It's Time to Lift Our Economic and Trade Sanctions
by Jerome F. Winzig
Economic and trade sanctions are a blunt, crude instrument of foreign policy. Using them to punish foreign dictators is sort of like using a shotgun against the fox raiding the henhouse. The chances are quite good a lot of chickens will die while the fox escapes unscathed or with minor injuries. Economic and trade sanctions have the same poor results. When they are severe and other countries join in, they punish the people of a nation while the intended target at the top is undeterred. When they are not severe, they are still ineffectual and often have unintended consequences.
Sanctions work best against open societies that have a degree of democracy accompanied by a relatively free press that is able to point out that sanctions exist and have a moral purpose. For example, there is little doubt that the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act helped bring about the end of apartheid in South Africa. However, such sanctions are particularly ineffective against closed societies where an all-powerful dictator controls most aspects of people's lives.
It would seem, then, that the United States would rarely use such sanctions and would limit their use to extreme situations where particular circumstances might make them effective. Unfortunately, that is not the case. The United States has imposed economic sanctions against North Korea since 1950, Cuba since 1960, Libya since 1973, Iran since 1979, Myanmar since 1988, and Iraq since 1990. Yet the tyrants who are the intended targets of these sanctions are still in power, except in Iran, which is the exception that proves the rule. Iran is a relatively open society with democratic elections. Furthermore, the sanctions against it have not been continuous, have been less severe, and have not included travel bans.
There are other countries where U.S. sanctions have failed. According to Kimberly Ann Elliott of the Institute for International Economics, 87 percent of the unilateral sanctions imposed by the United States since 1970 have failed. Some of these failures have been spectacular. In 1979, the grain embargo against the Soviet Union for its invasion of Afghanistan was devastating to U.S. farm exports. The 1982 sanctions against companies that participated in building the Soviet natural gas pipeline to Western Europe simply diverted business to Japanese and European suppliers.
In spite of this dismal record, the United States has been using sanctions with increasing frequency under both Republican and Democratic administrations. In 1992, President Bush signed the Cuban Democracy Act, which tightened the embargo against Cuba. In 1996, President Clinton signed the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, which imposed penalties on companies doing business in Cuba. And Cuba is not alone. In the last six years, the United States has imposed unilateral economic sanctions over sixty times. That's more than the United States had imposed in the previous 74 years. Today, the United States has sanctions in place against more than 70 countries representing almost 70 percent of the world's population.
There are three compelling arguments against economic and trade sanctions. First, they rarely solve the problem they are intended to address. Second, they often have unintended negative consequences for U.S. interests. Third, and most troubling, they can be incredibly harmful to the ordinary people in the countries being embargoed.
Iraq is a prime example. In 1991 alone, according to the International Monetary Fund, Iraq's economy shrank by nearly two-thirds. From 1991 to 1998, UNICEF estimates that 500,000 Iraqi children under the age of five died. According to a recent report in the "Economist" magazine, "In Basra, Iraq's second city, power flickers on and off unpredictably in the hours it is available. It can take ten minutes to get a line for a local telephone call. Smoke from jerry-rigged generators and vehicles hangs over the town in a thick cloud. The tap water causes diarrhea, but few can afford the bottled sort. Because the sewers have broken down, pools of stinking muck have leached through to the surface all over town."
Yet today, Saddam Hussein is as entrenched in power as ever. He has built several new palaces and his police force has acquired a fleet of new Hyundai patrol cars. His friends can buy Pentium III computers even though Pentiums of any kind are banned by the sanctions. In addition, Hussein faces little opposition. The middle class has been battered. Civil servants earn about $2.50 a day at the current exchange rate. Engineers, scientists, and academics earn a living selling cigarettes, driving taxis, or fishing.
Cuba is another example of how sanctions take an enormous toll on ordinary people. Twenty-five-year-old cars are common in Cuba and old cars in decrepit shape can cost as much as $9,000. Cuba's gross national product is only 65 percent of its 1989 level. A nickel plant in Cuba owned by the Canadian company Share-it pays its workers production bonuses up to seventy dollars a month, an amount that is seven times the average Cuban's salary.
It should be quickly acknowledged that many of Cuba's problems are internal in nature. Forty years of dictatorship and Marxist economics have left the country in terrible shape. But the ongoing embargo lets Fidel Castro off the hook. Thomas Donohue, President of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who has traveled to Cuba and met with Castro, says: "When it comes to the Cuban economy, Castro has a perfect excuse - it's the embargo's fault. In fact, Castro needs the embargo as a scapegoat for the abysmally poor Cuban economy. Lifting the embargo on Cuba would not only remove Castro's excuse for economic failure, but would also help the Cuban people by providing more economic opportunity and freedom."
Some people would argue that the Cuban people need us to continue our embargo for their sake. But Elizardo Sanchez Santa Cruz, a leading dissident in Cuba, says that Castro "wants to continue exaggerating the image of the external enemy which has been vital for the Cuban government during decades, an external enemy which can be blamed for the failure of the totalitarian model implemented here."
In 1996, Congressman Mark Sanford of South Carolina was a supporter of the Helms Burton Bill that imposed additional sanctions on Cuba. But in late 1999 he traveled to Cuba. It was a low-key trip; instead of traveling as a congressman, he stayed in family homes. He says that "random people on the streets with no ax to grind" told him repeatedly, "The embargo is not working, it is keeping Castro in place, you need to change it."
The people do not win with sanctions. A particular U.S. industry or company might gain a temporary advantage from a particular sanction. Dictators may use sanctions to justify their excesses. But everyone else loses, including the American people and the people in the country being sanctioned.
In fact, sanctions are the result of a lack of confidence in ourselves. Philip Peters, Vice President of the Lexington Institute, points out that lifting sanctions "would express confidence in America's ability to influence another country. Confidence we have had in every dealing we have had with Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union when communism prevailed there. A faith and a confidence in our ability, in our society's ability to influence another society through private initiative, through private flows of people, commerce, and ideas, that are not directed by the government, that are not licensed by the government, but are just an outgrowth of American curiosity, and Americans' interest in foreign countries, and Americans' beliefs in themselves, and in our own ideas."
Twenty-eight years ago, President Richard Nixon, a fervent anti-Communist, had the foresight to travel to China. Today, China still has a very long way to go, and there are those in Congress who would like to deny it World Trade Organization membership. But China is a considerably more open country now than it was in 1972, and its trade with the vibrant Chinese democracy in Taiwan will challenge it to change even more.
Nixon's courage in normalizing U.S. relations with the most populous nation in the world is the most powerful legacy of his presidency, even though it ended in shameful resignation just one year later. That's why the first official act of the new U.S. president on January 20, 2001 should be to submit legislation lifting all economic and trade embargoes against North Korea, Cuba, Libya, Iran, Myanmar, Iraq, and the 64 other nations currently under U.S. sanctions.