A Punitive Cuba Policy: Cathartic but Counterproductive

Alexis F. Ludwig, Deputy U.S. Permanent Representative, addresses the Organization of American States Permanent Council on the Destabilizing Role of Russia and Cuba in Venezuela May 2, 2019. Photo Credit: U.S. Department of State


By: Felipe Herrea, Columnist

On April 17, 2019, the Trump Administration introduced new sanctions targeting National Security Advisor John Bolton’s declared “troika of tyranny” — Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. As part of these new sanctions, the United States announced the implementation of Title III of the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, also known as the Helms-Burton Act. Broadly condemned by U.S. allies, the United Nations has repeatedly denounced the embargo as a “sad echo” of Cold War politics.[i] The implementation of Title III of the Helms-Burton Act is a short-sighted policy that may score political points in Florida, while accomplishing very little and alienating America’s allies. Additionally, with such little progress to show in the Venezuelan crisis, Cuba is a necessary partner in working to secure a settlement with Maduro, but such a diplomatic resolution is spoiled by regressive and punitive policies.

Title III of the Helms-Burton Act allows Americans with claims to property confiscated and nationalized by Cuba to file lawsuits in U.S. courts against companies and subsidiaries that benefited from these properties, which are currently valued at $8 billion.[ii] The law also allows the president to suspend Title III for up to six months at a time if it is in the national interest of the U.S. Successive presidents have exercised this authority since April 1997, so President Trump is thus the first president to implement Title III.[iii] While Cuban officials have offered to negotiate repayments to U.S. companies for seized properties,[iv] the Trump Administration’s refusal to negotiate but rather push forward with implementing Title III clearly demonstrates this decision is not truly meant to seek restitution but rather intended to punish the Cuban government for its support of President Maduro in Venezuela. While implementation of Title III was under consideration in early April, John Bolton tweeted that the U.S. “will hold Cuba accountable for its subversion of democracy in Venezuela and direct hand in Maduro’s ongoing repression of the Venezuelan people.”[v] But this policy would penalize America’s allies. As such, the United Nations General Assembly has criticized Title III as an “extraterritorial” policy that contravenes “the sovereign equality of States, non-intervention in their internal affairs and freedom of trade and navigation.”[vi] This decision most negatively impacts European and Canadian companies and the Cuban people, not the Cuban government as intended.

Given the failure of the embargo to meet its objectives over the course of six decades, these sanctions require a broad reconsideration. U.S. policy towards Cuba has historically revolved around attempting to choke out the economy to induce regime change, and the Trump administration likely sees an opportunity with Venezuela’s collapse to further pressure the Cuban economy. As a punitive measure, it works to earn domestic support in Florida, but as an instrument of foreign policy it is ineffective and carries the humanitarian cost of hurting the Cuban people by “denying them resources, drying up remittances, [and] choking off the foreign travel they depend upon to make a living.”[vii] It may even run counter to actual U.S. interests, as “unilateral sanctions tend to impose greater costs on American firms than on the target.”[viii] Compounded with the alienation of allies and partners that are needed for more pressing U.S. national interests, the decision to implement Title III is made additionally counterproductive.

With very little progress in the Venezuelan crisis, solutions short of violent conflict require thoughtful diplomacy. As Maduro’s closest regional ally, the resolution of this crisis inherently necessitates engagement with Cuba. Such an engagement is precluded by policies that “will only further entrench the Cuban Communist Party, which is perfectly comfortable being an antagonist to a right-wing American government.”[ix] Although it may be cathartic for specific domestic constituencies, implementation of Title III of the Helms-Burton Act negates the progress that has been made in Cuba in the past several years. The Trump Administration should expand its time horizon and not conflate the slow progress of President Obama’s sanctions rollback with failure in order to justify continuing Cold War politics that have failed for six decades. It is easy to continue tacking on sanctions when taking action is considered a result, rather than simply a means to an end. But it is necessary to consider how these policies have impacted and will continue to harm the Cuban people and America’s allies. The Cuban embargo and the Helms-Burton Act do not reflect the realities of the post-Cold War world, and America’s punitive Cuba policy must be reconsidered for the 21st century.

Bibliography

[i] “Speakers Denounce Cuban Embargo as ‘Sad Echo’ of Failed Cold War Politics; General Assembly, for Twentieth Year, Demands Lifting of Economic Blockade.” Meetings Coverage and Press Releases, United Nations, 25 Oct. 2011, www.un.org/press/en/2011/ga11162.doc.htm.

[ii] Daugherty, Alex, and Michael Wilner. “Trump Will Allow Cuban Americans to Sue for Confiscated Property in Cuba.” Miami Herald, Miami Herald, 17 Apr. 2019, www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/cuba/article229321599.html.

[iii] Cohen, Zachary, and Jennifer Hansler. “Trump Expected to Become First President to Target Cuba with This Controversial Policy.” CNN Politics, CNN, 17 Apr. 2019, www.cnn.com/2019/04/16/politics/us-cuba-title-iii-venezuela/index.html.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Bolton, John (AmbJohnBolton). “The U.S. will hold Cuba accountable for its subversion of democracy in Venezuela and direct hand in Maduro’s ongoing repression of the Venezuelan people. We call on those who support Venezuela’s sovereignty to defend the constitution and Venezuelan people.” 1 Apr. 2019, 3:12 PM. Tweet.

[vi] “Speakers Denounce Cuban Embargo as ‘Sad Echo’ of Failed Cold War Politics; General Assembly, for Twentieth Year, Demands Lifting of Economic Blockade.” Meetings Coverage and Press Releases, United Nations, 25 Oct. 2011, www.un.org/press/en/2011/ga11162.doc.htm.

[vii] Rhodes, Ben (brhodes). “4/ Meanwhile, the only real consequence of Trump’s policy will be to hurt millions of Cubans – denying them resources, drying up remittances, choking off the foreign travel they depend upon to make a living. It’s an immoral end achieved by Trump’s actions.” 17 Apr. 2019, 1:41 PM. Tweet.

[viii] Haass, Richard N. “Economic Sanctions: Too Much of a Bad Thing.” Brookings Policy Brief Series, Brookings Institution, 1 June 1998, www.brookings.edu/research/economic-sanctions-too-much-of-a-bad-thing/.

[ix] Rhodes, Ben (brhodes). “3 / Instead, Trump’s policy will only further entrench the Cuban Communist Party, which is perfectly comfortable being an antagonist to a right-wing American government.” 17 Apr. 2019, 1:40 PM. Tweet.

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