Back to normal

President Obama seeks to strengthen his historical legacy by reaching out to Cuba, but can he succeed where Presidents Ford and Carter have failed?

On December 17, 2014, President Barack Obama announced that he had made an executive decision to establish diplomatic relations with Cuba. The stated reason for his reversal of more than 50 years of U.S. policy toward Cuba was that the old policy had not worked. Instead of continuing to isolate Cuba, the U.S. would now engage with Cuba in order to promote the “emergence of a democratic, prosperous, and stable Cuba,” according to the White House Fact Sheet, “Charting a New Course on Cuba.”

Avoiding another “Mariel”

There are, of course, unstated reasons for the president’s decision. With only two years left in his second term, President Obama wanted to strengthen his historical legacy. Overturning more than half a century of a much-criticized U.S. policy toward Cuba would help achieve that goal. Furthermore, Cuba’s main source of subsidized oil, Venezuela, was spiraling toward economic collapse. Without Venezuela’s aid, Cuba’s faltering economy could follow suit, possibly triggering “another Mariel,” a reference to the 1980 Mariel boatlift, when Fidel Castro allowed Cubans to leave the island, resulting in the exodus of 125,000 Cubans to the United States. The Mariel exodus had tarnished President Jimmy Carter’s legacy, a fate that President Obama hoped to avoid.

It is important to note that President Obama is not the first U.S. president to try to normalize relations with Cuba. President Gerald Ford’s attempt to do so during the Cold War led Cuba to send troops to Angola to support its Marxist regime, thereby derailing Ford’s effort. President Carter also tried to normalize U.S.-Cuban relations, an effort that was also abandoned when Cuba responded by sending troops to Ethiopia to support the Soviet-backed government there. Unlike these earlier efforts, however, President Obama did not set any preconditions that Cuba had to meet, such as improving its human rights record or holding democratic elections, in order for the U.S. to proceed down the normalization path. Instead, he seemed more interested in getting more U.S. dollars to flow into Cuba, despite the fact that the recipient of most of these dollars would be the Cuban government and military, not the Cuban people. This decision makes sense if President Obama’s main concern was to avoid an economic collapse in Cuba and “another Mariel.” It also makes sense in the context of the president’s belief that engagement with non-democratic regimes tends eventually to produce an economic, and then a political, opening.

Only time will tell

It remains to be seen whether this new attempt to normalize relations by President Obama will also be undermined by a Cuban government that has always been intent on not allowing its political control to be weakened or challenged. There are already signs that the U.S. and Cuban governments are not on the same wavelength. After the recent meeting in Cuba between Roberta Jacobson, Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, and Josefina Vidal, her Cuban counterpart, Jacobson said that human rights had been discussed. Vidal claimed that no such thing had happened. President Obama continues to emphasize how engagement will liberalize Cuban politics. President Castro asserts that the political system will remain as it is.

Probably both presidents believe they are right. The U.S. president seems to believe that the creation of a consumer society in Cuba will automatically lead to demands for political choices as well. The Cuban president apparently believes that the new policy will provide the economic resources to allow it to strengthen its political control while establishing a more productive form of state capitalism. The real test of the staying power of the new diplomatic relationship, however, will come if and when the Cuban government succeeds in obtaining a wealthy benefactor whose politics and values are more congruent with those of the Castro government or its like-minded successor.

In the absence of such an alternative, it may be many years before we will know whether President Obama’s bet on engagement with Cuba, and the particular form that it has taken, will produce the payoffs that he expects. The uncertainty, however, will not keep him or future U.S. presidents from trying to engage other dictatorial regimes in order to indirectly change their behavior in ways that are more congruent with their perception of U.S. interests and priorities. This is because engagement is generally viewed as a more appealing policy option than economic sanctions or military intervention, at least until or unless it becomes apparent that the results it is producing are counterproductive and require a more strategic or muscular response.

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