Cuba, North Korea and Russia: Why sanctions work, and don’t

When comparing Russia, Cuba and North Korea, sanctions are not equal, nor should they be

Russia, Cuba, North Korea
Russia, Cuba, North Korea

WASHINGTON, December 20, 2014 – President Obama’s decision to lift some sanctions against Cuba has infuriated some of his opponents and parts of the Cuban immigrant community. They have argued that Cuba’s suppression of human rights warrants sanctions, and that lifting them sends the wrong signal to other nations.

Those arguments are based on fundamental misunderstandings about what sanctions can and cannot do, and why we impose them. Lifting sanctions against Cuba is the right decision and long overdue. Sanctions are effective at hurting national economies and crippling nations’ abilities to pursue some of their goals, but they aren’t effective at promoting regime change. There are good reasons to raise sanctions against some authoritarian regimes and not against others.

Sanctions against Russia will not force Putin out. The collapse of the Russian economy hasn’t hurt his popularity, and it may even make him more aggressive as he attempts to stoke Russian nationalism. However, economic collapse makes it more difficult for Russia to digest Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, and it puts a serious crimp in Russia’s massive military modernization program. Those are both desirable outcomes for American national security, and they can justify maintaining sanctions against Russia.

North Korea is a national security threat to the United States, and its ruling regime is brutal, xenophobic, relentlessly hostile to the U.S., and uninterested in the norms of international behavior. It is the most repulsive, repressive, inhumane ruling regime on the planet, and the world and the North Korean people would be far better off if the country’s rulers were obliterated.

But North Korea has nuclear weapons, and a patron – China – that we dare not go to war with. Military compulsion is out of the question. Would complete normalization of relations and free trade make North Korea less of a security threat? Would it change Kim Jong Un for the better? Probably not; inducements are as ineffective as sanctions at effecting regime change or reformation. Given the threat, sanctions remain a rational tool to use against North Korea.

Cuba is far different from Russia and North Korea. First, it is not a serious national security threat, whether it lies 90 miles from Florida or 900. Second, lifting sanctions against Cuba has foreign policy benefits for the U.S. that go well beyond Cuba.

“What kind of message does this send to other regimes that suppress human rights?” That’s an excellent question that we should pose to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other oppressive regimes with which we do business. What message does it send to other nations that we refuse to do business with Cuba but have full diplomatic and business relations with Saudi Arabia? Simple: If you’re important to us, we won’t raise sanctions against you. Mutilate women, stone gays, kill your daughters when they’re raped and anyone who converts to Christianity, and we’ll ignore it if you have something we want.

The lifting of sanctions against Cuba is meaningless to Saudi Arabia. It’s meaningless to Qatar, to Pakistan, and to Zimbabwe. Keeping sanctions against Cuba looks more like a 50-year fit of pique than a serious attempt to improve human rights in Cuba.

“Why don’t we lift sanctions on North Korea and Russia, if they’re so useless?” Sanctions are useless for promoting regime change; that doesn’t make them useless. They can be useful in containing national security threats.

When Cuba was prepared to act as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” for the Soviet Union, it was a national security threat. When it was ready to send its armies out to Africa and advisors to help rebels in Latin America in the name of world Communism, it was a national security threat.

But the USSR is dead, and Cuba’s biggest ally in Latin America is Venezuela – with Cuba as Venezuela’s charity case. Lifting sanctions is a political kick in the teeth to the Venezuelan government, which retains its late President Hugo Chavez’s approach to dealings with America. Cuba learned after the collapse of the Soviet Union the dangers of putting all its political and economic eggs in one basket. Even though the Castro brothers have no intention of taking Cuba down the capitalist path of Vietnam, the economic behemoth to their north offers the opportunity to diversify away from Venezuela.

Our attempt to isolate Cuba has isolated the United States from the rest of Latin America. Latin countries aren’t eager to be like Cuba, their interests and desires have much more in common with the U.S., but they have felt the political obligation to stand with Cuba against the U.S. That obligation vanishes with the sanctions. Their elimination makes Cuba less important to everyone.

The Castro regime will benefit; it will ensure that most of the financial gains go to its supporters. That doesn’t cement their place in power, however. Their power was already secure, and sanctions only enhanced it. Over the long haul, growing economic possibilities will empower the Cuban people and weaken the hold of the regime on economic aspects of Cuban life.

If the Cuban people want political change, they’ll have to work that out for themselves. That’s true for the people of Russia and North Korea as well. But lifting sanctions against Cuba does not carry the same national security threats as lifting sanctions against Russia and North Korea. It does carry some real advantages.

The embargo against Cuba was put in place by Congress and can only be lifted by Congress. President Obama’s moves to lift some sanctions will make that easier, and for that he deserves some applause. Now let the tourist invasion begin, and may it make Cuba more like America, for good and ill.


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  • Joe Butterfield

    Great article. I think the question we should be asking in regards to regime change is how can we promote a jostling middle class which demands open elections.