Sanctions in Cuba: the half-guarded gate


So the Cold War has ended (twenty-three years ago), and the United States is now looking to a more normal relationship with Cuba. The embargo is still untouched and would require a hostile Congress to fully cast aside. This blog I write is always interested in policy and results. Much like the War on Terror, the stance towards Cuba is a great example of a lot of time and energy invested in something with few positive results.

Joshua Keating points out that sanctions towards Cuba haven’t worked (if we take success as the overthrow of the Castro regime, which was their original purpose), and that sanctions in general don’t have a great success rate.

An issue with the general theory of American policy towards Cuba is that this is not global in scale. Most of the world is willing to take Cuba’s money, their doctors, their disaster aid. The Soviets supported Cuba, then later an ad hoc group led by Venezuela. The Warsaw Pact is long dead but Cuba remains defiantly singing The Internationale.

South Africa, the success story of sanctions, had a bit more complex story, and it doesn’t fit well with the Cuban model. Cuba based their foreign policy in opposition to Western imperialism, so their interest in sanctions by Western nations must be viewed in a sharply different context.

Going into the hypotheticals, the policy runs into some issues. If the idea was to strengthen anti-Castro forces (which America funded, especially in the first few years), how is making the general population poorer, and more dependent on government services going to solve anything? As we saw in Iraq in the 1990s, sanctions hit regular people in a different way than those in power. If anything, the gap between the power of the people and the power of the regime grows.

Cuba has a strange, complex history (though let’s be blunt, the United States during the same people does too). What’s clear is that economic pressure from one superpower cannot succeed if the rest of the world isn’t willing to follow suit. And if regime change is desired, are sanctions against Cuba any more successful than North Korea?

Despotic democracies

China focusing on environment, fighting corruption
The Chinese National People’s Congress, March 5th, 2013
credit: AP/Ng Han Guan

On March 9th, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)- known as North Korea, though they don’t like a name that implies there’s more than one- held its latest parliamentary election. Elections have occurred throughout North Korea’s history, just as they once did in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, and continue in China, Laos, and many other countries that would be classified as non-democratic by most uses of the term. The result was unanimous- 100% support for Kim Jong-un and 100% turnout. Clearly my recent concerns about voter apathy don’t apply to the DPRK.

An elaborate sham, of course- a UK minister stated “our Pyongyang Embassy visited a polling station and, contrary to media reports, concluded there is no ‘D’ in ‘DPRK’”. No independent parties, no civil society, no free speech. You can vote against the one candidate provided in your district, but that requires going into a special booth to cross it out. So a show of opposition is sure suicide.

Why does the DPRK, or any other one-party state bother with an election that serves no governmental purpose? They could ban elections and not care- certainly Eritrea hasn’t held a national election since independence in 1993, and has about zero interest in holding one. You’ve got uncontested power, everyone knows it.

The makeup of the DPRK’s Supreme People’s Assembly.
Dark red: Worker’s Party. Other colors are puppets under the same front.

Several years ago I took an independent study in comparative government. I didn’t do all that much (it was my senior year of high school, what do you expect), but I did read a few interesting textbooks on the subject. One put forth the idea of the “democratic idea.” Not democratic ideals- values like equality, justice, and human rights we see as part and parcel with representative government. Rather the simple idea that a country is a democracy.

11th Congress of the Socialist Unity Party of East Germany (SED), 1986.

In the modern era- say, since the end of World War I, very few countries will openly state that they are anti-democratic. Germany under Nazi rule held an election in 1938. The year before the Soviet Union did the same. Even if the elections ain’t fooling anyone, there seems to be a need to use elections as a means to legitimacy. Often a regime supported by military force will switch to politics-  the Burmese junta held regular elections ( in 1981, for instance), before making the mistake of having a free election and losing. The trend indicates that democracy has an intrinsic attraction- it’s a matter of world consensus that democracy, at least the veneer and symbol of it, is a good thing. The United Nations is full of voting members who’d never conceive of an open debate on their own soil. If a nation can be a part of the General Assembly, yet not give up a smidgen of political power, they go for it.

There is also the idea of elections as a patronage system. From a Big Think piece of sham elections:

According to Bueno de Mesquita a dictator or autocrat can conduct a rigged election, not to confer legitimacy or choose the right person to govern the country’s affairs but to cultivate loyalty. Bueno de Mesquita argues that a ruler will let sham elections run in their country so that they can communicate to the politicians around them that they are expendable should they stray from the desired agenda.

If you have ultimate control over who gets elected, it’s a way of doling out bits of political prestige. With the North Korean election, it provides a more diplomatic way of moving to a new generation. Kim Jong-un certainly was fine with executing the old guard, but he doesn’t have to do that as his sole weapon.

These sham processes are not impervious to change. Currently the People’s Republic of China is holding its annual National People’s Congress. The NPC is becoming something new and different- more responsive to local concerns and increasingly willing to defy the official party line. Vietnam is on the same route. In many ways there isn’t a huge gap between the era of rubber-stamp parliaments and a new era where the democratic process actually shows up for some of the party- all the elections and meetings may ultimately have provided a platform for reform at a later time. Ludicrous as it sounds, authoritarian states practice many things that will be needed, in a similar form, if that state becomes democratic. It’s a dry run for a real, competitive election. Perhaps that redeems the farce. Perhaps not.

An interesting paper weighing democratic feeling among East Asian states can be found here, which debates how important democratic institutions are on a practical regime level.




Giving bad states good media coverage

Reading over Dennis Rodman’s latest visit to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, it is interesting to see just the latest iteration of a very old debate. Are such cultural trips and events a good way to help open up otherwise very closed societies, or do they give a dictatorial regime free publicity? Or is it both, and is that a good or bad thing?

With the 2008 Summer Olympics there was a great bit of debate- China was using it as a venue to show of their might, but at the same time they were able to stifle reporting and discussion about their terrible human rights record. I boycotted the games in solidarity with Reporters Without Borders, and agreed that giving so much adoring coverage to a regime that kills journalists when they don’t have nice things to say feels fundamentally wrong. The upcoming Sochi Olympics will have a similar debate- while Russia’s anti-gay laws have been attracting the most attention, the country has an atrocious record of independent journalists being assaulted, bombed, or killed (at least 56 since the end of the Soviet Union). The World Cup planned in Qatar has its own issues, which I documented recently.

But in order to break through barriers that isolate countries from the rest of the world, don’t you have to at the same time give them some publicity? If there was a blanket travel ban to North Korea, or Eritrea, or any other insular state, would things get better?

Granted, the mechanics of Rodman in the hermit kingdom and major sporting events is different. Private citizens taking a camera crew and some basketball players to a totalitarian state is a lot different from an international panel awarding a country the right to host an event. But they both have their ethnical quandaries, and it’s all rooted in what is a reward, what is an incentive, and what constitutes punishment.

The two Koreas: a border made real

The most heavily-militarized border in human history does not exist between religious enemies. Nor does it form a logical divide based on language, ethnicity, or culture. It divides a single people, with common customs and a long history of collectively resisting foreign invasion and rule. And it shows the terrible power of politics in creating conflict and fostering hatred.

Cancan Chu, Getty Images

A line on the 38th parallel, a reminder of a bloody war that achieved nothing. There are two Koreas, one capitalist and democratic, one authoritarian and militaristic. In recent memory they do not walk alone- there were once two Vietnams, two Germanys. The story of the Korean peninsula is one of foreign occupation, cultural suppression, atrocities against women, and since 1945 a hardened separation that seems no closer to ending than when it began.

Cultural differences have sprang up- the South Koreans live in one of the most technologically advanced societies on Earth, while the North Koreans have struggled with keeping factories running and creating a functional electrical grid. Physical differences have arisen despite an identical genetic background; chronic malnourishment has led North Koreans are up to three inches shorter than those in the South. This artificial division has in time become a real one. A common people have become strangers to one another.

The Korean War is not over. Koreans continue to die whilst trying to leave one country and enter the other. As the years become decades, and in four decades could become centuries, the bonds are weakening. The fields inside the Korean DMZ do not hold crops, instead they hold tens of thousands of landmines. A huge amount of money is spent by both countries, as well as the United States, to produce weapons- including weapons of mass destruction- in case mass killing is called for.

One day the two Koreas may unite and join other people that have torn down their walls and ceased their wars. Until then there is nothing but two hands reaching for each other, but slowly falling away.

What constitutes progress: consumerism and sustainability

On Monday, I published something about the economic collapse of a industrialized nation, as expertly chronicled in the book Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demrick. A huge, widespread shift backwards in economic development has happened in many places over human civilization, but the North Korean example is both recent and unusual. War is the most common destroyer of people and their economic capital, but the 1990s showed that international politics could be just as brutal.

I was mulling the term “de-evolution” to refer to what happened in North Korea, but I then thought of my own biases. To some degree, coming from an advanced post-industrial nation, I’m a chauvinist for a certain, consumer-oriented type of economic development. The number of TVs per 1,000 people, the electricity usage of a city, how much they export and how much personal debt they take on. Though I don’t subscribe to the “whoever has the most stuff wins”model of progress, it made me broaden my thinking. Clearly the North Korean example was an unwanted and ultimately deadly series of events. The society had grown to rely on thing like artificial fertilizer, large amounts of electrical power, and a complex and demanding transit infrastructure. When the lights went out, so went industry and agriculture. Disaster.

But, what if a society moved in such a manner, but didn’t require complex industrial products? A society that plans for a regression into a less consumerist, industrialized mindset. I wouldn’t call that a de-evolution- it’s an evolution on a different path.

A few years ago I took a series of long-distance train trips across the United States. During my trip on the Coast Starlight, running from Seattle to Los Angeles, I read the famous novel Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach. Published in 1975, it stands alongside The Dispossessed as an important utopian novel of the late Vietnam period. Both work along similar lines- an absence of consumerism, collective ownership, changes to the social and family structure. However, Ecotopia takes place in my backyard, not another solar system.

I read it during a journey through the lands that formed the nation of Ecotopia. For  a couple days the train rolled through the thick forests, mountain passes, and undulating farmland that carpeted a whole valley. Callenbach was speaking of a society that moved beyond petroleum and artificial products, but didn’t miss them.

When I was 18 I created an independent study that allowed me to examine urban decay and how different parts of the 20th century attempted to revitalize cities. After reading about the iron-fisted destruction of the Bronx by Robert Moses, one tends to gain sympathy for new ideas of sustainability and community. New schools of urban planning emphasize mixed development, environmentally-friendly building, and walkability. The Bay Area sometimes follows these lines, though one look at the traffic-choked highways shows there is much work to be done.

However, much of this thinking is a side-step. Cars aren’t eliminated- they’re made more efficient and perhaps made less necessary through public transit. Cities are still big concrete jungles- just with newer housing and perhaps a couple new parks. It’s not eliminating consumerism, but rather changing to more responsible brands.

Whether this type of society will stave off the huge problems posed by climate change is an open question. Large cities in industrial or post-industrial nations still use huge quantities of water and non-renewable resources. It’s not just the cars, but the pesticides, plastics, and consumer electronics.

Ecotopia has the advantage of being a utopia in the confines of a work of fiction, but it is a portrait of a society that made serious decisions over many years. Large cities like San Francisco are partially abandoned in favor of smaller, more self-sustaining suburbs. Major thoroughfares are turned into gardens and walkways. Policy changes don’t implement authoritarian population control, but do address whether a high birth rate is a major priority. Overall, many of the developments since white migration became substantial in the mid-19th century are slowed or stopped altogether. At the end of the day, there is a smaller electrical grid, a less robust transit system, and very little production of objects which cannot be replenished. In some ways, it’s like 1995 in North Korea, except as a desired outcome rather than a crisis. I, the consumer growth chauvinist, can see a society that moves forward despite moving back in my usual perspective.

Much like Unitarian Universalists have moved to the interdependent web over a linear chain of being, what progress and what regression are should be reconsidered. Society has overall goals that are not always quantitative- happiness, community, tranquility. There is no number of cars per city or megawatts of power consumed that is required to achieve these goals. What is needed is a system that works on the whole, and can work well into the future.

How you achieve that is the great debate.

North Korea: in case of economic collapse, what’s plan B?

I’ve just finished Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demrick. This was on a reading list for people interested in the country as the best starting point. And it totally is. Rather than reading like a more detailed version of the Wikipedia entry, it uses first-person accounts of people living in and around the northern industrial city of Chongjin to both flesh out the character of the country, as well as counter a couple of stereotypes most people have. The opening chapter- about how this famous juxtaposition:

(credit: PlantetObserver/Science Photo Library)

isn’t just about the economic collapse of North Korea after the Berlin Wall fell. To some, the darkness was liberating, a veil of privacy in a society where every other person is an informant. It has romance, despair, hope, idealism. Definitely read it, even if you’re not much interested in the country.

The story of North Korea in the 1990s is remarkable. Never has an industrialized country deteriorated so fast without a war rolling through. Lack of subsidized fuel from the Soviets led to factory slowdown and closure, rationing and eventual end to electrical service in most parts of the country, and a famine that killed perhaps two million people. No one’s really sure- one reason for the famine was that some international aid organizations did not provide much aid (being unable to verify if it got to the right people), and others saw their bags of food snatched up by the military. What the story does paint is that in places like Chongjin (an industrial city with very little agricultural land), it eventually devolved into an everyone-for-themselves society, where people were unable to help the starving because they had nothing to give.

What did happen in the 1990s was capitalism. Not a top-down Deng Xiaoping style of capitalism, but the grassroots kind that emerges when things get desperate. North Korea’s system has traditionally been like Cuba’s- people make very small salaries, but going to work gets you food coupons and there’s a state-run system to redeem them and keep people fed. Due to the deindustrialization of the 90s (which also applies to agriculture as well as industry), the jobs stopped paying salaries, and the state-run stores ran out of food. This was the case starting in 1994, the year Kim il-Sung died, and persisted for several years. Thus a parallel system to get people food sprang up- markets. People would forage for food, make their own, or smuggle stuff from across the border with China. Then there would be farmer’s markets where people bartered or used what hard currency they had.

Once things got better (not good, but better), the leadership used a heavy hand on these markets, and people engaging in capitalist activity often found themselves in labor camps. A currency reform that prevented people from transferring their savings to the new currency ruined a lot of the entrepreneurs that had succeeded. Capitalism managed to take this in stride, as this move wrecked confidence in the new North Korean won, and now foreign currency is more prevalent than ever.

It’s interesting to see a form of socialism collapse in function if not in name or politics. Yes, a government allocation system may actually be a pretty good idea in some cases- I’m at least somewhat a socialist, and it can have its benefits. But what if the allocation system goes beyond inefficient or corrupt, to gone altogether? The last 15 years has been North Korea trying to reestablish central planning without having the money to back it up. Capitalism is like ivy- it creeps into a country with an economic vacuum.

North Korea isn’t just a place of appalling human rights violations, silly propaganda, and antiquated military hardware- it’s also a story of how people adapt and survive. And how economic policies can have life or death consequences. The permitting of local markets, the shuttering of local markets, the punishment of smugglers and entrepreneurs, and the attempt to assert state control through currency confiscation- people have suffered or prospered because of it.

In our economy, local or otherwise, how do we get necessities? And if that doesn’t work, what’s plan B? If parts of the system collapse, what would we do?