By Hanna S. Kassab and Jonathan D. Rosen, Guest Bloggers
Between March 21-22, 2016, President Obama will step foot on Cuban soil, the first serving U.S. President to do so in almost a century. He announced his intention after declaring the need to normalize relations given the tumultuous twentieth century. This visit serves as an opportunity for these two countries to “chart a new course” into the twenty-first century. While many are optimistic, there are serious threats to the plan’s ultimate success.
One concern is that conversations would descend into accusations over the other’s human rights records, that is, the United States’ use of torture and Guantanamo Bay and Cuba’s treatment of its political dissidents. It is interesting to note, however, that the Castro regime only came to prominence given the United States’ support of the Batista dictatorship which preceded it. For almost a decade, the United States supported a ruler who freely used torture, violence and even terrorism to subjugate the Cuban population. However, United States domination of the island began a full half century before, with the invasion and occupation of Cuba during the Spanish American War which ended in 1903.
Critics of reapproachment argue that this visit is inherently wrong-headed. Lawrence J. Hass insists that “...the wrong trip, to the wrong place, at the wrong time, and under the wrong circumstances.” The main issue is that the United States should not engage anti-democratic states. Yet the author has no problem making excuses for other authoritarian countries: “Washington engages with authoritarian regimes of all kinds...Cairo and Riyadh, are key to protecting U.S. regional interests.” Saudi Arabia in particular is among the worst human rights violators, using mass public executions to consolidate their rule and instill fear in the populous. Relations are yet justified for the sake of defending American interests. It is time to speak the language of critics like Hass. It is time to make the case for the Cuba deal as vital to the defense of U.S. regional and global interests.
The trip is in the political interests of the United States for three major reasons. The first advantage is to regain a foothold in South America. Long considered a backyard for the United States since the days of James Monroe, the United States has lost ground to a considerable number of external actors. After the 2008 Financial Crisis and the difficulties in the Middle East, South America saw a stark increase in foreign power presence in the region. States like Russia, China and Iran are increasing their grip on Latin American states. Most interesting is the development in Ecuador, where the country has agreed to sell one third of its pristine Amazonian rainforests to Chinese oil companies. Terrorist groups like Hezbollah are also active in the region.
The deal with Cuba may allow the United States to regain its lost position in the continent. In this seemingly new multipolar world, the United States must compete with great powers for the affection of states globally. This has two consequences which limits action for the United States. First, the United States cannot use force and coercion like the “good ole days.” Long gone is its unipolar moment. The United States must now peacefully negotiate with other countries knowing full well of reputational costs. Second, the United States must be able to offer more to countries relative to great power competitors to satisfy political and security goals. At least, the United States must be able to have a presence in these countries to block any outrageous moves by other external actors. This is the goal of the Cuba plan.
This ultimately leads to our second illustration. Key to breaking anti-American influences is Cuba. Cuba is the legitimizing factor in any anti-American counter hegemonic bloc in Latin America. The Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), is the region’s quintessential anti-American alliance of which Cuba is a founding member. If Cuba was to make amends with the United States, this would confound the alliance by destroying its normative underpinning. Taking Cuba out of that equation would lead to existential questions: if Cuba is moving closer with the United States, what would be the purpose of ALBA? The organization would be without a leader and a purpose. Cuba, the backbone of anti-Americanism, would be firmly in the pro-American sphere. Other vehemently anti-American countries like Venezuela, would be the biggest losers. Isolating Venezuela, not through sanctions and armed intervention, but through a peaceful domino effect, presents a productive and sustainable opportunity for the United States. Such a move would bolster the reputation of the United States, not just regionally, but globally.
This leads to our final argument: the Cuba deal will only improve the reputation or soft power, of the United States. Since 1950, the United States has dealt serious blows to the self-determination of many states in the Western Hemisphere. From Guatemala in northern Central America to Chile in the southern part of the continent, the United States has imposed its will on the entire region in one way or another. The beauty of the plan can be found reading between the lines: the United States is treating Cuba as an equal: a sovereign nation. This is something Cuba has always wanted but was denied on so many occasions. This deal represents a major shift, not just for Cuba but the continent, in over a century.
There are, of course, serious concerns that may jeopardize the success of the plan. As mentioned, the visit has the potential to turn sour. Actors involved understand this and will adjust accordingly. There is also the threat that if a Republican wins the White House (most notably Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio) that these efforts may be in vain. It is our desire that cooler and pragmatic heads prevail. There is clearly a great deal to gain from such a small adjustment in a foreign policy that has been impotent to provide peaceful, positive and effective change. Status quo policies have only made Cuba worse off. It is indeed a small adjustment as Cuba is certainly no great power. It is time to try something new and move beyond the outdated policies of the Cold War that have not been effective in forcing change as Cuba remains an oppressive dictatorial regime.
Hanna S. Kassab is visiting professor at Northern Michigan University.
Jonathan D. Rosen is a Research Scientist at Florida International University’s Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy.
They are the authors of the forthcoming book with Lexington Books: The Obama Administration and Cuba