U.S. GAO Cuba Sanctions Study Based on Outdated Thinking, Selective Review of Law, Policies

Late last month the General Accounting Office (GAO) published a report requested by Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-New York), “Economic Sanctions: Agencies Face Competing Priorities in Enforcing the U.S. Embargo on Cuba.”

Statements such as the “48-year U.S. embargo” or “For nearly five decades the U.S. has maintained” U.S. sanctions on Cuba figure prominently in the opening  of the report.  Whether sloppy research or more likely sloppy drafting, these erroneous statements fuel a well-worn argument by opponents of U.S. policy that U.S. sanctions have failed.  It is also a good indication of the inherent biases in the report.

Economic sanctions are tools, not a policy. 

While correct the U.S. has maintained some form of economic sanctions against Cuba since the 1960s, U.S. policy has evolved significantly ever since and continues to do so.  The three most significant changes include the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992, the Cuban Liberty and Solidarity Act of 1996 and the Trade Sanctions Reform Act of 2002.  The GAO Report glosses over the first two and fails to put them into context, then attempts to review the latter in a policy vacuum.

“The stated purpose of this embargo—the most comprehensive set of U.S. economic sanctions on any country—is to weaken the Castro regime by denying it hard currency,” is a true statement but sanctions, alone, our policy does not make. Sanctions are one of many means to an end. A tool. Not a policy.

The stated policy goal is a peaceful transition to democracy that, among other methods, can be achieved by isolating the Cuban Communist Party while at the same time working with the Cuban people in a variety of ways including allowing remittances, phone calls, and orderly travel. Yet nowhere in the GAO Report is this view adequately or prominently reviewed or discussed.

The report’s primary conclusion is “the loosening of embargo rules on some exports led to increased commercial agricultural shipments to Cuba. However, the impact of tighter restrictions on travel, cash remittances, and gifts to Cuba is unknown.”   Again, true enough if one reviews just part of U.S. policy and not its part and parcel.  Indeed we may never know or be able to quantify such things nor should we.

The policy made sense during the Cold War because Cuba opened the door to the Soviet Union in the Western Hemisphere. It stole property from American citizens without compensation. Cuba helped bring the world to the brink of nuclear war. And the policy makes sense today.

Cuba, a state sponsor of terror, and the Communist Party works to undermine U.S. interests in the Hemisphere and through the disproportionate use of espionage in the U.S. for a country its size, among other things, shows it is not interested in changing its ways. Cuba has been a state sponsor of terror since 1982, and it continues to help countries such as Iran get what they need in the Western Hemisphere including access to the U.S.  Cuba maintains the most aggressive espionage program against the U.S. and has South Florida as a primary point of entry.

Yet, the GAO’s primary recommendation calls not cracking down on Cuba’s bad designs toward our country, but rather stresses the  “the Secretary of Homeland Security direct CBP to re-evaluate whether the current level of resources focused on secondary inspections of passengers arriving from Cuba at the Miami airport effectively balances its responsibility for enforcing the Cuba embargo with its responsibilities for keeping terrorists, criminals, and inadmissible aliens out of the country.

In summary, law, and regulations aside,  the Cuban Communist Party that controls Cuba today cannot be rewarded with what it wants the most, moral equivalency and recognition from the U.S. that will lead to tourist travel and U.S. dollars into the Party coffers.

Unlike North Korea or Iran sanctions, Cuba sanctions are designed to hurt stifle efforts today to rejuvenate a failed government that needs tourism dollars to keep it afloat.  Cuba desperately needs access the U.S. market, and we deny it access for a whole host of reasons that the GAO Report should have reviewed, notwithstanding the original request from Ways and Means, if it meant to produce a fair, accurate, and balanced report.

Agencies must always contend with competing priorities when implementing any policy.  This is the nature of our system and it works well because it and why this is even an issue, indeed the title of this GAO Report, is not clear.   Enforcement for violators has increased, less money going to the Cuban Communist Party coffers from travel, and licensing and inspections by U.S. agencies on the uptick.  That is the law and how it is supposed to work and we need more of it.

The Cuban Communist Party knows what it must do to secure rewards from U.S. taxpayers.  It has been on the books since at least 1992.  It should spend less time causing trouble in the Americas or keeping on life support a quixotic system and group of leaders and letting freedom work its natural course.  

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