By Paula J. Dobriansky and David B. Rivkin Jr.
Nov. 11, 2020, in the Wall Street Journal
As an insular nation with a population smaller than Ohio’s, Cuba plays an outsize role in both world affairs and U.S. domestic policy. Either President Trump, who won Florida, or Joe Biden, who’d have liked to, should take stock of the Cuban regime’s actions—among them gross violations of human rights, efforts to destabilize the Western Hemisphere, and broad collaboration with China, Iran, North Korea and Russia. The U.S. needs a bold new approach, using corruption-focused sanctions against Cuban officials and their accomplices.
One of the most reprehensible aspects of Cuban statecraft has been its trafficking every year of some 50,000 medical doctors, who are effectively enslaved and forced to work in other countries. “The Cuban regime takes up to 90% of what they charge . . . other countries for each doctor, pocketing considerable revenues and exploiting the doctors, who receive but a pittance,” Michael Kozak, the acting assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, said in an April briefing. Cuban government 2018 figures indicate slave labor brings in $7 billion a year and that it is the regime’s single largest source of revenue, accounting for 60% of its total foreign income.
Past U.S. administrations have pursued various policies toward Cuba, ranging from the decades-long economic embargo and restrictions on travel to a “normalization” policy under President Obama. Mr. Trump rolled back the Obama administration’s policy and reimposed comprehensive sanctions—but more needs to be done.
The U.S. should target Havana’s most heinous policies and do so in a way that would be difficult for its allies and supporters to counteract. The key to the new strategy is the Global Magnitsky Act of 2016, known informally as GloMag. It authorizes sanctions to cut off Cuban officials and their accomplices from global financial services, augmenting traditional sanctions that have cut them off from the U.S. financial industry.
The 2012 Magnitsky Act targeted individual Russian officials involved in the killing of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in prison in 2009. The GloMag expanded that regime to cover foreign government officials implicated in human-rights abuses and corruption anywhere in the world.
President Trump further expanded the GloMag program in 2017, through Executive Order 13818, which broadens the scope of conduct that can trigger sanctions from “gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” to “serious human rights abuse,” and replaces “significant acts of corruption” with the broader term “corruption.” Since the law’s passage, the U.S. has imposed GloMag sanctions on individuals and entities from more than 20 countries, most recently designating for corruption Gibran Bassil, a senior Lebanese official. Still, these designations came in a trickle, rather than a wave.
Sanctions—including asset freezes, travel bans and exclusion from financial services—should be imposed on Cuban government officials involved in a variety of acts, all of which inevitably involve corruption, such as human trafficking, violating sanctions against Iran and North Korea, and drug trafficking. Sanctions should also target their agents or associates, whether or not they work for the government. There is sufficient available evidence that the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control could quickly make GloMag designations and rapidly adjust them as the targets attempt to circumvent sanctions. These designations could also be made even more expeditiously by a presidential executive order.
If adroitly deployed on a large scale, GloMag sanctions would cut deeply into Havana’s revenues and impair the ability of virtually all Cuban officials and their allies to do business or even travel. GloMag and other legal tools also allow the U.S. to reach third parties, who have financial or other dealings with targeted Cuban officials. Those parties could be subjected either to sanctions or criminal prosecution. The availability of these legal tools would reduce support for the Cuban regime world-wide.
Because European Union governments and other U.S. allies have vigorously embraced anticorruption policies, they would find it difficult to oppose this strategy. Canada, Britain and several other Western countries have GloMag-like sanction statutes of their own.
Domestically, a strong stand against the modern slave trade that underpins Havana’s statecraft should draw bipartisan support. Internationally, given Britain’s indispensable role in eradicating the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the 19th Century, London should be a U.S. partner in cracking down on Cuba-driven slave trade and corruption. By strategically employing GloMag, the U.S. can curtail Cuba’s malign activities and push the Cuban regime toward major reforms.
Ms. Dobriansky is a senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center. She served as undersecretary of state for global affairs, 2001-09. Mr. Rivkin practices appellate and constitutional law in Washington. He served in the White House Counsel’s Office and Justice Department under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.