Today we take the rare opportunity to celebrate one of the only two positive foreign policy contributions of President Obama amidst an otherwise dismal record.* I’m speaking of the partial detente with Cuba that has begun to bear fruit. CNN is reporting that the first US cruise ship in over 40 years docked in the Port of Havana yesterday. The event is symbolic of the thawing, though not yet normalized relations, and may be an early sign of the new economic opportunities that are becoming available for Cubans and Americans alike.
Of course, the issue of Cuba is as confusing as it is polarizing. But part of the problem is that many think of it in either a Cold War-era mindset of capitalism vs. communism or in terms of some grand geopolitical chess game. Economic sanctions or embargoes are thought of as one tool in that game–a diplomatic means for trying to exert influence on other countries’ governments. Insofar as sanctions are used as an alternative to war (which is obviously worse), they are preferable. But their track record of actually making positive change has not been great, and there’s a logical reason why we would not expect it to work.
The basic argument runs like this. The hope of sanctions, particularly general ones like the policy against Cuba, is to generate enough anger among the resident population to generate calls for political change. That is, if the people of Cuba experience enough deprivation, eventually they will blame their government and demand reform to get the sanctions lifted. Sounds nice in theory, but it rests on two devastatingly bad premises:
*The people will blame their own government for their plight and not the foreign government that implemented the sanctions, and
*Poor, desperate people have the capacity and influence to effectively bring about political change.
In practice, neither one of these is likely to hold. When a foreign government initiates an embargo, the first instinct is to blame that foreign government. Unless the domestic government has done something truly and widely regarded as reprehensible, chances are that the embargo will rally nationalist sentiments and actually increase, rather than diminish, support behind the newly embattled domestic government.
Second, even if nationalism does not surge in the aftermath of such a policy, a general embargo means that the local population is now considerably poorer than they would otherwise be. This is likely to increase their dependence on welfare from the central government, which would also tend to increase their loyalty, all else equal. Moreover, poor people are going to be more focused on providing the next meal and shelter for their families. Political desires for democracy, free speech, or more economic freedom are likely to take a backseat until those basic needs are met. And since those needs are harder to meet under embargo conditions, the cause of political reform may actually become less likely to occur.
The classic embodiment of the failure outlined above is the decade-long sanctions against Iraq that were initiated in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War. In spite of an almost unimaginable toll of human suffering exacted by the sanctions–including an estimated 500,000 Iraqi children dying as a result–Saddam Hussein remained in power until the US invasion in 2003 overthrew him. The sanctions policy was clearly a colossal failure by any measure.
Back to the topic of Cuba, the fact that the US is beginning to lift restrictions is a good thing. In the context of geopolitical strategy, general sanctions don’t work, and they have not worked in Cuba. And for what it’s worth, we’ve previously examined the case of Iran and suggested it offers compelling anecdotal evidence that open relations and trade can move governments more towards more economic and political freedom. It’s worth debating whether should be in the business of promoting democracy abroad at all (I would say, No), but as long as our foreign policy is theoretically aimed at this goal, the reality is that trade and peace are more effective than sanctions and war.
The issue becomes still more clear when we extract away from the context of geopolitical strategy. Ultimately, this issue isn’t primarily about intergovernmental relations. And the partial opening is neither an endorsement of communism nor of Cuba’s surely terrible human rights record. The proper way to look at this is at the individual level. Until now, the US government has almost entirely prohibited its citizens from engaging in mutually beneficial trade with individuals in Cuba. Relaxing such restrictions, even to the minimal extent that they have been, means expanding economic liberty for Americans and Cubans alike. And regardless of whether you lean right, left, or libertarian, that’s great news for everyone.
*In case you’re wondering, the other one is the Iran Deal, in our view