The Multinational Monitor



Embargo Politics

On May 1, 1985, then-President Ronald Reagan invoked, through an executive order, the International Emergency Economic Powers Act to institute a total economic embargo against Nicaragua. According to Reagan, "Nicaragua's continuing efforts to subvert its neighbors, its rapid and destabilizing military buildup, its close military ties to Cuba and the Soviet Union and its imposition of Communist totalitarian internal rule" created an "emergency situation" necessitating this extreme response. On November 1, 1989, George Bush followed his predecessor's lead and extended the embargo for another six months. It is time to stop this destructive policy.

Reagan's embargo announcement made four demands on the Nicaraguan government. The first demand was to "halt its export of armed insurrection, terrorism, and subversion in neighboring countries." Nicaragua is a poor country trying to consolidate the gains of its own revolution. Ascribing to it an expansionist revolutionary policy is simple propaganda. In fact, it is the United States, with two of its allies in the region, Honduras and Costa Rica, that has housed, trained and funded an armed insurrection against the duly elected, legitimate and widely popular Sandinista government.

The embargo notice also called on Nicaragua to end its military ties to Cuba and the Soviet Union and thirdly to cease its "massive arms buildup." Reagan, by funding contra warfare, pushed Nicaragua into a strategic relationship with Cuba and the Soviet Union. Nicaragua armed itself for self-defense.

Lastly, Reagan, without a hint of irony, called on Nicaragua to adhere, in law and practice, to democratic principles and "observance of full political and human rights." By almost any measure Nicaragua exhibits greater freedom than El Salvador and Guatemala. Death squad disappearances, the most extreme form of human rights abrogation, are the stuff of these two supposed democracies favored and funded by the United States. The spuriousness of Reagan's call is highlighted by the comparison with the human rights situation under the pre-revolutionary, U.S.-supported dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza. Somoza's devotion to U.S. policy took precedence over adherence win law and practice" to democratic principles and respect for human rights.

It's time to examine U.S. policy objectives toward Nicaragua and how a continuation of the embargo helps effect them. A melange of elements make up post-war U.S. policy toward the Third World. Most significant among the elements are anti-communist ideology, economic priorities, cold war electioneering and geopolitics or national security. Beneath the rhetorical posturing these factors are the real motivating forces shaping U.S. policy.

The United States selectively applies human rights standards depending on the relative import of the other policy elements. In Nicaragua's case, a primary issue is that of independent economic development. By bucking U.S. and multinational corporate interests the Nicaraguan revolution does pose a challenge to the U.S.-imposed order in Central America; an order that often props up regimes that maintain the structural inequities which tend to spawn indigenous, revolutionary challenges.

This is quite different, however, than establishing a totalitarian, completely centralized economy. In reality, Sandinista policy since the advent of the revolution has allowed for private property and private enterprise. In fact, Nicaragua's private sector accounts for 80 percent of national production. Compare this with the United States' third largest trading partner Mexico, where 75 to 80 percent of the economy is in the hands of the state. Clearly, when the stakes are high-- bilateral trade with Mexico was $53 billion in 1988--the United States puts ideology aside and interacts with mixed or state-run economies. More importantly, Mexico, unlike Nicaragua, is not perceived as questioning the relationship between western capital and the impoverishment of the people of the Third World; therefore Mexico is considered benign.

China also highlights the hypocrisy of U.S. human rights rhetoric. China, for instance, arms anti-U.S. elements in conflicts around the globe, has a miserable human rights record (much worse than Nicaragua's) and lacks political and civil liberties, yet is not a candidate for an embargo or even a real diminution of relations. Why? Because the stakes are too high; taking a strong stand would have significant geopolitical and economic costs. China, in addition to being considered a counterbalance to Soviet power in that region, represents far too significant a potential market for U.S. businesses to let rhetorical niceties dictate policy.

It is a sad commentary that the United States embargoes a country striving for justice and a humane existence and does so under the pretext of national security. The bottom line is that Nicaragua poses no real security threat to the United States. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the U.S.'s actions toward Nicaragua. While the economic price of the embargo is inconsequential for America, it is devastating to the Nicaraguan people. The embargo kills slowly, by forcing the diversion of scarce resources away from health care programs, agricultural developments and other efforts by the Sandinistas to improve the quality of life for the majority of Nicaraguans.

The United States should consistently push all countries to respect human rights and should also accept a variety of economic orders. Anything less is to deny proper respect for the evolution of developing world self-determination. Lifting the embargo would be a step in the right direction.

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