Nigel D. White, The Cuban Embargo under International Law: El Bloqueo

O'Donnell, Therese (2017) Nigel D. White, The Cuban Embargo under International Law: El Bloqueo. [Review] (

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The focus of Professor White's timely book The Cuban Embargo under International Law: El Bloqueo is the unilaterally imposed US embargo on Cuba. In it he offers a thorough analysis of El Bloqueo and its effects, and the resulting compatibility or otherwise with international law. However, as the author makes clear, this is less a study of the embargo in its own terms than a broad analysis of what the embargo reveals about international law. Although illuminating, it is not always a pretty story. The book highlights how international law operated to enable and facilitate a problematic sanctions programme. In its consideration of substantive rules (notably regarding use of force, sovereignty, self-determination, human rights, trade and investment) the book also reveals the pointlessness and obscuring effects of fragmented or compartmentalised international law: for example certain legal rules on self-help enabled a programme which impacted the Cuban economy and compromised the human rights of ordinary Cubans including their access to medicines and utilities. Despite White's even-handed treatment of the subject matter, there remains a strong impression that the US sanctions programme reflected the power imbalances which ebb and flow in international law and in this case embodied the punishment of an ingrate territory. Indeed by returning to the (now often overlooked) Bay of Pigs incident, its significance as an event not just for Cuba, but in assisting an understanding of ideologically-driven interventions (and indeed US imperialist inclinations) is also revealed. In a more comparative frame, the reader cannot help but be conscious of the parallel ‘Vietnam context’ during key points in the Cuban story. This gives considerable pause for thought, especially when it comes to reflecting on the author's critique of the application of notions of regime change and the operation of international humanitarian law. The book certainly prompts us to re-think issues of self-help and self-defence in international law and how their invocation can often be ironically self-destructive. White's exposition of the law of countermeasures is extremely helpful and it does appear that there is no better context for its illustration than the sixty years of US practice towards Cuba. The book also illustrates the problems regarding the unilateral enforcement of international law by individual states.