Paul Pillar

Cuba and the Sanctions Juggernaut

Last week the government of Cuba announced that it was ceasing nearly all of the consular services that it provides in the United States. The reason was that the sole U.S. bank that had been willing to handle an account for Cuba is no longer willing. With no bank account, the Cuban interests section cannot do such things as accept payment for visa fees. This development will curb what had been growing travel between the United States and Cuba. The impairment of travel is a bad thing not only from the point of view of the Cuban government, which needs revenue from tourism, but also the current U.S. government, which appropriately sees greater travel and unofficial contacts as relief for separated families as well as encouragement for the sorts of free economic and political ideas that have been stifled under an isolated Castro dictatorship.

The key constraint is Cuba's continued place on the official U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. That list, created under a 1979 law, long ago ceased to bear much resemblance to actual patterns of state sponsorship of terrorism, in terms of which countries are on the list as well as which ones are not. Cuba, which has been on the list longer (since 1982) than any other country currently listed, is one of the most glaring anomalies. The most recent official U.S. report on state sponsors of terrorism, the one for 2012, gives no reason to conclude otherwise. The report states that there is “no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups.” There are some retirees of the Basque terrorist group ETA (which appears on the verge of disbanding) in Cuba, but the report notes that the Cuban government evidently is trying to distance itself from them by denying them services such as travel documents. Some members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have been allowed into Cuba, but that was because Cuba was hosting peace talks between the FARC and the Colombian government.

The U.S. sanctions mechanism run by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) in the Treasury Department is so effective and formidable that it strikes fear into the hearts of banks and other private sector organizations that might otherwise consider dealing with a listed state, regardless of how flimsy are the reasons for a state being on the list and how much the current U.S. administration might actually welcome commerce with it. A lawyer in Miami who has worked on matters related to the international banking and the sanctions against Cuba observes, “Banks are very nervous about any type of misstep about money flowing to any country on the OFAC list, because the fines, even if you only make a small mistake, are huge. You have to scrutinize everything coming in and out. The problem is, who wants to take that on? You just can't make money on these accounts.”

This problem regarding Cuba reflects three unfortunate patterns that also have infected the American approach to certain other states as well, such as Iran.

First is the tendency to think that isolation and pressure are the only sound way to deal with regimes that for one reason or another we don't happen to like. The counterproductive nature of the decades-long unilateral U.S. embargo of Cuba has gradually come to be recognized, and is reflected in the Obama administration's welcoming of U.S.-Cuban travel. That the embargo has long outlived whatever usefulness it may have had is reflected in how diplomatic isolation of the United States on the matter is at least as prominent as any economic isolation of Cuba. Each year the United Nations General Assembly passes a resolution condemning the embargo. This year's vote was 188 in favor, two opposed (the United States and Israel), and three abstentions (Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Palau). But enough of the old pro-isolation thinking resides in American politics for Cuba to remain on that state sponsor list.

Second is the chronic misuse of counterterrorism as a banner under which to pursue some other agenda. Those pursuits have included such things as launching costly wars of choice abroad and extending unchecked executive power in the United States, as well as making archaic anti-Castro gestures. The costs of such misuse include not only the warping of debate regarding those other initiatives but also the discrediting of real counterterrorism.

Third is how sanctions and their use to inflict economic punishment have come to be used as if they were an end in itself rather than a tool to help accomplish some other objective. Give the folks at OFAC and Treasury credit for how well and how diligently they perform the task assigned to them. The fear in private sector institutions that makes it hard for Cuba to find a banker and that will keep sanctions against Iran from unraveling are evidence of how well those officials do their job. But if the objectives that sanctions are supposed to help achieve are to be achieved, there needs to be as much attention to winding sanctions down or taking them off as there is to winding them up and keeping pressure on.