Embargoes: an Imprecise Tool

EMBARGOES have unintended consequences. Those currently in place against Iraq and Cuba illustrate the dilemma.

The two cases obviously differ. The sanctions against Iraq have been imposed by United Nations Security Council action as a result of the Gulf war. The internationally agreed objective is to force the dismantling of Baghdad's arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. It can be lifted only by Security Council agreement.

The embargo against Cuba is a unilateral United States action resulting from the 1959 Cuban revolution and Fidel Castro's expropriation of US property. The trade ban has been strengthened over the years as frustrated US administrations have failed to dislodge Castro. That embargo has been codified into law with the passage and signing of the Helms-Burton Act on March 12. Where once the restrictions could be lifted only by executive action, only Congress can now reverse them.

Few will argue the justification for the actions against Iraq; the embargo has wide international support. The Cuban case is more controversial. Driven mainly by pressures of US domestic politics, it has little international support. But, although the embargoes differ in their histories and their supporters, they each bring unforeseen results.

The general populace in both countries has suffered privation while the leadership remains comfortably fed. All who have visited Iraq in recent years testify to the severe shortages troubling the people of that country. Cuba's people also suffer from severe economic hardships - although to a lesser extent. In each case, ironically, many blame the sanctioning powers and not the rulers for their plight.

An exile, in contact with friends in Baghdad, told me that educated Iraqis, as they sell their family property in order to exist under the sanctions, are beginning to believe Saddam's claim that the US is leading a conspiracy to destroy a leading Arab country.

Observers of Cuba note that the Helms-Burton legislation has, at least in the short run, helped Castro. He can play on strong nationalist, historic, anti-gringo sentiment. Abroad at international conferences, Castro is still cheered by many third-world delegates who see him as David standing up to the Goliath of the North.

These attitudes, while they may be difficult for Americans to understand, can be explained. Few individuals in either country feel they can speak freely. Blaming their problems on an external enemy is good protection against the security services. Furthermore the US has, in reality, extended the aims of the sanctions beyond weapons and property. Rhetoric from Washington makes clear that the US is unlikely to agree to lifting the embargoes until both regimes are removed.

In the short term, at least in Iraq, reactions against US policies are a price to be paid if the embargoes are to achieve their UN objectives. Sanctions have clearly created effective pressures for full disclosures of Iraq's weapons program, although more needs to be done. Little evidence exists that they have yet weakened the Saddam Hussein regime.

In the Cuban case, opinion differs over the possible effect of the sanctions. Proponents of tough measures believe that they will so weaken the Cuban economy that Castro will fall. They hope that the Helms-Burton Act - with its questionable measure against third countries that deal with Cuba - will further this process. But others, including many in the Cuban-American community, believe that the tougher actions merely reduce the degree to which exiles and US citizens can mould events on the island.

Sanctions are regarded in the international community as an alternative to armed conflict. They are applied with hopes for quick results and with little discussion of the implications. But, as in war, neither the duration nor the full consequences for either side can be foreseen.

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