Embargoing Human Rights for Trade? The Sanctions Paradox
Laura Inés Pollán Toledo in Cuba and Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma
The Obama Administration has continued to extend a hand to the Cuban regime and has little to show for it, except increased repression, the deaths of high profile activists, and an American citizen rotting in a Cuban prison. There is no reason to suppose that further unilateral concessions will produce a different outcome.
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.
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