COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | GEORGE HAWKINS

Economic sanctions just aren’t working

The United States has myriad weapons in its arsenal as it attempts to force attitude adjustments on regimes that have stated goals which we abhor. One of those stated goals is to rid the world of us, "The Great Satan." Another is to eliminate Israel. Neither goal appeals to most Americans.

To change the minds of leaders with whom we don't agree, the U.S. can deploy drones with rockets, fighter jets with more rockets and other devices that can take out what someone identifies as a threat to our troops, our shore or our interests. This country has ships and submarines to patrol the seas and enforce what our elected officials say needs enforcement. These days it appears none of them has had a lasting effect.

When Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, he said he would meet and talk to those with whom we don't agree. He did what he said he would do, beginning with something of an apology tour and then on subsequent trips, the president appeared to show a degree of subservience to the leaders of other countries. Critics claim he was apologizing for America. Whatever it was he was doing, nothing had much positive impact.

The latest diplomatic "talking with them" approach is with Iran. The president might argue diplomacy began after another "weapon," economic sanctions, was employed, but he is bent on making a deal with the devil.

These economic sanctions to disrupt the financial workings of our enemies are also on the list of methods Obama believes will help change the minds of the leaders of other countries giving us a hard time. Obama and his predecessors have used economic sanctions extensively.

Sanctions don't seem to work very well, causing more harm to the general public in the nations that have been subjected to them without making much difference to the oppressive leadership of those countries. Cuba, for example, has been under extreme sanctions by the United States for more than 50 years. The only people who have suffered are those in this country who like Cuban cigars, and the residents of Cuba.

Hundreds of thousands of Cubans have fled the island to escape the poverty and oppression imposed upon them, first by Fulgencio Batista and then the Castro brothers. Batista took back leadership of Cuba by force after first serving as an elected president and then failing to be re-elected. The Castro brothers tossed him out in a violent revolution, just as Batista "fired" a duly elected president when he wanted back in the power seat in Cuba.

Batista did not suffer U.S. wrath or sanctions despite his brutal second approach to running a country because he was anti-communist. That anti-communist mentality there and in Colombia fostered the huge importation of drugs into the United States, if you believe the Netflix series “Narcos,” a drama the authors say is based on reality.

No telling what an economic embargo might have done when Batista was in power in Cuba, but it is likely it would not have changed much, given how economic sanctions have worked of late. It took a revolution led by Fidel Castro to stop Batista, but things stayed just as bad for the Cubans. Our involvement, once again, was a huge effort with little impact.

Age and Illness have slowed Fidel. His brother Raul is now in charge and the oppression continues. Trade and economic sanctions didn't force Cuba's leaders to make changes.

We have attempted to freeze the assets of Russian leaders. Vladimir Putin is still running the show in Russia and roughshod over his neighbors. Some polls in Russia say he is more popular now than when the sanctions were imposed.

Looked at this differently, economic sanctions and trade embargos may have done more harm to the neighbors of those countries upon which we have attempted to force that attitude adjustment than change their governments.

The people who are fleeing dictatorships, many of whom are killing their own citizens, are putting a serious strain on more stable countries. It is likely the economic sanctions made things worse, not better. They did not change the approach of despots. Perhaps it is time to change what we do.


Hawkins is retired after 35 years as a construction industry association manager. He was a broadcast reporter and news anchor in Denver. As a Navy officer, he saw action in Vietnam in the River Assault Squadrons and is the recipient of a Silver Star and Purple Heart.

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