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The US sanctions against Cuba are among the most comprehensive, longest-lasting, and least effective sanctions imposed in the 20th century. At long last, President Obama is taking steps to normalize diplomatic relations and ease travel and other minor sanctions. But only Congress can end the 50+ years of futility in trying to coerce political reform in Cuba. Congress codified the sanctions against Cuba in two pieces of legislation in the 1990s and the laundry list of conditions that must be met before the president can lift sanctions is daunting

But key legislators are already threatening to derail the President’s move to normalize relations. The question is, to what end? My extensive research with colleagues at the Peterson Institute for International Economics shows that economic sanctions contributed to achieving sanctioners’ goals in only about a third of 204 episodes from 1914 to 2000. The US record in the latter three decades of the 20th century was even worse, with only about 20 percent of sanctions achieving any notable degree of success.

Sanctions did not force Fidel Castro to bow to US demands in the early days of the revolution, when the government was weak and Cuba’s economy closely intertwined with that of the United States. Nor did he cave when the Soviet Union collapsed and the billions of dollars in subsidies that had kept the Cuban economy afloat for decades dried up. With the end of the Cold War, integration with the European Union proved a far more effective tool for consolidating and sustaining democracy in Eastern Europe than economic sanctions ever were. As President Obama said on Wednesday, “It’s time for a new approach.”

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.