There is a legend in modern Cuba that says hostilities with the United States shall be brought to a close with a formal ceremony when the US President dresses in a guayabera, a typical Cuban shirt, and signs a declaration of the end to the historic economic and financial embargo that has been harming Cuba ever since it was implemented in October 1960 in response to the expropriation of US assets on the island by Castro’s Government. The current special offices that operate under Swiss protection will soon be replaced by embassies and the first step towards re-establishing normal diplomatic relations will be made with the “guayabera signature”.
As such it is the right moment to briefly reflect on the lessons learnt from such a long-lasting embargo. These can essentially be summarised by a few simple ideas: economic sanctions are of little use, they harm those who are weakest, and they do not achieve the intended results.
Indeed many writers, particularly Americans including the impressive works by Hufbauer, Schott, Elliot and Oegg, have demonstrated how such sanctions are ineffective and have only contradictory effects. They argue that sanctions have unsuitable political consequences, and they only serve to reinforce the sanctioned Government and its most radical and extremist sectors.
Economic sanctions, especially when they are applied extraterritorially, also damage the allies of the country imposing the sanctions, who in many cases find themselves forced to follow policies they do not agree with. As an example, the United States’ restrictions on Cuba have on various occasions heightened tensions in relations with Canada and Spain, two incredibly important allies in terms of US general interests. These sanctions are equally damaging to companies, including American ones, which lose market opportunities and suppliers while the sanctioned state forges new alliances and finds alternative clients. Finally, we must recognize that economic sanctions have negative consequences for the middle classes and the weakest sectors of the sanctioned country. To conclude, all that is achieved is a further strain on already difficult and complex international relations.
Furthermore, sanctions have some tremendously perverse indirect effects, as they actually touch sectors that are, in principle, legally unaffected. Unsanctioned sectors, such as the export of food and medical supplies, find that in practice they are subject to complex controls that hinder or even prevent effective trade. As a result, international trade which is vital for the survival and basic welfare of the people is checked, with harmful consequences to the fundamental rights that are inherent to human dignity.
Cuba is experiencing a third economic revolution following the triumph of the Revolution of January 1st 1959, the fall of the Soviet regime in 1991 and the technological revolution of the 20th century, which left the country isolated from the benefits of globalization. Undoubtedly the entry into force of the Law on Foreign Investment at the end of June this year showed signs of the identity, humility and intentions of a modern Cuban nation. The text, of astonishing sincerity, recognises the country’s serious problems with competitiveness and financing, and, aware of its precarious situation, earnestly casts out a line to the international community without a hint of arrogance. In terms of foreign exchange, Cuba only asks the international investor for three things: to respect its workers, to respect its natural resources, and to respect its sovereignty and national independence. Proof of the humility of the Cuban people is also evident in Raúl Castro’s sincere declarations following this historic announcement, thanking Pope Francis for his role in helping broker the agreement.
It would be a serious error to interpret this first agreement as a sign of weakness from Washington. It would be equally wrong to interpret it as a victory for Cuban diplomacy. Future success will only be guaranteed with mutual respect for both national identities and the end to the policy of international sanctions.