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Our Man In Havana

November 8, 2003

Our Man in Havana


It would take some chutzpah for me to accuse President Bush, Congressional Democrats and a courageous Nobel Peace Prize-winning dissident of bolstering some of the world's most odious dictators.

But here goes.

The Bush administration has variously backed, threatened, acquiesced in or hinted at tough new sanctions against Cuba, Syria, North Korea and Burma. Democrats helped lead the fight for a new ban on imports from Burma. And the gutsy Nobel laureate from Burma, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, backs sanctions that help impoverish her own people.

The U.S. imposed 85 new unilateral economic sanctions on foreign nations from 1996 to 2001. But sanctions, which cost U.S. companies up to $19 billion in 1995 alone, aren't a policy; they're a feel-good substitute for one. Usually they hurt just the people we're trying to help.

Fortunately, the Senate last month joined the House in voting to ease restrictions on travel to Cuba. There is now some hope that the U.S. will dismantle the Cuba sanctions, which have hurt ordinary Cubans while helping Fidel Castro, giving him a scapegoat for his economic failures.

Take Burma (or Myanmar, as its thuggish generals have tried to rename it). Republicans and Democrats alike approved tough new sanctions against Burma this year, by a vote of 97 to 1 in the Senate.

The reality is that Western sanctions have already been failing in Burma for the last 14 years, as they have for more than 40 years in Cuba, as they did for a dozen years in Iraq. We should have learned from Iraq that arms embargoes and U.N. inspections can do some good, while economic sanctions kill children. The claim that sanctions killed 500,000 Iraqi children, a figure that originated in a Unicef report, was probably exaggerated, but no one doubts that U.N. sanctions contributed to child malnutrition and mortality in Iraq.

The U.S. State Department says in a new report that our July ban on Burmese imports has already led to 30,000 to 40,000 layoffs in the garment industry, and that ultimately 100,000 Burmese may lose jobs. Most of them are young women who have no other way of earning a living, and the State Department says that some are being forced, or duped, into prostitution (where many will be killed by AIDS).

"We do believe that some of those young women have gone into the sex trade," said Richard Boucher, the State Department spokesman, although he defended sanctions and said that they would eventually make life better in Burma. So in the best-case scenario, we're ousting 100,000 people from their jobs — while the generals keep theirs.

The Burmese are already living on the margins: one child in 10 dies before the age of 5, 44 percent of children are malnourished, and 58 percent of pregnant women are so poorly fed that they have anemia. Fewer births are attended by a trained nurse now than back in 1982.

So our sanctions will cause babies to die, young women to succumb to AIDS and families to go hungry. Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi has shown exceptional courage in standing up to Burma's generals and the harm they cause. She should also be brave enough to back down and call for ending sanctions that hurt her people.

If we knew that sanctions would lead to a better Burma, I could understand sacrificing helpless young women. But when sanctions, especially unilateral ones, are mostly ineffective — one major study found that they worked to some degree one-third of the time — why are we so eager to adopt measures that impose such suffering on innocent Burmese, or Cubans or Syrians?

In fairness, I was also skeptical of sanctions against South Africa, and in retrospect I was wrong: partly because they were multilateral, they were one of many factors that led to peaceful change there. But in the more typical cases of Iraq, Haiti, Cuba and North Korea, sanctions have seemed only to empower dictators. And when dictatorships crumbled in places like Indonesia, Taiwan, South Korea, Brazil, Spain and Portugal, it was because growing wealth nurtured a middle class, not because of sanctions.

That's why I fervently hope that Congress's push for easier travel to Cuba marks a sea change in attitudes toward sanctions. They are ill suited to a complex world where a senator can nobly stand before the cameras to denounce Burmese tyrants, and the upshot is that a child on the other side of the world dies of hunger.  

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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