Op-Ed: Economic Sanctions and United States-Cuba Relations


By José Azel
Op-Ed Contributor

US economic sanctions against Cuba were first authorized in 1961 when President John F Kennedy issued an executive order in response to the Cuban government’s expropriation without compensation of American assets.

Five decades later, the issue remains unresolved and the topic still dominates the debates and the rhetoric surrounding US-Cuban relations

Some argue, with validity, that the sanctions have failed to change the course or nature of the Cuban government, but the failure argument is peculiarly offered in a form of isolated reverse logic that seeks a change in US policy.

It is also necessary to point out at the same time that the alternative policy pursued by the international community of engaging with the Cuban government has also failed to change the nature of that regime.

Currently, over 190 nations engage economically and politically with Cuba while the United States remains alone in enforcing its economic sanctions policy. If, indeed, US policy is deemed as one case of failure to change the nature of the Cuban government, there are 190 cases of failure on the same grounds. By a preponderance of evidence (190 to 1) the case can be made that engagement with that regime has been a dismal failure.

Fifty years ago, President John F. Kennedy sent a reasonable message to the international community that governments that choose to expropriate the properties of US citizens need to compensate them. Governments that choose to simply steal the properties of US citizens should expect some form of retaliation from the US government. That message remains valid today as an expression of a government’s duty to protect the property rights of its citizenry in foreign countries where the rule of law does not prevail.

It is one thing to argue, as those of us that value personal freedoms do, that investors should be free to invest and accept all the risks of their decisions when the rules of the game are known in advance and where the rule of law prevails.

Investors in communist countries cannot expect their government’s protection; they know in advance what they are getting into. The maxim “investors beware” is fully in place. After all, Karl Marx makes it clear in chapter two of The Communist Manifesto that “…the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.”

It is a different situation when the rules are capriciously and arbitrarily changed after the fact, as the Cuban government did, and where no legal recourse is available.

Independently of their usefulness, the use of economic sanctions as a foreign policy tool is neither new nor particularly American. Pericles’ decree banning the Megarians from the Athenian market and ports helped incite the Peloponnesian War in 431 BC.

Unintended and undesirable consequences are inherent in the use of economic sanctions. Arguably they should not be used to compel a democratic transformation or even to advance human rights or other laudable goals.

They seem, however, an appropriate in-kind response to the economic aggression of another country such as expropriations without compensation. What are the policy alternatives to protect the property rights of a citizenry when negotiations fail or when a government refuses to offer compensation to foreign investors?

Dr Jose Azel

Dr José Azel is a Senior Scholar at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, and the author of the book, Mañana in Cuba.

Note: the opinions expressed in Caribbean Journal op-eds are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Caribbean Journal.