that the changes were linked to or intended to punish had not taken a dramatic turn for the worse. 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 on-the-ground realities and incentives to move them forward. There is the legitimate concern that the sanctions hurt the very people that the policy claims to defend. 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.

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 basic logic.

A version of this article will also appear in Spanish in the journal Foro Cubano in September.