Re-Engagement with Cuba: The Strategic Calculus


Yesterday’s decision by President Obama to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba will be highly controversial domestically, but popular internationally. The normalization of ties between these two foes has potential to advance the strategic interests of the United States by helping it to improve its relationships with the states of Latin America and the Caribbean, and more effectively manage regional security challenges.

Domestic Challenges to a New Relationship with Cuba

The restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba is likely to be only the opening salvo in a protracted series of political battles that will further deepen the partisan divide in Washington.  Indeed, it is likely no coincidence that the policy change was only announced after passage of the “cromnibus” that will continue funding for the federal government.

While the Obama administration has the power to re-establish diplomatic relations, and perhaps even to remove Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, the confirmation by the Republican-dominated Senate of whoever the administration names as the U.S. ambassador to Cuba will likely become a high-visibility national debate over the administration’s change in course.  Moreover, ending the U.S. embargo of Cuba will require Congressional action, which is likely to prompt a major partisan political conflict.

Re-Shaping Latin American Geopolitics

Still, these initial steps by President Obama are monumental and will re-shape the geopolitics of Latin America. Recognizing Cuba opens the door for the eventual re-incorporation of the country into the Organization of American States (OAS) and, in the process, revitalizing the organization as the premier multilateral body in the region. Such a result would have the further strategic benefit of undercutting the arguments of the Bolivarian Alliance (ALBA) regimes for building up alternative organizations that exclude the United States, such as the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) or the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC)

In the short term, U.S. recognition of Cuba averts a potential disaster at next April’s OAS Summit of the Americas in Panama City.  The Panamanian government, which will host the summit, invited Cuba to attend, although the OAS has excluded Cuba.  The summit thus threatened to become a platform for Cuba to malign the United States and the OAS at the latter’s own most important gathering.  With U.S. recognition of Cuba, however, the summit could instead become a forum for the United States to showcase the respectful and inclusive new partnership it is pursuing with the region.

Beyond the summit, if the Cuba-U.S. relationship evolves from the re-establishment of diplomatic relations to the lifting of sanctions and Cuba’s re-integration with the business and trading infrastructure of the region, the nation stands to become a dominant economic player in the Caribbean basin – a fact which doubtlessly make businessmen in neighboring states such as Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, and Trinidad and Tobago both excited and nervous at the same time.

Some of the biggest potential winners from such a reintegration, beyond the Cubans themselves, are Brazilian businesses, which have invested heavily in Cuba’s Mariel port and Free Trade Zone.  Under the right circumstances, Mariel could become one of the most important new hub ports in the Caribbean.  The position of Mariel will be furthered by the completion of the project for widening the Panama Canal, sometime between 2016 and 2018. The expansion of the canal will permit an increased volume of ships through the region, including container and other ships of a larger size, which will be in the market for nearby ports and facilities to consolidate and transform cargo, such as Mariel.

Enlisting Cuba to Better Manage Regional Security Challenges

Conservatives have long argued that lifting sanctions on Cuba will not bring political reform there.  While this may be true, a Cuba with a greater economic stake in the region may bring unexpected benefits, such as helping the United States manage regional security challenges.

Through diplomatic recognition and the probable lifting of sanctions at some point in the future, the United States provides the dying Cuban leadership with a path to declare victory and preserve the legacy of the revolution.  The Castros understand that the economy of Venezuela, Cuba’s principal patron in the post-Cold war era, is crumbling.  While China and Russia provide the Cuban government with some support, the overriding strategic imperative for the Cuban leadership is to make the country self-sustaining without jeopardizing the position of the Communist Party, or the nation’s policy orientation.

Within this context, Cuba’s expanding participation in the economy of the region may persuade it to collaborate more with other states of the region in areas such as combatting drug trafficking, illegal immigration, and money laundering.  Moreover, Cuba may seek to avoid provocative actions in dealing with extra-regional partners which directly threaten U.S. national security.  Examples include permitting Russia to reopen the Cold War-era signals intelligence collection facility near the Cuban town of Lourdes, allowing Russian submarines and long-range aircraft to re-supply at Cuban bases, or collaborating with Iran in the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction.

The change in diplomatic relations toward Cuba and the elimination of sanctions may even create opportunities for improved relations with other regimes with whom the United States has long had difficult relations, such as Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador.

Policy Recommendations

The announcement that the United States and Cuba would re-establish relations has produced a flurry of congratulatory statements from across the globe.  Yet the goodwill that the announcement has generated is likely to dissipate quickly.  While the change in diplomatic posture toward Cuba creates a significant opportunity, realizing its benefits will require intelligent and sustained follow-through.  As the administration moves forward, the following are some issues that it should be thinking about:

First, the U.S. needs a strategic concept, replete with the consideration of alternative scenarios, regarding precisely how it will leverage Cuba’s interest in escaping from the “sinking ship” of its Venezuelan patron and extra-hemispheric friends, to realize the benefits of becoming a major regional trade hub and tourism destination.  As part of its approach, the Administration must think through the types of strategic benefits that Cuba can help it to achieve, such as not permitting Russian military facilities on its soil or cooperating more on regional law enforcement actions.  The administration should also think about the “carrots and sticks” that it will hold out to Cuba to convince it to cooperate.  Doing so includes considering to what degree the administration will use its leverage to press Cuba on domestic political reform, versus potential Cuban help with strategic issues in Latin America, if both forms of cooperation are not possible.

Second, the United States. must have an engagement strategy for working with Cuba’s neighbors in the Caribbean basin in the context of the monumental shift in the economic, political, and other dynamics of the region that may be occasioned by the present policy change and related policy changes which may follow.  As noted before, if Cuba becomes a major trading partner and logistics hub, the businessmen of the surrounding islands will both find significant opportunity and experience major new competition.  Similarly, Cuba’s diplomatic re-integration into the region will produce new forms of engagement with the Dominican Republic and Cuba’s Spanish-speaking Central American neighbors, including the FMLN government in El Salvador.  At the same time, the shift will also be felt in Belize and the English-speaking members of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM).

If Cuba’s commerce with the region significantly expands, it may also expand opportunities for transnational criminal organizations to use Cuba to move people, drugs, contraband merchandise, and money through the region.  The United States should seek to work with Caribbean law enforcement to identify, and proactively combat, such new patterns in organized crime.

Third, the United States must carefully plan and manage strategic communication regarding its change in policy on Cuba so that extra-hemispheric actors such as Russia and China perceive the move as a pragmatic advance, rather than a retreat borne from weakness.  The opportunity for miscalculations and future conflict will increase if Russia sees the U.S. action as a lack of resolve by the Obama administration, and thus feels free to act more aggressively in its diplomatic and military activities in the region.  Similarly, the United States. should be sensitive to the possibility that China’s views this policy change as building the business case for, and signaling the political acceptability of, overt Chinese government leadership of or financing for the Nicaragua Canal project.

Fourth, the United States needs a strategy for revitalizing the Organization of American States as the premier multi-lateral organization in the Americas.  A significant initiative at, and strategic communication plan for, the April 2015 Summit of the Americas in Panama City is probably a good place to start.

The conditions for Cuba’s re-incorporation into the Organization of American States are not yet present, but such a return is an inherent part of the path that the Obama administration is heading down.  When the appropriate time comes, the Cuba’s re-incorporation into the OAS should be seen as a strategic opportunity to re-vitalize the organization that legitimately incorporates the perspective of all residents of the Americas, including Cuba, Canada, and the United States, rather than the more divisive, partially representative organizations that have been created in recent years, such as UNASUR and CELAC.

Finally, the United States should capitalize on the symbolism of its renewed diplomatic ties with Cuba, to effectively re-launch its relationship with Latin America and the Caribbean.

In this new relationship, the United States should not shy away from proclaiming the values for which it stands, including participatory democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.  Yet the U.S. policy change on Cuba also allows the Obama administration to argue that it “means it” when it says that it will advocate, yet not impose, those values upon its neighbors – even those nations whose political regime and policies the United States may find morally repugnant.

Two small, but enormously useful gestures would help to emphasize the new relationship that the United States seeks with the region: (1) a multi-nation tour of the region by President Obama that does not once mention drugs or immigration, and (2) a major presidential visit to another part of the world in which President Obama dedicates a significant portion of a speech to the challenges of Latin America and the Caribbean, and the importance of Latin America and the Caribbean to the United States.

Through its decision to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba, the administration has created an important opportunity for the United States to renew and re-invigorate its relationship with the region on the basis of respectful partnership.  Doing so is critical to U.S. security. Latin America and the Caribbean is arguably the region to which the United States is most intimately bound, in terms of ties of geography, commerce and family.

What is critical now is what the administration does next.


Evan Ellis is Research Professor of Latin American Studies with the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute.  The views expressed in this work are solely his own and do not necessarily represent his institution or the U.S. Government.


Image: Rigobert Bonne and Guilleme Raynal’s 1780 map of Cuba, Geographicus Rare Antique Maps, public domain.