*****Disclaimer: This is not legal advice and is for educational purposes only. This does not create an attorney-client privilege.
“Embargo” contemporarily refers to a legal prohibition on commerce with a specific country, but more traditionally and specifically referred to a government giving an order to cease the departure of commercial ships from the ports. Essentially it is a tool for wielding financial power, which in the case of the United States Economy is very substantial, against another country for political or economic rationale. By blocking the import and export of all or certain products from a certain country, the country has a powerful bargaining chip in stunting the economy of the adversary.
The United States currently has several active embargos. Over the course of the nineteenth century blockades and embargos were increasingly argued for and deemed justifiable/prudent. The United States places these kinds of sanctions on countries for severe offense/humans rights violations; it is meant as a weapon against countries that sponsor terrorism or commit human rights violations on their own people. Some might argue whether this holds true in all cases. The countries the US has an embargo against, prohibiting all trade, include Cuba, North Korea, Iran, Crimea (Region of the Ukraine), and Syria.
The US embargo with Cuba is arguably the best known, and is the longest-standing embargo. After the Batista regime, which was favored by the United States, was defeated in favor of Fidel Castro as Prime Minister or Cuba in 1959, the US put in place sanctions to punish Cuba`s support of communist rule. Though embargos are supposed to be a response, and a potent and solemn one at that, against countries supporting terror internally and abroad, in this case it is more clear how it is being used to support the pro-capitalism interests of the United States government.
Though theoretically trade and travel with Cuba is supposed to be prohibited, the reality is that Cuba is in very close proximity to the United States and Florida specifically and there is a large Cuban-American population. So there remains many exceptions for family visitation and workarounds as far as travel and some low level tier trade (read “stashing Cuban cigars home”). There also remains more leniency and exceptions for humanitarian work.
North Korea is, predictably, also on this embargo list. They are also the most severely impacted by it. The US first pitted itself against North Korea when they involved themselves in the Korean War in the ‘50s. The strict sanctions were enacted under George W. Bush and the Unite Nations have also sanctioned them. Their humanitarian violations are the primary reason for these financial crack down on them.
Our embargo with Iran was enacted in response to events in the late `70s and into the `80s. The United States had involved itself in the government of the area, primarily motivated by their desire to have access to the oil in the region. In 1979 the Shah of Iran, who was more friendly/cooperative with Western interests, was deposed and a theocracy replaced him. The Iranian Hostage Crisis and other events quickly followed and the US responded with a trade embargo. These sanctions continue contemporarily due to continual and increasingly strained relations and ‘state sponsored terrorism’ of Hezbollah and Hamas.
The US sanctions in Crimea are much more recent. In 2014, a series of executive orders were issued to enact trade restrictions and establish a framework for Ukraine-related sanctions. Additionally, more specific sanctions were enacted against specific Russian officials of government and dealing with the arms sector. The aim of these sanctions is to use the financial weight of the US to put pressure on them to stop the human rights violations being committed in the region.
Syria is another country that is facing the repercussions of sponsoring terrorism with the US embargo against them. Since 1979 Syria has been on the list of perpetrators of State-Sanctioned Terrorism. In 2011 the uprisings began, and the US has pursued strategic and severe sanctions to put pressure on the Syrian regime and deprive them of resources and support the Syrian people in their desire for a democratic transition of power.
Overall, embargos are a hugely potent tool for the US to put pressure on those supporting violence, but also for imposing their political will. In many of these cases the actions are clearly justifiable, but it is also prudent to consider their validity in cases such as Cuba, where their offense is a different kind of government. Food for thought.