Do Embargoes Prop Up Dictators?
Last week's bombing raids on Iraq should remind us that our embargoes of Iraq and other countries are ineffective; they prop up dictators and hurt the very people they are supposed to help.
by Jerome F. Winzig
Until last week's bombing raid on Iraqi radar installations, the U.S. embargo of Iraq -- and of countries like North Korea, Libya, Cuba, and Myanmar -- wasn't in the news very much. Occasionally, there are reports of the suffering that results from our embargoes, but they never really hold the attention of the news media for long. Even less common are in-depth reports that point out these embargoes are lousy foreign policy.
Each of the five countries named above have been under embargo for many years, North Korea since 1950, Cuba since 1960, Libya since 1973, Myanmar (Burma) since 1988, and Iraq since 1990. Yet these countries have the world's longest-lasting dictatorships. Kim Il Song and his son, Kim Chong Il, have ruled North Korea for 52 years. Fidel Castro is in his 43rd year of one-man rule and Col. Muammar Abu Minyar al-Qadhafi seized power in a coup 32 years ago. Myanmar has been ruled by a military junta for 13 years and Saddam Hussein has controlled Iraq for 22 years.
Perhaps we should be asking whether great power sanctions and embargoes actually keep dictatorships in power, defeating the very purpose for which they are designed. Clearly, North Korea, Cuba, Libya, Myanmar, and Iraq have terrible leaders. But perhaps the isolation and deprivation caused by our embargoes are the best friends these dictators could have.
Last week, Thomas Donohue, the President and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, spoke out against the Cuban embargo. He gave four reasons why the United States should lift its unilateral economic sanctions against Cuba:
- "The embargo hurts those American businesses, workers, and farmers, who would benefit from trading with Cuba.
- It hurts the Cuban people -- the embargo provides the perfect excuse for Fidel Castro to explain away his failed centralized economic policy.
- [T]he embargo shuts off a critical valve that would help fan the spark of private enterprise that is present in Cuba.
- Finally, unilateral economic sanctions are an affront to the free trade policies that have brought our country and its citizens so much prosperity."
Donohue is not the only voice to question the wisdom of embargoes. In a piece written four years ago, Stuart Anderson, the director of trade and immigration studies at the Cato Institute, wrote, "Rather than introduce new unilateral sanctions, it is time to admit that current sanction policies have hurt American companies while accomplishing little else. For many years the U.S. government has prevented Cubans from drinking Coca-Cola and eating at Pizza Hut, yet those prohibitions have not made Cuba more democratic." That was in December, 1996, and Cuba is still not more democratic.
Embargoes are not only ineffective. They also harm the people they are designed to rescue. In 1998, Pope John Paul II said that embargoes are "always deplorable because they hurt the most needy." In its 1995 social statement, "For Peace on God's World," the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America declared, "From the posture of the just/unjust war tradition, the aim of all politics is peace. Any political activity that involves coercion should be held accountable to just/unjust war principles. They are important for evaluating movements, sanctions, embargoes, boycotts, trade policies to reward or punish, and other coercive but nonviolent measures."
It's long past time for us to start applying these common-sense criteria to our long-standing embargoes. If we dropped them today -- just dropped them -- who knows what might happen to North Korea, Cuba, Libya, Myanmar, and Iraq in the next five or ten years. Could it possibly be worse that what's happened over the last several decades?