When angry Cubans took to the streets in defiant anti-government protests last month, many in Washington were thrilled. Some, who have spent generations driving regime change in Cuba, hoped that the government there could finally topple. President Biden imposed new sanctions. Foreign Minister Antony Blinken called on all governments around the world to support a petition demanding that Cuba grant its citizens “the basic freedoms that all people deserve”. Then he asked the Organization of American States to convene a special session at which the case against Cuba could be presented.
It all fell flat. Just 20 countries signed Blinkens anti-Cuba declaration. Even more embarrassing, the Organization of American States, which Washington has long dominated, turned down his request to meet on Cuba. “Any discussion could only satisfy political hawks with a view to the midterm elections in the US, in which it would be a price to win South Florida with the support of Cuban exiles.” an ambassador wrote. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said the episode led him to conclude that the OAS should be replaced by “a truly autonomous body, not anyone’s lackeys”. Instead of supporting the US condemnation of Cuba, López Obrador sent Cuba a grocery delivery. Bolivia too. This turn of events, said a State Department spokesman, left the Biden administration “deeply disappointed. “
The US’s failed attempt to form a global anti-Cuba coalition this summer is certainly seen as a geopolitical loss. However, it could also have been a political victory for Biden. His promise to “hear the screams of freedom from the island” is aimed primarily at a local audience. Biden only narrowly lost Florida in the 2020 election, in part because of a poor performance among Cubans. Florida will be a battlefield state during the 2022 midterm election, and Biden is keen to show that Democrats can hate the Cuban government as madly as any Republican can. Then there is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, Robert Menendez, son of Cuban immigrants and a bitter critic of the Cuban government who needs to be appeased, not least because its committee votes on all the president’s votes diplomatic agent. It is a vivid example of how strongly domestic policy shapes foreign policy.
During his campaign, Biden said he would return to Obama-era politics to improve Washington-Havana relations. Instead, he did the opposite. Biden has maintained President Trump’s harsh sanctions, heaped new ones against the national police and promised that “there will be more”. with Menendez. It was too good an opportunity to be missed.
Biden could hardly have been surprised when so few countries signed the State Department’s anti-Cuba petition; at least in June the United Nations General Assembly condemned US policy towards Cuba with 184 to 2 votes. What matters in Washington is not Cuba, but the domestic value of sharp anti-Cuba proclamations. Biden’s most recent sanctions against Cuba were primarily symbolic: the freezing of American bank accounts of Cuban police commanders and the travel ban to the United States had little practical effect. However, as soon as Biden imposed them, the Democratic National Committee launched a digital advertising campaign in Florida, saying it reflected his “commitment to the Cuban people and condemnation of communism as a failed system”.
Washington reacted to the recent protests in Iran as much as it did to those in Cuba. Iranians in one corner of the country took to the streets because of lack of water. In a news report dubbed “a rare moment of bipartisanship,” Republicans and Democrats in Washington applauded protesters. Menendez called it “a beacon of hope”. House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy said they were harbingers of a “free and democratic Iran.”
Cuba and Iran have been under severe US sanctions for decades. The United States reflexively adds new ones when protests break out in one of the countries. Forty years of sanctions – or 60 in the case of Cuba – have made no change, but there is no political benefit in facing this reality.
Scientists have documented the powerful effects of sanctions on ordinary people. A 2009 study was completed that they also “degrade the government’s respect for physical integrity, including freedom from disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture and political imprisonment”. Some insist that if sanctions are draconian enough and stay in place long enough, sanctions will ultimately work, but political scientist Robert Pape suggests this is a fantasy. He concludes that sanctions are doomed to fail because “modern states are not fragile. Nationalism often makes states and societies ready to endure sizeable penalties rather than surrendering their national interests. States involved in forced disputes often accept high costs, including civil suffering, to achieve their goals. . . . Even in the weakest and most fragmented states, outside pressure will strengthen rather than undermine the nationalist legitimacy of those in power. “
Fact-based research like this has little meaning in Washington. The political reward for the vigorous denunciation of our designated enemies is too tempting. Cuba is not critical to Biden’s ultimate success. Winning Florida and appeasing Menendez could be. It’s a simple phone call. Politics should stop by the water, but it never does.
Stephen Kinzer is a Senior Fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.