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Ruohan Zhang
POLS W3951: Paper 2
Professor Dawn Brancati
November 15, 2016
Half a decade after the US first imposed an embargo on Cuba, the
island remains a Communist bastion and an autocracy by nearly every
measure of democracy. Failing to achieve its intended goal of democratizing
Cuba, the US embargo has only resulted in economic damage for both
nations. The Cuban government stated in 2014 that US sanctions cost the
island $3.9 billion annually (Reuters), while the US Chamber of Commerce
estimated in 2009 that the embargo resulted in $1.2 billion annual loss on
average for American businesses. Politically, Cuba fails as a minimal
democracy with its one-party system and lack of open elections, as well as
maximally, with strict press controls and frequent imprisonment of
dissidents. Citing the US embargos failure to alter the Cuban regime,
advocates for lifting sanctions often argue that increased trade will result in
greater economic opportunity for Cubans and subsequently more demand for
democratic freedoms. The optimistic theory that trade with authoritarian
regimes aids democratization, however, ignores underlying factors in Cubas
case that prevent economic theory from playing out. Defining success and
failure based on legislated US demands for Cuban political reforms, I argue
that increased trade will have no success in democratizing Cuba for the
same reasons that sanctions failed to do sothe Cuban governments

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totalitarian, ideological control, and weak contingency between US trade
policy and democratic reforms.
The US embargo on Cuba was originally intended to promote both
minimal and maximal democracy in Cuba. Among a series of legislation
dispersed throughout decades, the Cuban Democracy Act (CDA) of 1992
most specifically outlines the conditions that Cuba must satisfy in order for
sanctions to be lifted. In terms of minimal democracy it requires that Cuba
must have held free and fair elections conducted under internationally
recognized observers and has permitted opposition parties ample time to
organize and campaign for such elections as well as full access to the
media to all candidates in the elections (Cuban Democracy Act). These
conditions correspond to several of Dahls requirements for procedural
minimal democracyfree elections, open competition, and freedom of
expression and the press. Maximally, the CDA requires that Cuba must show
respect for the basic civil liberties and human rights of the citizens of Cuba
and move toward establishing a free market economic system. These are
maximal values more closely associated with a definition of liberal
democracy, going beyond the basic requirement of free, open elections and
information to include civil-political rights and even a liberalized market. As
such, the democratization that US sanctions intended for Cuba was
Despite its goal of fostering both minimal and maximal democracy in
Cuba, US sanctions failed to induce the corresponding political concessions

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from the Cuban government. In When do Economic Sanctions Work? Hovi,
Huseby and Sprinz offer two qualifications for successful sanctions
extracting political concessions or making noncompliance impossible for the
sanctioned party. Because the conditions for lifting US sanctions were
political reforms, there was no way to use economic embargo to make
noncompliance impossible, so extraction of political concessions is the
measure I use to judge the success of US sanctions in Cuba. Additional
literature also suggests evaluating the success of sanctions by their
effectiveness in achieving initially outlined goalsboth minimal and maximal
democracy in Cubas case (Levy). By those combined standards, US
sanctions failed because they did not foster minimal democracy in Cuba; unopen, un-free elections are held nominally under a one-party system where
the government controls news media and bans independent press. Cuba also
fails in terms of maximal democracy; civil liberties are violated when
dissidents are detained without just cause for opposition to the government,
while the countrys economy remains centrally directed. As such, sanctions
have failed to extract political concessions consistent with the CDA. One
could argue that sanctions were eventually successful because Cuba has
recently re-opened diplomatic relations with the US, but that is merely
rhetoric and has not resulted in any political concessions that lead to
US sanctions were unsuccessful for two main reasons, one of which is
the ideological ability of Cubas totalitarian government to garner support

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from international powers and influence its own people, thus disrupting
economic mechanisms by which sanctions can succeed and subsequently
hindering democratization. One of the mechanisms through which sanctions
can work is by making economic conditions so intolerable that it forces
political change. Brancati argues that economic crises raise discontent within
society if an authoritarian government is seen as having a strong role in
promoting the crisis, thus increasing support for opposition candidates, who
aid in organizing protests. By this mechanism, if sanctions crippled the
Cuban economy, this would lead to an economic crisis for citizens, which
could then lead to democracy protests. Between 1960, when sanctions were
imposed, and 1990, Cuban losses from US sanctions were largely offset by
Soviet assistance. Cubas government was able to invite and sustain Soviet
bloc support over three decades not only because of their political affinity,
but also because of its unique position as the only Marxist-Leninist state in
the Americas during an ideological Cold War. In 1988, 85% of Cubas trade
was with the Soviet bloc, and aid from the Soviet Union represented a fifth of
Cuban GDP before 1990 (Kaplowitz). Krushchevs agreement to Cubas
request to place nuclear missiles in Cuba following the Bay of Pigs invasion
was another testament to Cubas unique ideological role in the Cold War ear.
After Soviet era, Cubas economy faltered somewhat, but the government
was still able to prevent economic crisis from leading to democracy protests
because they were able to disassociate themselves from the economic
consequences. Even though the poor economy was largely perpetuated by

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Cuban government policies, political actors blamed the US sanctions and
disassociated from their role in the economy. This breaks the crucial link
between economic hardship and blame on the government that foments
democracy protests. Additionally, blaming US sanctions for the economic
crisis prevented another catalyst of democracy protests from surfacingthe
belief that lack of democracy was a cause of economic crisis in Cuba. Cubas
ideological opposition to the US and its socialist identity also helped it
maintained the support of other governments with leftist, totalitarian
leanings in the post-Soviet era, such as China, Venezuela, and Bolivia, thus
increasing substitute sources of trade and making US sanctions largely
unilateral. By retaining the support of both Cubans and international actors,
Cubas government was able to prevent US sanctions from fostering both
maximal and minimal democratization.
A second reason US sanctions were unsuccessful was because of the
tenuous contingency between sanctions and the conditions necessary to lift
the sanctions, which reduced compliance and further contributed to breaking
the link between sanctions, economic crisis, and democratic reforms. Hovi,
Huseby and Spinz contend that sanctions are usually successful in their
threat stage, and that imposed sanctions will not be effective if the
sanctioned country believes that they will be imposed and sustained
regardless of whether political concessions are made. In other words, a
target country will make no political concessions in attempt to satisfy
conditions for lifting sanctions if it believes there is no causal link between

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the two in reality. The US began imposing gradual sanctions on Cuba in 1959,
with all trade (except food and medicine) effectively being terminated with
Presidential Proclamation 3447 in 1962. President Kennedy states in this
proclamation that the US is prepared to take all necessary actions to
promote national and hemispheric security by isolating the present
Government of Cuba, suggesting that the US may take action beyond
sanctions to coerce Cuba, and retain sanctions despite fulfillment of the
criteria to lift them. Moreover, in this and subsequent official statements or
legislation concerning the embargo prior to the CDA passed in 1992, there
were no explicit clauses linking the lifting of sanctions to Cuban reforms. This
lack of contingency, coupled with the US governments repeated military
efforts to overthrow Castro in the 1960s, likely led Cuba to believe that the
sanctions would be imposed regardless. Following Hovi, Huseby and Spinzs
theory, this further explains why the sanctions failed to extract political
concessions. More recently, President Obamas efforts to reestablish
diplomatic relations and lift certain sanctions, despite Cubas lack of political
reform, can be interpreted as additional proof that the lifting of sanctions has
no relationship with the fulfilling of their stipulations.
Following the failure of sanctions to democratize Cuba, lifting sanctions
and increasing US trade is also unlikely to democratize Cuba, in large part
also due to stringent government regulations disrupting the effect of trade
on economic development and subsequent demands for democracy.
Literature related to modernization theory tells us that economic

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development can foster democracy by creating a modern middle class with
stronger desire for self-expression and autonomy, which eventually forces
governments to democratize. Bueno de Mesquita builds on this theory by
arguing specifically that economic growth helps foster strategic
coordination, which consists of 1) urbanization and improved technology
and infrastructure, which facilitate political communication and network
formation; and 2) increased investment in education, which produces more
sophisticated individuals to participate in politics (Bueno de Mesquita).
Citizens then demand minimal democracy through elections and maximal
democracy through civil rights. In the context of Cuba, the extension of this
theory is that increasing trade leads to the initial economic development
needed to catalyze democracy, by providing more economic opportunities,
raising the incomes of workers and standards of living, as well as improving
infrastructure and access to technology. However, the crux of Bueno de
Mesquitas argument is that authoritarian governments can successfully
sustain economic development without permitting it to foment strategic
coordination by limiting coordination goods like freedom of speech and
press, human rights, and even broad access to higher education. Because of
the Cuban governments iron grip on the countrys military, economy, and
press, it can easily thwart the strategic coordination brought about by trade
and economic growth. Currently, the government fully controls the press,
expels university students for dissident behavior, and restricts associations
that are not supervised by the state. Increased trade may lead to more

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goods and products in economic terms, but it would not increase access to
coordination goods. Although one might argue that the rise of innovative
internet startups have increased the access to information, web journalists
are still subject to harassment and detention, and the government eventually
may impose stricter controls. Increasing US trade with Cuba may also
improve economic opportunities and foster network formation by
congregating workers at the new factories that arise, but the government
would most likely retain its control in these environments because of its
existing limitations on all independent associations. As such, more jobs
would not lead to more mobilization. In addition, Cuba has a strict set of
internal economic regulations limit the availability of non-government jobs
and only grant self-employment licenses to about 500,000 people, with
almost no professional jobs qualifying for self-employment. Even with the
lifting of sanctions, Cubas own restrictions remain in place to thwart the
effects of trade. I would further argue that the influx of US trade relationships
and US-driven growth may even drive Cuba to amplify domestic controls on
coordination goods and liberalizing economic opportunities because of
historical ideological opposition to the US. Once again, the Cuban
governments totalitarian authority breaks the progression from trade to
development and democracy. Increased trade would lead to neither minimal
democracy from people demanding elections, due to limits on freedom of
expression, nor to maximal democracy, such as more civil rights and
economic liberalization.

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Similar to the lack of contingency between sanctions and reforms,
another reason that lifting sanctions would not democratize Cuba is the
potential lack of conditions in trade agreements mandating reforms for trade
to continue. In the same way that sanctions must explicitly associate their
lifting with certain political concessions from the beginning, trade
agreements with goals beyond economic benefit must explicitly require the
sanctioned government to implement certain reforms for trade to continue.
In Trading Human Rights, Hafner-Burton makes the case that Preferential
Trade Agreements (PTAs) can coerce a country into reform by tying
compliance with certain standards to substantive market benefits. Adapting
her theory to a trade agreement between the US and Cuba, the coercion
mechanism would work via a stipulation in the agreement that trade would
halt if certain political concessions were not achieved, or some additional
punishment. Theoretically, if Cuba reaps great economic benefits from
renewed trade, the prospect of losing those benefits would coerce
compliance. This conditional trade agreement shares the similarity with
sanctions in that threats of associated punishment are often enough to
ensure compliance. However, new trade agreements with Cuba are unlikely
to contain credible stipulations for reform that would constitute coercion
because the US willingness to lift sanctions despite the lack of political
concessions already fractured the relationship between reform and
punishment. This then undermines the US credibility in enforcing a coercive
trade agreement, meaning that a new trade agreement would only contain

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persuasive, soft language concerning democratic reforms. Persuasive
conditions are essentially just language used to mollify lobbies within the US
that may oppose trade with Cuba due to their political and human rights
abuses. As such, the trade agreements lack of hard conditions further
prevents the development of both minimal and maximal democracy in Cuba.
In practice, this has been manifested, as recent US efforts to establish
economic relationships with Cuba (i.e. flights) have not mandated any
In the end, the US embargo on Cuba merely imposed undue economic
hardships on both countries without affecting democracy in Cuba. Lifting the
sanctions makes sense because both the US and Cuba will reap additional
economic benefits, not because doing so will promote Cuban democracy.
Given the fact that sanctions were unsuccessful in extracting political
concessions from the Castros, renewed trade with Cuba will make no impact
on democracy for largely the same reasons that the sanctions did not. As
long as Cubas totalitarian government remains a formidable force and US
regulations concerning Cuba lack credible conditionality, Cuba is unlikely to
democratize due to the influence of external forces. Trade with the US may
improve quality of life and perhaps even help stabilize a democratic middle
class, but it will not start the democratization process. Ultimately, free
elections and more civil liberties in Cuba depend more on domestic, rather
than international actors.

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Works Cited
Brancati, D. (2016) Relating Economic Crises to Democracy, in Democracy
Protests: Origins, Features, and Significance. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, pp. 3960.
Buena de Mesquita, Bruce and George W. Downs. 2005. Democracy and
Development. Foreign Affairs (September/October): 77-86.
Cuban Democracy Act. United States Code, Title 22: Foreign Relations and
Intercourse, Chapter 69. https://www.treasury.gov/resourcecenter/sanctions/Documents/cda.pdf
Hafner-Burton, Emilie. 2005. Trading Human Rights: How Preferential Trade
Agreements Influence
Government Repression. International Organization 59 (3): 593-629.
Hovi, Jon, Robert Huseby and Detlef F. Sprinz. 2005. When Do Economic
Sanctions Work? World Politics 57 (July): 479-99.
Kennedy, John F. Proclamation 3447Embargo on All Trade with Cuba. 3
February 1962. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=58824
Levy, Philip I. Sanctions on South Africa: What Did They Do? The American
Economic Review 89 (2): Papers and Proceedings of the One Hundred
Eleventh Annual Meeting of the American Economic Association (May, 1999),
pp. 415-420. (Wed).
US Chamber of Commerce. Hearing: Examining the Status of U.S. Trade with
Cuba and its Impact on Economic Growth. 27 April 2009.
Trotta, Daniel. Cuba estimates total damage of US embargo at $116.8
billion. Reuters.com. 9 September 2014. http://www.reuters.com/article/uscuba-usa-idUSKBN0H422Y20140909