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Failed Policy Still Looms Over the New 'Normal' Between the US and Cuba

From Cuba to Gaza to Iran, powerful nations enact embargoes and sanctions that benefit no one — and feed upon their own failure.
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To reassert diplomatic relations, as President Barack Obama just announced the US and Cuba are doing, is to "normalize." But America's 50-year embargo against the communist state told us this much: There's never anything normal about America's position in the geopolitical matrix. Or, rather, the American state of normality — in which the superpower can hold smaller, weaker political enemy states economically hostage — is absurd.


The US embargo against Cuba, which will continue despite diplomatic normalization, lingers like an embarrassing Cold War hangover. As the decades passed after the embargo's start in 1960, it became increasingly clear that it would not unseat the Castro regime, and the pretexts for continuing it became increasingly laughable. It took some nerve, for instance, for the US to suggest that the embargo should be upheld because of human rights abuses in Cuba while the US abused humans at its military base at Guantanamo Bay.

The half-century-old noose around Cuba's neck rightly amplified America's global reputation as a bully capable of intransigent stupidity. Faith in US diplomacy should be forever shook by the fact that a policy can last so long and prove so consistently counterproductive for everyone involved — Cubans and Americans alike. Obama's act of statesmanship with Cuban President Raul Castro is not bold or brilliant, it's just common sense, though history may well reward the president generously for closing this beleaguered chapter with Cuba.

It is telling that, as Jon Lee Anderson reminds us in the New Yorker, the only nation in the UN that did not condemn the embargo was Israel. Israel has a senseless and brutal blockade of its own to defend on the international stage. But the blockade on Gaza and the Cuban embargo thoroughly prove the uselessness of both to achieve the true ends of those who enact them.


"There is almost no other kind of policy that thrives off of failure more than sanctions and embargoes," notes Daniel Larson in the American Conservative. They are increased in severity if a country is seen to continue the alleged problematic behavior, but they're not removed as a way of rewarding any shifts in behavior, because they're supposed to be punitive. We might ask the US how the economic toll on Iran's people from harsh sanctions is serving to end Tehran's uranium enrichment program. (Spoiler alert: It is not.)

And so there's no reason for an embargoed government to relent, because relief won't come, because the real reason the embargo is there is to bring down the regime. "They remain in place for as long as the other government endures," Larson points out. And, as we see with the Castros and the rise of Hamas in Gaza, regime power is often consolidated when economic blockades produce desperation-fueled power vacuums. Failure begets failure — and the world should learn from America's failure.

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