In the words of Barack Obama on that historic December 17, 2014: “I do not believe we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result. Moreover, it does not serve America’s interests, or the Cuban people, to try to push Cuba toward collapse. We are calling on Cuba to end restrictions on their political, social, and economic activities. In that spirit, we should not allow U.S. sanctions to add to the burden of Cuban citizens that we seek to help.”
Congress never got to vote an end to the embargo, but the White House moved forward with a gradual easing of sanctions. Diplomatic relations, severed in January 1961, were re-established, along with tourism, trade, liberalization of financial transactions (remittances), and increased telecommunications. More importantly, Cuba was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Obama’s proposal sounded sensible. Something like, why not try something new? It’s true, we knew the embargo didn’t work. Designed to overthrow Fidel Castro, since then the Castro brothers saw twelve U.S. presidents come to office and eleven to depart. All that from power themselves, of course. My name is online and on paper supporting that “something new,” I deemed it a brave and imaginative idea.
The problem is that, by now, we also know that relaxing sanctions and appeasing Castroism has not worked either. In fact, the opposite is true. The thaw has helped the regime stabilize itself in power. To have an idea: dissidents and civil society activists, human rights fighters, independent journalists, writers, artists, all agree that repression has intensified since December 2014.
It is said, thus, that Obama gave a lot for nothing. He himself visited the island in March 2016 and gave a magisterial lecture to the communist nomenklatura on civil rights and competitive democracy. Overly naïve, indeed, for intellectual brilliance does not convince an apparatchik. Two years later, that same nomenklatura got itself re-elected again, 605 candidates for 605 seats, and passed a new constitution by which the socialist system and the supreme authority of the Communist Party are incontestable.
Moreover, since the re-establishment of diplomatic relations, Cuba’s influence in the region has increased. The presence of Cuban military officers in Venezuela has grown since, and so have their functions: earlier, they taught how to torture; now, they also carry it out. And only through the influence of Havana can one understand Ortega’s repressive drift in Nicaragua and Evo Morales’—failed—attempt at perpetuation in Bolivia.
Of course, Castroism and its allies continue to refer to the “blockade,” a term that has always been incorrect. A blockade prevents trade with third parties; sanctions—the embargo—is only about trade relations with the country imposing them. They use the term “blockade” not out of ignorance but for the sake of propaganda. And because holding someone else responsible for the unmet needs of the population serves as a cover-up for one’s own incompetence and corruption.
The issue will be critical this fall in the United States. Joe Biden has announced that, if elected, he will return to the Obama era, reversing the sanctions introduced since 2017. Just saying this is a strategic and foreign policy misconception. On the one hand, it ignores Obama-Biden’s serious shortcomings on this issue, while on the other, it produces an electoral preference for Cuba and its obscure allies.
It is therefore plausible that, to the list of foreign powers that apparently interfered with the 2016 election, we would now might add some Latin American criminal networks, those that traffic and launder from the highest of political power in several states.
This inevitably leads us to Venezuela. The lifting of sanctions is the priority of the “narco-terrorist dictatorship”—denomination by the Department of Justice. Just as the regime has sent countless delegations and hired lobbyists for this purpose, it also funds “studies” that seek to install a convenient narrative: the Venezuelan humanitarian tragedy is caused by the sanctions.
And there is no shortage of those who repeat this narrative, always omitting to mention, and calculate the monetary value, of the sanctions imposed by Cuba; thousands of barrels of oil between subsidized and free for decades—the exact proportion has never been known. Yet the Castro-Chavista propaganda machine insists that the problem is the sanctions initiated by the U.S. Treasury Department in 2018.
An immediate consequence of lifting the sanctions would be that criminals could access their frozen assets, and the Venezuelan debt paper would appreciate. Draw your own conclusions about the interests behind such altruism. To argue that the humanitarian crisis is a result of sanctions entails the counterfactual reasoning that the resources would otherwise be used for the benefit of Venezuelans, truly insulting to the victims of a regime that has always chosen the suffering of the people and the plundering of the country’s wealth.
Moreover, independent academics—for example, Dany Bahar, Sebastián Bustos, José Ramón Morales, and Miguel Ángel Santos in a paper published by Brookings Institution—have calculated that the economic effect of those sanctions is relatively marginal compared to the catastrophe produced by Chavismo, with 80-90% of that deterioration preceding their implementation.
In fact, by the end of 2018, when most trade restrictions had not yet come into effect, drug imports had fallen by 96% compared to 2012 and food imports by over 70%. Further, the research documents the collapse of oil production and GDP as well as the increase in infant mortality, among other calamities, all prior to U.S. sanctions.
The subject matter is indeed controversial, and we have barely scratched the surface of its significance in Latin America. It’s useful to have it on the agenda for the political conversation next November. Aggregate empirical evidence suggests that sanctions are moderately effective in bringing about change in the target country, just as other frequently used foreign policy options are similarly modest.
Sanctions are instruments of diplomacy. Measuring their success is not a simple task. Where you do find some important consensus is on the view that sanctions are an effective deterrent of future transgressors and further violations by states that have already been sanctioned. Sanctions signal the sanctioned and others as well.
The fact is that sanctions also have a normative component, they imply a moral judgment. It was within this realm of morality that we find, among other examples, the sanctions against South African Apartheid, against the Pinochet dictatorship by several European nations, Jimmy Carter, and later, Ronald Reagan, and also against the Iranian regime by Obama-Biden themselves.
If the three examples above were also motivated by their dismal human rights record, the same applies to the cases of Cuba and Venezuela. If those who supported the previous sanctions on ethical principles aren’t doing so now, there can be only one explanation: they select their positions based on whether or not they share the perpetrator’s ideology. This is outright unacceptable.
Those sanctions helped end the regime of racial segregation, allowing for the election of Nelson Mandela. They forced Pinochet to recognize the plebiscite, call for elections, and leave power. And they brought Iran to the table to negotiate the nuclear program. In other words, they were successful moral sanctions.
The democrats of Latin America today support and wish success to the material sanctions against the dictatorships of Castro, Ortega-Murillo, and Maduro. They are rooted in principles and led by a moral compass.