With No Embargo, What Would Castro Do?

By: José Azel - Nov 7, 2014, 10:16 am

EspañolThe recent editorials arguing for or against the continuation of the US embargo and travel ban towards Cuba have one feature in common; unlike the evangelical self-inquiry of “What would Jesus do?” the writers fail to ask the WWCD question. That is, what would Raúl Castro do if the United States were to unilaterally and unconditionally end economic sanctions?

This is a peculiar omission, since the formulation of US foreign policy is often compared to a chess game in which every prospective move is analyzed and weighted with an eye to what the adversary’s counter move would be. As with a conditional proposition in logic, a unilateral policy move by the United States implies reciprocity by Cuba in the “if … then…” array of possibilities.

And yet, advocates of a unilateral-unconditional ending of economic sanctions simplistically posit that the policy has failed and hence it must be changed, without advancing their vision of how the Castro government would respond to such a US initiative. This is an irresponsible approach to the formulation of US foreign policy.

Let me thus advance a WWCD scenario that, although necessarily speculative as these crystal ball exercises are, is perfectly consistent with the statements and actions of the Castro government.

First the obvious: Cuban officials would move to capitalize economically in every possible way, but most importantly by welcoming US tourists as the most immediate source of foreign exchange.

A corollary is that the Cuban government may also move to restrict travel by Cuban-Americans. The Castro logic is simple: US tourists do not speak Spanish, are not subversive, will have limited contacts with Cubans, and will stay in isolated resorts that are off limits to the average Cuban and controlled by Cuba’s security apparatus. Cuban-Americans, on the other hand, symbolize a more destabilizing and less profitable group, given their propensity to stay with family and friends and their ability to communicate in Spanish their experiences in a free land.

Ironically, an end to the travel ban on the merits of US tourists as communicators of democratic values would enrich the Cuban military — who control the tourism industry. Under this scenario, they would likely threaten travel by Cuban-Americans who offer more accessible evidence of the virtues of democracy and free markets.

My WWCD scenario foresees another Castro move that would be very awkward for the United States. For years, the Cuban government has carried out a very successful campaign in the United Nations and other international platforms to make a case for economic damages to Cuba caused by the US embargo.

In Cuba’s view, this policy by the United States has caused over US$116 billion in damages to the Cuban economy. The damages are detailed in yearly reports that Cuba submits to the United Nations. In the latest UN vote, 188 nations voted to end the embargo and only one nation voted with the United States.

Ending economic sanctions unconditionally would strengthen Cuba’s juridical case and would be exhibited by Cuba to the international community as an admission of culpability by the United States. Indeed, Cuba may seek reparations for damages in forums such as the International Court of Justice.

This “if … then…” scenario is not as far fetched as it may seem. The doctrine of state immunity, which protects a state from being sued, allows exceptions for disputes arising from commercial transactions. Moreover, scholars in this field have argued that states should not have immunity in cases relating to human-rights abuses.

Correspondingly, and astutely, the Cuban government has diligently built its case against the US embargo as a violation of human rights, contending it is a policy “deliberately designed to provoke hunger, illnesses and desperation in the Cuban population.” Opponents of the embargo naively reinforce Cuba’s case by always noting in their language that the embargo “only hurts the Cuban people.”

Some provisions of the embargo extend the territorial jurisdiction of the United States in a way shunned by most nations. The Cuban government will rejoice at the opportunity to place the United States “on trial” in international stages populated by anti-Americanism.

This is not to suggest that Cuba’s case would prevail and be awarded damages, but it is the sort of scenario that makes advocacy for a non-negotiated ending of economic sanctions such an irresponsible argument. Supporters of terminating the embargo unconditionally must be confused; the Castros are not the type to “turn the other cheek.”

José Azel José Azel

Senior scholar at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami. Azel was a political exile from Cuba at the age of 13 in 1961 and is the author of Mañana in Cuba. Follow @JoseAzel.