Terry H. Schwadron

Aug. 7, 2021

As with Barack Obama and Donald Trump before him, Joe Biden has launched new sets of economic sanctions against Cuba and Iraq, has targeted Russia with sanctions to stop Russian interference efforts and cybersecurity attacks and basically has doubled down on sanctions against North Korean nuclear development.

Indeed, sanctions have become the weapon of choice — somewhere between words and war — since 2001.

The open question is whether they are effective. Do they work? And if they do, why not go after the Big Guys in the country rather than some ministerial character who’s never going to come abroad anyway? They’re never aimed at the Castros or the Ayatollah or Putin personally.

In Cuba, where there have been economic sanctions for decades, little has changed in treatment of Cubans or in relationships with the United States. The Russians are openly disdainful of these sanctions, and cyber skirmishes are building, not disappearing. The North Koreans pay no attention to sanctions, and Iran’s ambassador to the UN repeatedly has described the US actions as “economic war and terrorism against the Iranian people.”

Still, though Biden is following a pattern that Trump used, it’s not enough for Republican opponents who are seizing on Biden as weak against Cuba, Iran and the others.

Sanctions Against Cuba

To help Cuban activists, the Biden administration announced last week a second round of sanctions the Cuban government over the crackdown on pro-­democracy demonstrations earlier this month. The measures, under the Global Magnitsky Act, target those determined to be “perpetrators of serious human rights abuses and corruption” and block assets in the U.S. and any dealings with those sanctioned — this time two security officials and a police unit that the Biden administration blames for attempts to harm or silence protesters.

Biden already had imposed sanctions against Cuba’s defense minister and Interior Ministry Special Forces known as “Black Berets.”

The United States is seeking to provide Internet access or wireless phone access for Cubans to get around government censorship; Biden is asking private telecoms about ways to offer satellite or off-shore balloon services. Biden said the United States is also trying to find ways to help Cubans receive “remittances” or money from relatives or friends overseas.

Of course, Republicans, led by Sen. Mario Rubio, R-Fla., insist that Biden is doing too little, though most of the United States’ closest European allies, as well as Canada, have declined to join any U.S. effort against Cuba, and even members of the hemispheric Organization of American States did not produce a quorum to vote on actions to challenge the sitting Cuban government. Republicans, including Donald Trump, who won Florida, wrongly accuse Biden and Democrats of being socialists nearly indistinguishable from Cuba’s communist government — name-calling that does nothing to help life in Cuba.

Here’s the thing, though: Most financial transactions with Cuba have been sanctioned for decades. These recent moves may be more aimed at a PR effort to show anti-Cubans that Biden is tending to their concerns.

Cuban Americans have gathered daily outside the White House to demand a more forceful response, up to calling for a U.S. military intervention to depose the Cuban government, an action the Biden administration has ruled out. Upping sanctions is not delivering health care and vaccines in Cuba.

Sanctions in Iran

Halfway across the world, Biden wants to ramp up pressure on Iran amid the stalled talks to renegotiate a deal on halting nuclear weapons development, and so what is pending are, yes, more sanctions on oil exports, and on missiles and drones, coinciding with a new Iranian head of state and threats from Israel that it may take military action on its own against Iran.

This is just the same approach that Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took and have been criticizing Biden for not pursuing.

The difference, of course, is that for about 10 minutes, things were looking as though talks in Vienna with Iranians might find some semblance of common ground, until a new election — one whose outcome essentially was forecast– for a yet harsher government. What has followed were louder anti-U.S. rhetoric and, in effect, a withdrawal from any new deal.

At stake is the same, if updated, deal that Trump threw out in 2018, blocking nuclear weapons for a limited number of years.

All reports are that there are growing protests in Iran over water and electricity shortages, job losses, and misery, as well as nine deaths of protesters and hundreds of arrests, according to Human Rights Watch. At the same time, Iran has in recent months ramped up its nuclear activity far beyond the constraints of the deal, increasing its stockpile of nuclear material and infrastructure key to building a bomb.

Even if Iran disposed of excess materials that can be used to build a bomb, it has gained key operational knowledge that is irreversible, says TheHill.com.

Predictions of possible breakthroughs aside, the Biden administration has said both that it is prepared to lift sanctions that are inconsistent with the original terms of the nuclear deal and ready to impose more. According to The Wall Street Journal, the administration is weighing sanctions targeting Chinese imports of Iranian crude oil.

Policy Choices

What is clear that in both cases, there is a human cost to sanctions. The protests in Cuba and Iran, aimed at diametrically opposed philosophies, are similar. What people want is basic comforts, health care, food, jobs and stability — and the right to demand it.

Lifting the sanctions is always like to provide fresh cash to the dictators in any of these countries, and free them to do more harm.

But constant reliance on threats to stop trade and money are not achieving the goals that our government and even its Republican opponents say they want — not to mention the irony of Republicans seeing the value of rewarding street protests for more humanitarianism in every other country than their own.

It is unclear if the protests are having any positive effect on the Cuban or Iranian regimes, and only clear that they see U.S. sanctions as noxious.

We’re neither moving the right needles, nor inventing new ways to come at the problems. We’re all waiting for the other guy to blink and serving up foreign sanctions for domestic politics.



Journalist, musician, community volunteer