The term embargo is most often used in business or in politics, and is often used with the two areas combined. When one nation embargoes another country’s products, for instance, the first country is prohibiting trade with the target county. The idea is to make that second country suffer economically, usually in response to some action taken by the target nation.

One of the most famous embargoes in the world today started in 1962, when the United States prohibited the movement of products from Cuba to the U.S. At some point, the embargo was an act taken during war between two countries, as one tried to economically and financially cripple the other.

Embargoes as described above are considered trade actions. They can be put into law by the legislature of the nation or they can be policy followed by the country’s leaders. Government may ask certain businesses to engage in an embargo of particular products. If there is a law governing this, the businesses are obligated to comply.

Records show a trade embargo between the United States and Norway that involves only seal products. In recent years this and many other trade restrictions have been challenged because they are said to conflict with free trade agreements around the globe. The World Trade Organization, also commonly known as the WTO, has taken the lead in trying to keep trade avenues open between countries. But the WTO doesn’t have legal power and for the most part can only suggest and request. The strength of such policies depends entirely on the respect paid to such non-governmental organizations.

The United States has imposed embargoes on arms and related products from some countries. In addition several countries around the world, including the U.S., have put severe economic limits on the help they will extend to some nations. These steps are often taken after quoting such reasons as human rights violations and, more recently, sponsorship of “terrorist” organizations.

While the action does not have the same political or economic impact as a complete prohibition of trade with another country, the term embargo has also been applied to the practice of preventing the spread of information. For example, a public relations firm might contract with a company to distribute information about a new product or service but may “embargo” the release of the information until a certain date or time.

Embargoes of the political/economic type and those of the information/distribution type can create controversy, for obvious reasons. If an individual or business decides it is best to ignore the embargo request from a government that business may go ahead with plans to import or export as it sees fit. If there is a law against such trade, the business may choose to act anyway, circumventing the law.

In the public relations/media relationship, a firm may send information to several media outlets early and ask that the information be held until a set date. If one or two of the media outlets releases the information early, the others are at a distinct disadvantage. Embargoes are crucial tools in the commercial and political worlds, but are only as strong as the businesses and individuals who must abide by them.

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Lucas Beaumont
Generalist. Wikipedia contributor. Elementary school teacher from Saskatchewan, Canada.