I’ve been teaching about economic sanctions for years in my graduate courses on economic foreign policy. One of the main messages that I try to get across is that economic statecraft is usually a weak reed: interfering with the market (whether using sanctions, aid, or other government policies) has real economic costs, and we rarely know enough about how the target economy works or how to manipulate the political incentives of the target government to achieve our goals. I don’t usually single out sanctions on Cuba as an example in class (other examples like South Africa and South Korea seem catchier), but my general view is that the anti-Castro sanctions are a good example of the ineffectiveness of the policy tool.
Sanctions probably have hurt the Cuban economy to some extent over the years, but it is hard to tell, because poor economic policy choices by the Cuban government have hurt the economy there, too. A friend of mine remarked about the opening shot of the Buena Vista Social Club that his first thought was that the dilapidated buildings showed the damage from the embargo; his second thought was that the tracking shot showed the destructiveness of a communist government; and his third thought was that Cuba didn’t look all that much different from other developing countries.
So last week, when I went to Mexico City for a conference on “E-Engagement” among the U.S., Mexico, and Cuba, I thought that one of the advantages of using the Internet for electronic exchange of research and analysis might be an opportunity for analysts to tease out what the real effect of the sanctions has been. Could we really find out how much the Cubans have been able to circumvent the embargo, trading with other countries, as our economic theories of the flexibility of global markets imply? What do Cuban economists think about the policies that their government has adopted in response to the sanctions? Do they have a serious discussion of policy effectiveness the way that we sometimes have in the U.S.?
It had actually crossed my mind that there were a number of analytical topics from which we might benefit from engagement with smart, thinking Cubans (and Mexicans, for that matter). For example, in foreign policy, we often want to know how other governments think — including, specifically, how they analyze the credibility of the threats and promises of their adversaries. University of Pennsylvania professor Daryl Press (soon to be moving back to Dartmouth College) published a book last year studying how much weight decision-makers give to their adversaries’ past behavior when trying to predict their behavior during crises. Among other cases, he looked at American and British predictions about Soviet behavior during the Cuban missile crisis, but wouldn’t it also be helpful to know what the Cubans were thinking about us? I wonder what Cuban scholarship on the question is like.
My optimism about e-Engagement — or any other type of engagement — was misplaced. Steve Clemons at the Washington Note was also at the small conference, and he blogged about the experience:
I found it remarkable that even in this rather small conference, most of the Cuban academics needed to go through a pro forma articulation of their objections to an imperial America, and on several occasions, Guantanamo surfaced. Though I have my own problems with the detention of enemy combatants by the US at Guantanamo, that subject has little to do with thinking through new contours of policy interaction through the web without violating American or Cuban laws.
Actually, I didn’t get the feeling that the comments were pro forma. I was struck, instead, by the extent to which our Cuban partners wandered when they had the floor — how little their approach matched a modern analytical style, even when an economist commented that he “preferred to talk in numbers”. He didn’t. He rambled as much as the next one.
I’m sure that it’s true that there are many, many smart people in Cuba, and I’m sure that many of them are doing good work. I hear that biotechnology is a booming field there. But I left the conference feeling that e-Engagement was very unlikely to prove fruitful anytime soon. We just weren’t on the same page.
So Steve Clemons left the conference with a very reasonable complaint against the effort by U.S. sanctions-enforcers to ban co-authorship of academic papers by teams of Cubans and Americans:
I am interested that this administration — or any other Republican or Democratic administration — isn’t promoting robust intellectual exchange, co-authorship of papers, and attempting to inculcate Cuba’s academics and universities with the importance of empirical research and the benefits that come from a more empowered civil society — that must have successful academic institutions as one of the key pillars.
I agree with Steve that that’s a shocking policy: there may be legitimate first amendment objections to the ban, and more to the point, rational discourse seems like a sensible approach to undermining Castro’s dysfunctional system.
But on the other hand, I was distressed to contemplate the prospects that any serious American academic might get much from the exchange anytime soon (at least in fields that I know something about — foreign policy analysis, economics, political development, etc.). Those prospects are dim.
So sure, I still oppose the continued embargo against Cuba and the general over-use of economic sanctions. But the issue of sanctions reform just got knocked down ten places on my priority list: I fear that we have even less to gain from restored interchange than I had thought.
In the U.S. political environment, the bipartisan competition to appear strongly anti-Castro that infects American politics (especially elections in Florida) is still a big problem. In my eagerness to complain about the Cuban academics, I shouldn’t make believe that the U.S. public policy debate about Cuba has much to recommend it, analytically speaking. Of course, we at least have clear analyses of the issues, and academics and some policy wonks can discuss them. It’s just our actual decision-makers who struggle to seriously engage the issue of reform of our Cuba policy or the oft-noted inconsistency between our policies to “isolate” Cuba and “engage” China. Our savior here may be the lobbying activity of agricultural interests that want to export to Cuba — hardly a victory for reason, but that’s the American, pluralist system of government. It’s our way. Perhaps Cuba policy will be a situation where so-called “special interests” can help us to overcome a bipartisan blockage.
Given the present situation, maybe my mild agitation is better directed here, in the U.S., on the PSA website about partisanship in American foreign policy. Working with Cuban analysts to think about the effects of sanctions or the effects of lack of democracy, free markets, and stifled policy analysis seems much lower payoff than calling for an improved American policy discussion.