|Laura Inés Pollán Toledo in Cuba and Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma|
Sanctions are the last nonviolent way of seeking to change an unjust system by refusing to cooperate with tyranny. When discussing the Cuban embargo in the mass media these two aspects are rarely, if ever, touched upon. Academics and the lobbyists for big business, such as USA Engage, often claim that sanctions never work; rather, it is economic engagement that leads towards greater respect for human rights.
However, recent history in China, Burma, and Vietnam indicate otherwise. This disconnect from reality stems from two factors: self-interest and a reading of power dynamics that ignores people power in favor of focusing on regime elites.
In a New York Times article entitled "Easing of Restraints in Cuba Renews Debate on U.S. Embargo," Carlos Saladrigas claims that “maintaining this embargo, maintaining this hostility, all it does is strengthen and embolden the hard-liners . . . what we should be doing is helping the reformers.” Essentially, Mr. Saladrigas argues that lifting sanctions would weaken and dissuade hardliners while at the same time benefiting reformers. Over the past four years the Obama Administration has loosened economic sanctions on Cuba.
If Mr. Saladrigas is correct, we should observe former outsiders in the regime tackling and winning policy discussions, but that has not been the case. On the human rights front the situation has actually deteriorated. One of the policy objectives of the Castro regime both internally and internationally is to portray itself as David against Goliath. Despite having normal trade relations, Hugo Chavez has undertaken the same kind of campaign in Venezuela. Often times the U.S. State Department has fallen short of explaining the sanctions policy fully or for that matter defending it in a vigorous manner at international forums. This has allowed the Cuban government a free hand in a sustained campaign to portray itself as a victim blaming all of its economic woes on the American blockade on Cuba.
Nevertheless as John Adams once observed, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” The facts at present demonstrate that the arguments of the regime and its apologists do not hold up under scrutiny. First, one of the problems with the sanctions debate is that words are used interchangeably which are not synonymous while others that should be are not.
For example the Cuban government and many of its apologists use the terms blockade and embargo as if they were the same thing. At the same time the terms embargo and sanctions are viewed as somehow different. A blockade is specifically a military term that according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is “for the isolation by a warring nation of an enemy area (as a harbor) by troops or warships to prevent passage of persons or supplies.” In the case of Cuba there was only one time when a blockade was put in place and that was by President John F. Kennedy during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis beginning on October 22 and it was ended less than a month later on November 20, 1962.
What is known as the Cuban Embargo began On January 3, 1961 when President Dwight D. Eisenhower suspended trade with Cuba, a few days after his administration broke diplomatic relations with the country. The embargo on Cuba since its inception has meant restrictions on trade and travel to the island by U.S. citizens and in practice has been a partial embargo. Over the decades these sanctions have been loosened and tightened depending on the circumstances at the time.
An actual embargo would mean that there is a complete ban on or prohibition of trade by the United States with Cuba. This is not the case. What you have in Cuba is a partial embargo which is exactly the same in definition as economic sanctions. Between January 2000 and September 2012 according to the United States Census Bureau there has been $4,291,200,000.00 in U.S. trade in goods with Cuba.
The ban on U.S. imports from Cuba remains but U.S. exports to Cuba have been going on since 1992 with the amounts dramatically increasing since 2002 reaching its peak in exports to Cuba under the Bush Administration in 2008. Despite loosening restrictions further under the Obama Administration trade with Cuba has dropped to 363.3 million dollars in 2011 and figures for 2012 show a slight improvement with total sales to the island at $337.5 million as of September. This is not a total embargo but a partial one in which the United States is one of Cuba’s top trading partners.
At the same time Cuban exiles, many committed to maintaining economic sanctions against the dictatorship, are also a main source of remittances to their families on the island totaling hundreds of millions of dollars per year. The aim of the embargo initially, during the Cold War, was to penalize the Castro regime for seizing U.S. properties and limit its ability to fund armed guerrillas and terrorist groups in the region aimed at toppling friendly governments. With the exception of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua in 1979 this policy was a success in the Americas.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union changes were made to sanctions policies that sought in the 1992 Torricelli Bill and 1996 Helms Burton Bill to make clear that sanctions would remain in effect until all political prisoners were freed, the government tolerated a political opposition and free elections were held. Funds were also set aside by Congress to assist through development assistance independent civil society. In addition Congress in the 1980s established Radio/TV Marti to break the information monopoly of the dictatorship. Also in the late 1980s the United States led an effort at the U.N. Human Rights Commission to expose the systematic human rights abuses on the island and hold the Cuban dictatorship to greater scrutiny.
The result of what amounted to a tightening of sanctions and redirecting them from Cold War considerations to a pro-democracy effort combined with diplomacy was to provide protection to Cuban dissidents on the island, along with the means to reach the populace via radio while also setting up licensing to permit the sending of humanitarian and technical assistance to dissidents by civil society groups in the United States. This led to the growth of the pro-democracy movement on the island and greater support for it internationally.
Policies have consequences
The loosening of sanctions and the lower profile on the international front has meant that the regime has not had to face the same level of accountability that it did back in 2003 for example. During the Black Cuban Spring of 2003 the international community’s response caught the Castro dictatorship by surprise with a sustained campaign to release 75 Cuban prisoners of conscience arrested during the March 18 crackdown and sentenced up to 28 years in prison.
None of the 75 are serving their sentences in a Cuban prison today. So what have we witnessed in Cuba over the past four years? The deaths, under suspicious circumstances, of national opposition figures such as Laura Inés Pollán Toledo and Oswaldo José Payá Sardiñas; The deaths of Orlando Zapata Tamayo and Wilman Villar Mendoza, human rights defenders on hunger strike in the custody of the Cuban authorities; and, an increase both in the number of detentions and the degree of violence used against nonviolent activists.
Over the past four years there has been a dramatic increase in the number of arbitrary detentions in Cuba: from 870 in 2009 to 5,625, thus far, in 2012. One example of this disturbing trend is the death of Juan Wilfredo Soto Garcia from pancreatitis, caused by the brutal beating he received from Cuban government agents.
Another is that of American Alan Gross, arrested on December 3, 2009 and sentenced to 15 years in a Cuban prison. He spent 25 days in a Havana jail before being visited by a U.S. diplomat. By that time Alan Gross had been approached by a Cuban “attorney” who just happened to be representing five Cuban spies imprisoned in the United States for espionage and conspiracy to commit murder. This Cuban attorney represented Alan Gross before his show trial and later appeals. Alan Gross’s supposed crime: Attempting to provide Internet access to the local Jewish community in Cuba. The reality is that he is a pawn of the Castro regime to be used in pressuring concessions from the Obama Administration.
The Administration dangled several offers to the Castro regime and made a unilateral concession:
- Take Cuba off the list of state sponsors of terrorism.
- Waive probation for one of five Cuban agents convicted of espionage in the United States that planned at least one terrorist attack in the United States and provided intelligence that led to the downing of two US civilian planes over international airspace on February 24, 1996 killing four.
- Cuba democracy programs would no longer be about promoting democracy but "building civil society."
- The White House and Senator John Kerry pushed to unilaterally cut money for the Cuba democracy programs and freeze their funding.
In Burma, on the other hand, where sanctions were maintained, there have been signs of improvement in rights protections. The military junta, after years of trying to manipulate its way out from under them, has had to recognize the political opposition and provide a space for them in Burma's parliament. Things are still far from perfect, but there is hope that serious and permanent reforms are underway. The ability of Aung San Suu Kyi to run for public office, and for an independent press to begin to operate in Burma following decades of systematic censorship and control, are both positive signs. Aung San Suu Kyi has been clear about the importance of sanctions and of confronting those that would engage the dictatorship at the expense of the human rights of the Burmese people:
“Investment that only goes to enrich an already wealthy elite bent on monopolizing both economic and political power cannot contribute toward égalité and justice, the foundation stones for a sound democracy. I would therefore like to call upon those who have an interest in expanding their capacity for promoting intellectual freedom and humanitarian ideals to take a principled stand against companies that are doing business with the Burmese military regime. Please use your liberty to promote ours.”Prominent Cuban-American businessmen have also spoken out against unconditionally lifting sanctions in Cuba, stating in a letter titled “Commitment to Freedom” that “absent the dismantling of the totalitarian apparatus on the island, along with the unconditional release of all political prisoners and the restoration of fundamental human rights, there should be no U.S. unilateral concessions to the Castro regime." They, like Aung San Suu Kyi believe that it is unprincipled for companies to do business with a dictatorship exploiting the suffering of an oppressed people. Things are improving in Burma on the human rights front, while relations are worsening in China and Vietnam. Linking human rights with economic engagement has been a winning formula in Burma- and there’s hope that it can be in Cuba as well.
Room for improvement
However, there are always opportunities for improving sanctions policies- seeking out approaches that make the people, and not the dictatorship, the priority. For example on August 4, 2011 the Obama Administration announced a ban on visas for people who the State Department finds have been involved in human rights violations. Unfortunately, since then we have seen that human rights violators of the Castro regime are immigrating to the United States. If this ban were applied vigorously to the hardline elements of the Cuban regime it would be positive step that would protect dissidents by holding abusers accountable and providing a penalty, but this ban also needs to be expanded to follow the path taken by the European Union when dealing with the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe. Banning the relatives of the hard line elements of the dictatorship from visiting the United States would create greater pressures on the regime for change.
Unfortunately, what has gone on in practice is that the children and relatives of the hard liners have an easy time obtaining visas to the United States while the families of dissidents have a more difficult time.
There are two profoundly different visions of how to achieve positive change in Cuba. One views the populace and their representatives in the emerging independent civil society, or dissidents, as the protagonists of change. The second views regime elites and possible reformist elements within the dictatorship as the protagonists for change. The trouble with the latter view is that it often mistakes profiteering with progress, as China has demonstrated. This approach also undermines the morale of dissidents and the populace at large, thus emboldening the dictatorship. History has shown us that change occurs from the ground up. Thus, when sanctions are lifted in an effort to allow elements within the regime to reform, the action actually has the opposite effect. The paradox is that the most effective way to encourage reform is to empower dissidents by pressuring the regime with sanctions. If the current policy of loosening sanctions and not holding the regime accountable for its gross and systematic human rights violation, beyond pro-forma denunciations of atrocity after atrocity then things will get a lot worse and they will never improve for Cubans.
U.S. sanctions policy with regards to the dictatorship in Cuba was about containment of the exportation of the Cuban model throughout the hemisphere, and during the Cold War having Cuba serve as a drain on Soviet resources that contributed to its eventual bankruptcy. In the post Cold War years it shifted once again with a focus on human rights. The failure of the United States to do this in China, Cambodia, Venezuela and Vietnam with their deteriorating human rights situation is not that the policy in Cuba is incorrect as some would claim but that the policies in these other countries are profoundly immoral and ignore human rights concerns. Instead these policies favor of short-term corporate economic interests that run counter to the interests of the majority of U.S. citizens not to mention the long term economic well-being of the United States.