As he prepares for his historic visit to communist Cuba in March, one imagines that Barack Obama sees himself as Ronald Reagan strolling through Red Square or Richard Nixon atop the Great Wall of China. There might be a kernel of legitimacy to those comparisons. Surely, the president considers himself a historic figure, and he correctly views his successful pursuit of a thaw in relations with Cuba as a historic achievement. So why shouldn’t he have a historic moment to demonstrate the significance of it all? That’s all fine and good, but beyond a presidential victory lap in Havana, how will the United States benefit from Obama’s near unilateral overtures to the Castros?
It would appear that it only took a modest gesture on the part of Havana to allow the president a face-saving way in which he could visit Cuba without looking like the weaker party. The return to Washington of a missing inert Hellfire missile did the trick. The missile, which had been shipped to Europe but inexplicably managed to find its way into Cuban hands in 2014, is a sophisticated air-to-ground weapon. “It is unclear whether a U.S. adversary has ever obtained such knowledge of a Hellfire,” the Wall Street Journal reported in January. To the best of the public’s awareness, that deeply troubling ambiguity is still the case. There is a very real concern that the weapon’s design security has been compromised over the course of the months in which this missile was in the possession of a foreign power that often plays host to Russian intelligence ships and Chinese military advisors. Still, the return of that thoroughly milked test missile gave Obama the cover he needed to declare victory and play the conquering hero.
Barack Obama, as well as his allies and advisors, believe that a new day in relations with Cuba will have positive effects on America’s regional position. What might those be? It is presumed that a thaw in relations with Havana will facilitate a similar rapprochement with the rest of Central and South America’s unfriendly or outright anti-American regimes. “Washington’s isolation of Cuba has long been a defining fixture of Latin American politics, something that has united governments across the region, regardless of their ideologies,” the New York Times reported in December of 2014. That’s true, but anti-Israeli animus has also been a “defining fixture” of the politics of the Middle East’s Sunni kingdoms and military dictatorships. As Jonathan Tobin observed, however, Israel’s relations with its Sunni neighbors have become far warmer in recent years by virtue of necessity, regardless of politics at the grassroots level. Similarly, Latin America’s Peronist and Bolivarian regimes simply cannot afford to alienate the United States in the way that the region’s chief pariah state – Venezuela – has.
Those who are encouraged to view the opening of Havana as something akin to the opening of China are falling wide of the mark. True to their cold-eyed realist forms, the members of the Nixon administration who negotiated a thaw in relations with Beijing did so not out of a supposed regard for the president’s legacy or the intangible arc of history, but to restore fluidity to what had become a rigidly stalemated dynamic vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. The opening of China exacerbated the Sino-Soviet split and freed America’s hand to seek a resolution to the Vietnam War on terms favorable to Washington. In May 1972, Richard Nixon later became the first sitting President of the United States to visit Soviet Moscow despite having ordered some of the heaviest bombing runs of the war over North Vietnam earlier that year. The Soviets simply were in no position to give up on the promise of detente with America.
What geopolitical benefits will accrue to the United States as a result of Cuban reconciliation? The great game that typified the Cold War is not applicable to the region in which the communist island nation is situated. Despite the imposition of unilateral sanctions on Venezuela following the brutal crackdown on dissidents in a failed 2014 rebellion against the government in Caracas, America has been making overtures even to that socialist state. State Department Counselor Tom Shannon recently met with President Nicolas Maduro on two well-documented occasions. Shannon also recently met with Venezuelan National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello in Haiti for a conference which the Venezuelan politician characterized as “aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations with respect to international law, sovereignty and self-determination of people.”
As is the case with Cuba, however, these overtures are not being met with domestic reforms. When Reagan strode down the Krasnaya Ploshad alongside General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in 1988, it was after the Politburo was made to accept Perestroika and, more importantly, Glasnost. Reagan’s declaration before the cameras in Moscow that he no longer regarded the Soviet Union to be an “evil empire” was said to represent evidence that the president had changed, but it was the Soviet Union that was in fact evolving.
Some believe the infusion of American tourist dollars and the opening of Havana to American markets and ideas will encourage a flowering of liberalism and dissent. There is virtually no evidence to support this article of faith. Despite decades of American embargo, Europe, Canada, Asia, and Latin America have not had similar restrictions on tourism or investment in Cuba. Not only has none of this commercial activity led to the liberalization of the regime in Havana, by many accounts it has become even more brutal. Those tourism dollars do not go to benefit the impoverished and repressed Cuban people but its dictatorial rulers.
As former assistant administrator to the United States Agency for International Development Paul Bonicelli correctly noted, the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (Libertad) Act of 1996, which ratified the embargo as necessary American policy, always contained within it the keys to the island’s salvation. “All the Castros have to do is embrace democratic reforms and the rule of law,” he wrote. To liberalize, however, is seen by the autocrats in charge of this open-air prison as tantamount to accepting their overthrow and the uncertain fates they would meet in its wake.
In the interim, the obstacles to a Cuban thaw are only mounting. The regime in Havana continues to demand over $180 billion in restitution from the United States government for various crimes. Many living Americans have outstanding judgments against Havana requiring the return of or compensation for property seized by the government after the 1959 revolution. Cuba continues to harbor fugitives from American justice, including cop killers and airplane hijackers. These issues should have been resolved by lower level functionaries before the President of the United States rewarded Cuba with a visit. But the president’s legacy and his ego simply couldn’t wait.
For all the talk of the history being made in the opening of Cuba, it’s not at all clear who benefits from this arrangement beyond the president. The United States doesn’t. The region doesn’t. The Cuban people certainly don’t. All that has been inflated is the American left’s sense of accomplishment and historical rectitude, neither of which needed much inflation. And that’s simply not good enough.