Embargoes: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

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WASHINGTON, D.C.— Embargoes have long appealed to the United States as a foreign policy approach to stubborn adversaries. Iran, North Korea, Syria, Sudan and Cuba are just a handful of the countries that have been on the bad side of a U.S. embargo. Economic sanctions offer the United States a way to pressure enemies without incurring the cost of boots on the ground. Yet, these measures have other costs that disproportionately affect the average person trying to make a living in the countries under fire.

Embargoes can backfire, as they may cause adversaries to become more defiant and radical in their opposition of U.S. interests. Broad sanctions against a regime as a whole have little effect other than to aggravate existing disputes between states. Well-defined, targeted sanctions stand a better chance of succeeding since their goals are limited and compromise is, therefore, less threatening.

Embargoes can also be problematic for American businesses that are excluded from sanctioned markets. Marketing consultant Alf Nucifora, writing on the embargo against Cuba, observes that “the rest of the world is capitalizing on American petulance. 700 foreign companies do business with Cuba, 51 from Canada alone. Of the 140 countries doing business, Spain, Canada, Italy and France claim the lion’s share.”

Even with the embargo in place, the U.S. was still Cuba’s seventh-largest trading partner in 2010. Yet, the Caribbean island prefers trading with countries that do not demand cash payments upfront. Cubans love American products; the market is there, but sanctions are preventing eager U.S. businesses and Cuban consumers from connecting.

The U.S. even goes as far as sanctioning foreign companies trading with Cuba in an effort to keep the trade barricade as impermeable as possible.

The Cuban embargo, now over 50 years running, has failed to topple the Castro regime. What it has done is made life very difficult for many Cubans. A report from the Canadian Medical Association points out that the famine that accompanied the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and its subsequent withdraw  of economic support from Cuba has had ongoing health consequences on the island. During this so-called ‘Special Period,’ “adults had an average daily protein intake of 15–20 g and lost an average of 5–25 percent of their body weight,” and “the death rate among the elderly increased by 20 percent from 1982 to 1993.”

The United States did provide food and medical aid to Cuba in 1993, but the economic conditions created by the embargo made it impossible for many Cubans to get back on their feet and make their way out of hunger and poverty.

As with sanctions against Iran stemming from the U.S. concern in recent years over nuclear weapons development, supporters of the Cuban embargo believe that if the average Cuban is squeezed hard enough by inflation and shortages the people will naturally rise up against their government. Yet, the bottom line is that many times embargoes serve only to delay hard decisions while placing the people living in targeted countries in a very unfortunate position.

Kayla Strickland

Sources: USA Today, Alf Nucifora, Bloomberg Businessweek, Canadian Medical Association
Photo: Infosurgents

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