Cuba's Pivotal Role on the World Stage

January 9, 2015

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One might not think that an island country like Cuba with a mere 11 million people could play a critical role in world politics. Under one-party rule as well as a trade embargo by the United States for over 50 years, it continues to suffer a level of economic dependency that characterizes many countries in the Caribbean. Yet an examination of the circumstances of Obama's recent decision to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba should prompt us to see this country in a new light.

Cuba Policy Change

President Obama's announcement of a reconciliation came soon after agreeing with Cuba to release three Cuban spies arrested in exchange for that of an unidentified intelligence officer and 53 Cubans regarded by the United Sates as political prisoners. Although not technically part of the deal, U.S. Agency for International Development contractor Alan Gross, arrested in Cuba for distributing satellite equipment to the Jewish community without a permit, was also released.

While the embargo will remain in place for now, the plan includes the opening of a U.S. embassy in Havana for the first time in over 50 years, the easing of restrictions on banking and credit and travel and business opportunities, and greater access to internet communications for Cubans. In addition, the two countries will cooperate more openly on migration, drug trafficking, disaster response, and other issues of mutual interest.

It might come as no surprise that historically, the Democrats have favored a moderately closer relationship with Cuba while the Republicans have maintained tight restrictions while in office. Under Presidents Carter and Clinton, the United States reduced travel restrictions, and the two countries each agreed to staff an interests section in one another's capitals under Carter. On the other hand, travel restrictions were restored under Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush in the wake of the 2001 attacks. In 2011, they were expanded once again under Obama and included permits for academic, religious, and cultural tours.

Less well known is the role of the Catholic Church, which has been strongly committed to normalization. For Catholic leaders, ending the embargo against Cuba has been seen as a means of improving human rights in that country. As such, Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega has worked to improve ties between Cuba and the Church by arranging papal visits since the 1980s, lobbying the United States against the embargo, and most recently worked for the release of Alan Gross. On a visit to Cuba in 2012, Pope Benedict XVI spoke to Cuban officials about opening a dialogue with the United States and not long after, Pope Francis, who had accompanied him on that visit, acted as mediator during 18 months of talks that preceded the recent decision.

The announcement of an opening has been met with both applause and condemnation. Recent polls indicate that there is majority support in the United States for lowering restrictions on trade and travel to Cuba. One poll conducted by the Atlantic Council shows that majorities in both political parties—60 percent of Democrats and 52 percent of Republicans—are "ready for a policy shift" and open to ending the embargo. Another conducted at Florida International University shows that support for the embargo among Cuban Americans, long its staunchest supporters, has declined from a high of 57 percent in the period from 1965 to 1973, to only 40 percent in the period from 1995 to 2014.

Governors and businesses around the country, many of whom had already secured trade deals with Cuba, are welcoming the change. A loosening of restrictions in the wake of a hurricane in 2001 allowed U.S. businesses to export agricultural and humanitarian goods to Cuba on the condition that payment be made in advance. This change allowed former Governor Kathleen Blanco of Louisiana to travel there in 2005 with 17 business people to secure a $15 million trade deal. Altogether in Louisiana accounted for some $76 million in food exports in 2013. As Blanco sees it, it is "very smart for us to tone down the political rhetoric," given that "Cuba is an island begging for investment." In fact, Louisiana had been Cuba's top trading partner before 1959.

Elsewhere, farmers and officials in corn, rice, soybean, and meat-producing states such as Iowa, Illinois, Montana, Nebraska, Texas, and Missouri, have also praised the decision. The vice president of Cargill, one of the country's largest agricultural companies, which has worked to end the embargo, sees this "a historical moment." As Nebraska Department of Agriculture Director Greg Ibach, put it, "this has the potential to open additional selling opportunities to our agricultural producers and companies." For some, the timing could not be better. Bob Bowman, chair of the Iowa Corn Promotion Board, points out that, "we're sitting here with a record crop in the United States, and another market for our product is great, especially a market that is 90-some miles away."


But the opening with Cuba has been sharply criticized as well. A number of lawmakers have vowed to oppose any improvement in ties between the two countries. As Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, leader of the opposition, points out, "the fact that the regime continues to violate the human rights of Cubans like this shows that it has even less incentive to change its ways." Together with Senators Bob Menendez and Ted Cruz, he has vowed "to do everything within the rules of the Senate" to prevent the confirmation of a U.S. ambassador to Cuba.

A number of prominent dissidents in Cuba have also disparaged the action. Well-known blogger Yoani Sánchez, regards the very arrest of Alan Gross as a successful ploy by the Castro government to secure the release of the Cuban agents. "Castroism has won," she concludes. Ángel Maya, member of the Damas de Blanco, an opposition group, also views the opening as a "grave error" as it will only provide the government with greater resources for repression. For Guillermo Fariñas, doctor, journalist, and prominent human rights advocate, "the U.S.—our ally—turns its back on us and prefers to sit with our killers."

While many hope that over time the opening will advance democracy and human rights in Cuba, U.S. journalist Charles Krauthammer argues that this is unlikely to be the case. For evidence, he points to our normalization of relations with China and Vietnam, both authoritarian countries where little progress has been made on either front. Furthermore, he contends, "except for the United States, Cuba has had normal relations with the rest of the world for decades" yet there has been "no movement in Cuba toward freedom." If things must change, he continues, why not get something back? "With the U.S. embargo already in place and the Castros hungry to have it lifted, why give them trade, investment, hard currency, prestige, and worldwide legitimacy—for nothing in return?" Why not "relax part of the embargo in return for, say, internet access" instead?

Krauthammer raises a fair question. Have there been any tangible gains as a result of Obama's opening of relations with Cuba? If we think in terms of internal change in Cuba, perhaps not. If we take a more global perspective, however, a different logic becomes clear.

East-West Relations

First, we should look to the other side of the globe and the role that Russia has been playing in this event. With the fading of the Soviet Union between 1989 and 1991, Cuba's most essential support system came to an end. Oil and other imports from Russia fell to a third of what they had been, causing severe repercussions for the Cuban economy ever since.

In 2008, however, talks between the two countries resumed. The following year, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced the possibility of building military bases in Cuba, as well as in Venezuela and Nicaragua. Russia also agreed to lease eight jets and several other aircraft to Cuba in 2013 and the two countries made plans to establish stations for Russia's global positioning system.

In March 2014, as tensions flared between the United States and Russia, Russia's Vladimir Putin raised the stakes even further. After a "stealth invasion" of Ukraine's Crimean region by Russia, the Autonomous Republic of Crimea was declared and a referendum held, in which 97 percent of voters opted to leave Ukraine and join Russia.  Soon after, Moscow moved to annex the Crimean region although only four other countries recognized the action as legitimate. Obama responded by coordinating sanctions against key sectors of the Russian economy with Canada and the European Union.

With much of the world squarely opposed to the annexation, Putin tilted first toward China, signing a major gas deal, and then made plans to bolster ties with several Latin American countries. Traveling to Cuba in July on a tour that included Brazil and Argentina, he consented to write off a whopping $32 billion in debt owed by Cuba. This left just $3 billion to be paid over the next 10 years. Agreements were also reached on energy and health care development, disaster prevention, the construction of a new seaport, and the possible reopening a Russian intelligence base at Lourdes that had been closed in 2001.

Both sides seemed mightily pleased by the agreements and proceeded to confer mutual statements of support on one another. Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez obliged Putin by assailing both the United States and the EU for imposing sanctions against Russia with Putin in turn, criticizing the embargo against Cuba. Cuban leader Raul Castro chimed in with support for "the current policy of strength and political intelligence that the Soviet Union—I mean Russia—is carrying out" in the international arena. Referring to the debt forgiveness, he called it, "another great tangible sign of the generosity of the Russian people towards Cuba." About South Americans generally, Putin said to one journalist, "we are grateful for the support of our international initiatives, including outer space demilitarization, strengthening international information security, and combating the glorification of Nazism."

It is probably no coincidence that Obama's decision to open relations with Cuba came only a day after the White House announced that Obama would sign a bill to strengthen sanctions against Russia due to its role in Ukraine. The move will certainly weaken Putin's ability to exploit the growing disaffection that Latin Americans have felt toward the United States in recent years as well as his incentive to do offer more favors to Cuba.

U.S.-Latin American Relations

Indeed, U.S. leaders have been roundly accused of neglecting Latin America during the last two decades. In the early years after the Cold War, efforts were made in the United States to abandon the role of "hegemon" in favor of greater mutuality toward other countries in the hemisphere. Since then, a number of disastrous experiences arising from the "Washington Consensus" drove many countries away from U.S. trade and financial policies in favor of regional blocs such as MERCOSUR. In addition, the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent "War on Terror" that dominated U.S. policy in Latin America as well as the Middle East, was extremely unpopular. The hard feelings and movement away from the United States allowed both Russia and China to move into the vacuum left behind.

Enthusiasm of Latin American leaders for the move toward reconciliation suggests that we have reached a turning point in U.S.-Latin American relations. As Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff declared, "today is a historic day. We imagined we would never see this moment." In Colombia, President Juan Manuel Santos offered his full cooperation in the hope that this would lead toward "the dream of a continent where there is total peace." In Mexico, President Enrique Peña Nieto vowed that Mexico would be a "tireless supporter" in the effort and historian Lorenzo Meyer declared it "long since time" after the "prolongation of the Cold War to absurdity." Head of the Organization of American States José Miguel Insulza called the decision one of "great vision on both sides" and even Venezuela's President Nicolás Maduro, an ardent critic of the United States, called the move "a courageous and necessary gesture."

In April, the next Summit of the Americas, hosted by the OAS, will bring presidents, non-government organizations, business leaders, and civic organizations together and for the first time, Cuba will be represented. Though time will tell how this and other events will play out, it will certainly be harder to blame the United States for Cuba's misfortunes than it has been in the past.

And let us not forget Venezuela, a staunch ally of Cuba since the 1998 election of Hugo Chavez. As of 2012, 45 percent of Cuba's exports went to Venezuela, which in turn sends100,000 barrels of oil to the island daily in addition to billions of dollars in aid annually. With oil prices plunging in the last year, the Venezuelan economy has been dealt a harsh blow, giving Cuba in turn, an additional incentive to restore relations with the United States. The effect of the reconciliation will likely be to reduce Venezuela's influence in the Caribbean region.

There will surely be obstacles to further reconciliation especially in dismantling the embargo. Further, as Charles Krauthammer and others have warned, it would be naive to expect major internal change in Cuba in the near future. On the other hand, the changes currently taking place on the world stage signal a new era in international politics in which it will be much harder to isolate a confrontational country, however small.

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