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Cuba’s Problem Is Not the Embargo

By: José Azel - Jun 30, 2015, 11:38 am
While over 190 nations engage economically and politically with Cuba, the regime still blames the United States and her embargo for self-created problems (thierry ehrmann)
While over 190 nations engage economically and politically with Cuba, the regime still blames the United States and her embargo for self-created problems. (thierry ehrmann)

EspañolThe use of economic sanctions as a tool of foreign policy is not new. In 431 BC, Pericles banned the Megarians from the Athenian market and ports, helping to incite the Peloponnesian Wars. Today, economic sanctions are at the center of negotiations with Iran and Cuba. And yet, many in the nations enacting sanctions, as well as in the targeted nations, misconstrue their use and impact. Let’s take the case of Cuba.

The United States’ economic sanctions against Cuba were first enacted in 1961, when President John F. Kennedy issued an executive order in response to the Cuban government’s expropriation without compensation of US assets. Nearly six decades later, the issue remains unresolved and the topic still dominates the rhetoric surrounding US-Cuba relations. The Cuban government and its sympathizers use the fallacious term “blockade” to confer a certain perversion to the policy, and to blame it for the economic failures of the regime.

Others argue, with validity, that the embargo has failed to change the course or nature of the Cuban government. True, but it is also necessary to point out that the alternative policy of engaging with the Cuban government, pursued by the international community, has also failed to change the nature of that regime.

Currently over 190 nations engage economically and politically with Cuba, while the United States remains alone in enforcing economic sanctions. If the embargo is deemed a failure in changing the nature of the Cuban government, there are 190 cases of failure on the alternative policy of engagement. By a preponderance of evidence (190 to 1), it is clear that engagement with that regime has also been a dismal failure.

In 1961, President Kennedy sent a reasonable message to the international community that governments that choose to expropriate the properties of US citizens need to compensate them. Governments that choose to simply steal the properties of US citizens should expect some form of retaliation from the US government. That message remains valid today as an expression of a government’s duty to protect the property rights of its citizenry in countries where the rule of law does not prevail.

Following the advice of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it,” the Cuban regime has incessantly promoted the falsehood that the US embargo is responsible for the dismal state of Cuba’s economy. But it is not the embargo that has pauperized the Cuban people.

The collapse of the Cuban economy can be clearly traced to its communal ideology and actions when the Cuban Revolution abolished all private property rights. That experiment resulted in an economically bankrupt dystopian society featuring an enormously repressive system, and a government with unlimited power over its citizens.

What exactly is it about the embargo that keeps the Cuban government from allowing economic and political freedoms in Cuba? Allowing economic and political freedoms is entirely within the domain of Cuba’s government. It is not, in any way, impeded by US policy. Cuba’s abysmal sociopolitical and economic conditions are the direct result of the failed policies of the Cuban government, and not of the so-called failed policies of the US government.

No diplomatic effort aimed at seeking concessions from an opponent can succeed if one of the parties elects to give up all its bargaining chips unconditionally, as President Obama’s administration is now doing. Wholehearted abandonment of ones bargaining position is not a logical basis for constructive engagement. Insisting on legitimate concessions, such as respect for human rights, is not a moral or practical failure.

The flagship of US-Cuba policy should be the honorable effort — ineffectual as it may be — to promote civil liberties and political rights in Cuba. We may not effectively influence that process, but that does not mean we should unilaterally abandon positions designed to induce democratic behavior. Diplomatic engagement with an adversary rarely succeeds by merely appealing to the adversary’s higher principles.

In negotiations, when an unconditional concession is given, the receiving party pockets it and moves on to the next demand. That is precisely what the Castro government has done, and the Obama Administration seems to be complying. The United States now sits at the negotiating table empty handed, and is sure to leave empty handed as well.

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.