The empty gesture of imposing sanctions on Cuba and Iran

External pressure hurts ordinary people and doesn’t budge incalcitrant regimes. But tough-guy posturing pays off for American presidents.

Demonstrators protest against the Cuban government at the White House last month. Many Cubans thought the Biden administration would move to normalize relations with Havana, but the president has been tougher than Donald Trump on the island’s government. KENNY HOLSTON/NYT

When angry Cubans poured onto streets last month in defiant anti-government protests, many in Washington were thrilled. Some who have spent generations promoting regime change in Cuba hoped that the government there might finally be falling. President Biden imposed new sanctions. Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged all of the world’s governments to endorse a petition demanding that Cuba grant its citizens “the basic freedoms all people deserve.” Then he asked the Organization of American States to convene a special session where the case against Cuba could be presented.

It all fell flat. Only 20 countries signed Blinken’s anti-Cuba statement. Even more embarrassing, the Organization of American States, which Washington has long dominated, refused his request for a session to discuss Cuba. “Any discussion could only satisfy political hawks with an eye on US mid-term elections, where winning South Florida with the backing of Cuban exiles would be a prize,” one ambassador wrote. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico said the episode had led him to conclude that the OAS should be replaced by “a body that is truly autonomous, not anybody’s lackey.” Instead of endorsing the US condemnation of Cuba, López Obrador sent Cuba a food shipment. So did Bolivia. This turn of events, a State Department spokesperson said, left the Biden administration “deeply disappointed.”

The United States’ failed effort to create a global anti-Cuba coalition this summer certainly counts as a geopolitical loss. It may also, however, have been a political victory for Biden. His pledge to “hear the cries of freedom coming from the island” is aimed mainly at a domestic audience. Biden narrowly lost Florida in the 2020 election, partly because of a poor showing among Cuban-Americans. Florida will be a battleground state during the 2022 midterms, and Biden is eager to show that Democrats can hate the Cuban government as rabidly as any Republican. Then there is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Robert Menendez, son of Cuban immigrants anda bitter critic of the Cuban government who must be placated, not least because his committee votes on all of the president’sdiplomatic appointees.It is a vivid example of how strongly domestic politics shapes foreign policy.

During his campaign, Biden said he would return to the Obama-era policy of improving ties between Washington and Havana. Instead, he has done the opposite. Biden has maintained President Trump’s harsh sanctions, piled on new ones aimed at the national police, and promised that “there will be more.“ The reason is easy to understand: Protests in Cuba gave Biden a chance to score points with Florida voters — and with Menendez. It was too good a chance to miss.

Biden could hardly have been surprised when so few countries signed the State Department’s anti-Cuba petition; after all, in Junethe United Nations General Assembly condemned US policy toward Cuba by a vote of 184-2. What matters in Washington is not Cuba but the domestic political value of strident anti-Cuba proclamations. Biden’s latest sanctions on Cuba were mainly symbolic: Freezing American bank accounts of Cuban police commanders and banning them from traveling to the United States has little practical effect. As soon as Biden imposed them, though, the Democratic National Committee launched a digital advertising campaign in Florida saying they reflected his “commitment to the Cuban people and condemnation of communism as a failed system.”

Washington reacted to recent protests in Iran much as it reacted to those in Cuba. Iranians in one corner of the country took to the streets because of water shortages. In what one news report called “a rare moment of bipartisanship,” Republicans and Democrats in Washington jumped to applaud the protesters. Menendez called them “a beacon of hope.” House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy said they were harbingers of “a free and democratic Iran.”

Cuba and Iran have been under heavy US sanctions for decades. The United States reflexively adds new ones whenever protests break out in either country. Forty years of sanctions — or 60 in the case of Cuba — have not produced change, but confronting that reality brings no political benefit.

Scholars have documented the heavy impact sanctions have on ordinary people. One 2009 study concluded that they also “worsen government respect for physical integrity rights, including freedom from disappearances, extra-judicial killings, torture, and political imprisonment.” Some insist that sanctions will ultimately work if they are draconian enough and kept in place long enough, but political scientist Robert Pape suggests that this is fantasy. He concludes that sanctions are doomed to fail because “modern states are not fragile. Nationalism often makes states and societies willing to endure considerable punishment rather than abandon their national interests. States involved in coercive disputes often accept high costs, including civilian suffering, to achieve their objectives. . . . Even in the weakest and most fractured states, external pressure is more likely to enhance the nationalist legitimacy of rulers than to undermine it.”

Fact-based research like this has little currency in Washington. The political payoff for vividly denouncing our designated enemies is too tempting. Cuba is not crucial to Biden’s ultimate success. Winning Florida and appeasing Menendez may be. It’s an easy call. Politics should stop at the water’s edge, but it never does.

Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.

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