A 21st Century US-Cuban Relations Review – OpEd


After reading a really interesting article about Cuba in Foreign Affairs called “Cuba After Communism: The Economic Reforms that are Transforming the Island,” by Julia E. Sweig and Michael J. Bustamante, I decided to share it in the blog.

“Cuba is an underdeveloped country with developed world problems” (Sweig and Bustamante).

I did not realize that most Cubans still relied on the black market or relatives from abroad to supply them with their daily necessities. This means they must obtain basic goods illegally or from overseas because their own country cannot supply them.

Another interesting feature is that the state is “ironically” reprimanding its citizens for using the social services, health care, and public education (most likely because it is sucking the life out of the state). Cuba remains a service oriented economy with about three thirds and extremely low production. The cars are mostly American made 1950s clunkers at this point- like a state frozen in time.

The ag sector could increase about 30 percent more, say the authors, as a good portion of the island land remains fallow. Cubans import half their food with a substantial amount coming from the USA.

In spite of all this, there are many liberalizing changes taking place. The best one in my view is that self-employment has increased since Raul Castro (53) took power- I believe the authors said at 150 some percent. Individual empowerment in any form is essential to US-Cuban reconciliation and the right way forward.

Reforms are taking place but nothing like China or Vietnam in the 1980s. Cuban leadership is weary of potential instability from the riots for inequality taking place in those countries and around the world right now.

In 1994, the US lifted the trade embargo with Vietnam and relations have been improving ever since. But that took enough internally orchestrated reforms from that country. Similar was China. Politics was completely ignored. The embargo with Cuba demands multiparty democratic reform (which is noble but stupid, considering the times).

A good number of Americans might see the embargo as a big joke today. The authors do as well.

But the fact is that Cuba remains a strategically located island state that is consistently seen as a politically defiant thorn in America’s side- much of an embarrassment as a backfire policy. The initial reaction of the embargo was obviously thought as a just punishment but Cubans are limping their way to the future in perpetuity. The seizure of property and nationalizing many US invested firms and the installation of a single party and dynastic rulership are all negative factors.

To lift the US embargo against Cuba would require multiparty elections and liberal reform (including drives for a freer press). It’s a hard one because the US does not want to reward them for a closed communist-high socialist authoritarian system. And now they are making political economic changes on their own, anyway. Finally, they are no longer content with crawling and seek to walk. A change of leadership is a slight change in vision and a break from the past ways.

The distinction in Cuba, note the authors, is less of anti-coms and pro-Castro revolutionaries. Fidel’s old regime is passed and a new future awaits.

The authors point out that President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are very much to blame for the perpetual relations freeze between the US and Cuba. How can America get past “Cuba is a big threat” thinking and to Cuba is an opportunity thinking?

Cuba and PRC relations are not those of the USSR. Eventually they Cuba could become even more a Taiwan for the US if relations do not thaw at all. And economic trade ties will give the US more strategic political influence within Cuba. Control the economy, get closer, and control the state- or at least have a larger say than China or Venezuela.

Additionally, Hugo Chavez is now gone and no one yet has replaced him in the Bolivarian Revolution. The closest big ally in Latin America might turn out to be Brazil over Venezuela. In any case, America needs to read the pulse of the Cuban people and the signals of the Cuban leadership. If they have to, they should use a mediator to start a dialogue. This could take place in that third-party state and they could draw up out a plan to lift the embargo in phases. The embargo against Cuba from the 1960s became law in the Cuban Democracy Act in 1993 and the Helms-Burton Act in 1996. These would need to be altered substantially. Rare, but the involvement of key House and Senate leadership might be involved in the talks.

Once checkpoints of understanding were agreed, the two might celebrate with open talks. For all we know, this could be the case right now. Keeping the two at odds would be playing to each state’s population. Normalizing trade relations would be gradual as would US penetration and influence. Soft incursion is always slower and more valuable than beachhead assaults in the long term. With craft, the US could own Cuba in a matter of decades. This might be made easier if China, as it appears, slows engines of growth and focus more inward and in the immediate arena of the East.

*First appeared in the In Homeland Security blog.

Brett Daniel Shehadey

Brett Daniel Shehadey is a writer, commentator and holds an M.A. in Strategic Intelligence from AMU and a B.S. in Political Science from UCLA.

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