Trade embargoes by US presidents have had a checkered history

Thomas Jefferson liked embargoes. It was a good way to tweak the British lion's nose. So did Franklin D. Roosevelt. His motive was to help the British. But embargoes -- such as the one Ronald Reagan slapped on Nicaragua this week -- have a checkered history for American presidents who have used them. Sometimes the results are not quite what was expected, as the record shows:

In March 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, disgusted with the graft-infested dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, halted all weapons sales to the Cuban government. Batista at that time was battling a little-known revolutionary, Fidel Castro. Ike's embargo helped Castro win.

In September 1940, President Roosevelt tried to slow the military push of Japan into the southern Pacific by clamping an embargo on iron and steel scrap. Earlier Roosevelt had cut off petroleum products to Japan. Some revisionist historians now say these actions by Roosevelt were a key factor in Japan's decision to strike at Pearl Harbor.

In December 1807, President Jefferson pushed the Embargo Act through Congress to prohibit export of virtually all goods from the US. The embargo was aimed at Britain. But it devastated US shipping and left American ships rotting in their harbors, especially in New England. Britain would not budge, and the embargo eventually collapsed.

That kind of history makes experts hesitate when they talk about the likely effects of the newest embargo on Nicaragua.

Historians are still arguing about another embargo, the one imposed on Castro's Cuba in October 1960 by Eisenhower after it became clear that Castro was moving toward the Soviet Union.

The unanswered question: Did that embargo push Castro into the communist camp? Or was he headed there anyway?

Another question: Did the embargo end any chance of a mixed economy in Cuba? Five days after Eisenhower's embargo, Castro ordered the nationalization of 166 US companies doing business in Cuba, with assets there of $250 million.

It may be worth noting that today there are still 40 American companies with investments in Nicaragua, where the current economy is about 60 percent private, 40 percent state-owned. Will Nicaragua seize those remaining US-owned assets because of the Reagan embargo?

Peter Hill, a diplomatic historian at George Washington University, calls the US experience with embargoes ``mixed.'' There have been times, as in pre-revolutionary days, when embargoes succeeded.

Even after the revolution, it was the threat of US trade retaliation against the British which eventually prompted that country, in 1791, to send its first official minister, George Hammond, to this country, Dr. Hill notes.

In more recent times, however, economic sanctions ``don't have a good reputation,'' Dr. Hill observes. The grain embargo against the USSR, for example, didn't get Soviet troops out of Afghanistan, but hurt US farmers. Ordinarily, Hill says, embargoes are considered ``the chosen weapon of a country that is militarily weak; that was certainly true of the United States in the early 1800s, when this country had only six or seven ships of the line vs. 500 for the British.''

Sally Shelton-Colby, a former ambassador to the Eastern Caribbean and now vice-president with Bankers Trust Company in New York City, doubts that the embargo against Nicaragua will be effective in bringing about changes there. But she considers the embargo ``a logical next step in the Reagan administration's pressure on Nicaragua.''

One reason the embargo may have an indecisive impact is that less than one-fifth of Nicaragua's imports now come from the United States. Furthermore, US purchases of Nicaraguan products such as bananas, coffee, sugar, and beef have already declined sharply, and that country has found alternative markets.

There is a feeling in Latin America, Mrs. Shelton-Colby says, that no action should be taken that would give the Sandinistas an excuse to cozy closer to the Soviets.

The problem, however, was that there were few policy options open to the President at this juncture, she says.

One side effect of the embargo is that it will probably put further pressures on Nicaragua's embattled private sector, including the moderate middle class. They will find it increasingly hard to purchase parts for their US equipment, or to raise new capital for expansion. Also, the hard-liners in the Nicaraguan government will almost certainly be strengthened.

Robert S. Leiken, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment and a frequent visitor to Nicaragua, says the risks of the new embargo are understood by many advisers around Secretary of State George P. Shultz. Many, says Mr. Leiken, actively opposed an embargo. Much of the pressure to do something, he said, was coming from Congress.

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