Protests broke out across Havana, Cuba, in July 2021 as the combined economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and US sanctions hit already shrinking livelihoods. (Photo: Alexandre Meneghini/ Reuters)
Forty-thousand Cuban immigrants, massed at the Orange Bowl college football match in December 1962, cheered wildly, as US President John F. Kennedy ended his unscripted speech. The battle-flag of the Bay of Pigs rebels, the ill-fated force despatched by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) the previous year, would one day “be returned to this brigade in a free Havana”, the President vowed. From that time until his own death, President Kennedy waged a relentless covert war, to undermine Cuba’s communist regime, sanctioning CIA bombings, sabotage and assassination attempts.
But there was one thing Kennedy would not do: go to war to dethrone Latin America’s revolutionary icon, and Cuba’s President, Fidel Castro.
“The Soviet Union knows that the United States does not intend to invade Cuba and the United States knows that the Soviets have removed missiles from Cuba,” he explained to his National Security Council in November 1962, hours after negotiating the end of the superpower showdown that brought the planet to the edge of nuclear annihilation.
John F. Kennedy, the 35th US President.
Now, six decades on, Cuba has returned again as a significant test for United States foreign policy. As the largest protests since the mid-1990s have roiled Cuba, US President Joseph Biden’s government has sanctioned elements of Havana’s state security apparatus, in a shift away from campaign promises to work for a thaw.
For United States foreign policy makers, the big question is this: can sanctions, without the use of military force, in fact influence the conduct of regimes? The case of the tiny island, home to just 11 million people, is a useful prism to understand the United States’ prospects in more critical challenges, like Iran, North Korea and even China.
The immediate trigger for Cuba’s protests is familiar to Indians: the Covid-19 pandemic has ravaged key sectors of the economy, hurting already-fragile livelihoods. Tourism—already shrinking from United States sanctions—has fallen sharply, from a peak of 4.7 million visitors in 2018. Exports of medical skilled labour and biotechnology have declined. Remittances from the diaspora, estimated at $3.9 billion in 2019, have eroded dramatically.
For many ordinary Cubans, images released early this year of Fidel Castro’s nightclub-owning grandson bragging about his Mercedes crystallised resentment about a ruling élite that has strayed from its egalitarian promises.
Ever since the end of the Cold War, moreover, Cuba came to depend heavily on Venezuela for its oil and gas needs. In 2000, the two countries signed a preferential-trade agreement, in essence bartering energy for medical personnel. Venezuela’s own economic problems, though, have seen supplies shrink steadily since 2015, a problem accentuated by the United States sanctions targeting oil tankers and companies delivering oil.
The once-central sugar industry, moreover, has been in long-term decline because of the lack of global demand. In 2019-20, Cuba produced only 1.2 million metric tons, down from 8.4 million in 1990.
Even though Cuba hoped trade with China and Russia would offset the problems imposed by then US President Donald Trump’s sanctions, the reality has fallen short of expectations. Trade with China, for example, was valued at only $1.3 billion in 2019, in line with a steadily declining trend from a high of $2.3 billion in 2015. Imports from Russia, similarly, have shown a significant decline since 2018—all signs of grinding economic problems these relationships could not offset.
Facing the pandemic-induced crisis, President Miguel Mario Díaz-Canel Bermúdez’s government instituted a series of reforms last year—among them, allowing the private sector, lifting a 10% tax on United States dollar, and convertible currency to be used to make some retail purchases. The most significant of these changes was dismantling a dual-currency system, which fixed the exchange rate of the Cuban peso at 24 per United States dollar.
In the long term, these reforms are expected to have positive impacts on Cuba’s economy. The short-term impacts on inflation and the country’s expansive social-security net have been severe, though. The question is: are Cubans, tired of blackouts, job cuts and rising prices, also ready for regime change?
Ever since 1960, when revolutionary Cuba nationalised American-owned oil refineries without compensation, the United States has maintained and deepened economic sanctions against Cuba—this, in spite of substantial criticism from the United Nations as well as Europe. The pressure has been, in no small part, driven by the electoral influence of the Cuban diaspora in the United States. In the course of the Cold War, though, the risk of a superpower conflict made invasion a less-than-attractive option.
As the scholar Donald Losman has argued, sanctions offer the United States government a half-way house between doing nothing and going to war. The decision to impose them, he argues, is taken “less on its intrinsic merits than because of its attractions in relation to the available options”.
The evidence for the effectiveness of sanctions as a foreign-policy tool is mixed. The scholar Robert Pape, among others, has shown that “economic sanctions have little independent usefulness for the pursuit of noneconomic goals”. “Nationalism,” Pape pointed out, “often makes states and societies willing to endure considerable punishment, rather than abandon what are seen as the interests of the nation”.
Economic sanctions have often been legitimised as creating the conditions for a social revolution. Experience, though, has given little reason for such optimism. Long decades of economic sanctions against Iran, for example, have shown no signs of undermining the regime, even though protests have often swept across the country. North Korea’s nuclear-weapons programme succeeded in spite of its economic isolation. Even Iraq’s dictator, Saddam Husain, had to be removed by military action—not sanctions.
Learning from this experience, US President Barack Obama made a shift away from the past, restoring diplomatic relations, rescinding Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of international terrorism and facilitating the enhancement of travel and trade. Engagement, supporters of the policy argued, offered a more effective means to bring about change, since it would tie in the regime and the élite with the United States.
In an effort to build electoral capital with Cuban-American voters, though, President Donald Trump reversed course, reimposing sanctions that targeted Venezuela’s oil exports to Cuba. From 2019, the Trump administration re-designated Cuba a state sponsor of international terrorism, claiming it was supporting violence in other Latin American states, and restricting financial transactions involving the country.
Faced with images of police violence against protestors, President Biden has backed away from his promise to restore President Obama’s policies. Few experts, though, believe Cuba’s regime is about to collapse. As long as the government has the resources to retain the support of its coercive apparatus, the restoration of order is within its grasp. Even in 1994, when the collapse of the Soviet Union saw Cuba’s economy implode, its state apparatus proved resilient.
The CIA’s war against Cuba continued long after President Kennedy’s death. In 1976, United States-based Cubans allegedly tied to the CIA bombed a Cubana Airlines flight mid-air, killing 73 people. In 1997, the CIA was again implicated in terrorist attacks on tourism infrastructure in Havana. These attempts, like the sanctions programme, did little to destabilise the regime, and legitimised repression against dissidents.
Where does this leave United States foreign policy? An important lesson might be that even superpowers have to learn to live with regimes they dislike—unless the behaviour of those regimes is so threatening that war is unavoidable. Even then, witness the case of Iran and North Korea, the costs of war might outweigh any conceivable gains.
Like his predecessors, President Biden has electoral reasons to step up economic pressure on Cuba. Escalating sanctions, though, will do little more than inflict greater hardship on the country’s poor.