A futile policy on Cuba

Posted: Monday, February 26, 2001

The following editorial appeared in today's Los Angeles Times:

Economic sanctions over nearly four decades have had a negligible impact on Cuba's economy, according to a 390-page government study released earlier this month. This doesn't come as a surprise.

Fidel Castro, whose regime the sanctions were supposed to undermine, is still in power. The trade embargo might, in one way, actually have helped Castro, allowing him to use the sanctions as an excuse for his own economic mismanagement. The U.S. International Trade Commission report, in cold numbers, provides a clear and convincing case against the use of unilateral sanctions as a tool for helping achieve U.S. foreign policy goals. The Bush administration, in a welcome change for the United States, is signaling that it will be more selective in imposing trade bans.

The 1962 Cuba sanctions - reinforced in subsequent years - worked the way most unilateral sanctions do: They forced the target country to form alliances elsewhere and find substitute trading partners. Cuba became dependent on aid from the Soviet Union and its Communist allies. Withdrawal of the aid after the collapse of communism in Europe hit Cuba harder than the U.S. trade embargo ever did. All along, it was the people of Cuba who suffered, not Castro and his comrades in Havana.

The proliferation of U.S. economic sanctions in the 1990s eased late in President Clinton's second term when he signed legislation that excluded food and medicine from trade embargoes and a measure to relax the ban on Cuba. This move was partly in recognition of the futility of sanctions - which do not even have the support of America's closest allies - and also reflected pressure from exporters, human rights groups and foreign policy makers in Washington.

Washington's Cuba sanctions stand today as a discredited policy, and Bush's secretary of State, Colin L. Powell, is right to question their usefulness, as he did during his confirmation hearings. But it would be wrong to exclude punitive economic measures altogether. International sanctions helped topple the apartheid regime in South Africa and Slobodan Milosevic's corrupt government in Yugoslavia. Sanctions are far more likely to work as collective - not unilateral - measures.

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