U.S.-Cuban Relations: Lessons from China and the Soviet Bloc


If we play our cards right, we could be drinking Havana Club mojitos and smoking Cuban cigars next Christmas. About two weeks ago, on 17 December, President Barack Obama announced the beginnings of a thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations. The president faces many obstacles, including over fifty years of mutual animosity, entrenched legislation blocking American trade and investment in the country, and zealously anti-regime hardliners in the Cuban exile community. The larger American objective remains to integrate Cuba into the global community of nations – what former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger defines as “an inexorably expanding cooperative order of states observing common rules and norms, embracing liberal economic systems, forswearing territorial conquest, respecting national sovereignty, and adopting participatory and democratic systems of governance.” Although Obama has made his choice, the debate remains whether the United States should continue embargoing the Cuban economy to press the regime to liberalize its rule, or whether lifting the embargo will better accomplish this change. Two of Obama’s predecessors – Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford – confronted similar issues in China and Eastern Europe in the 1970s. These cases, although distinct, offer scenarios that can help us estimate how U.S.-Cuban relations might develop in the future.

Cuba could follow the Chinese pathway, partially joining the community of nations. Nixon met Chairman Mao Zedong in February 1972 and the two leaders signed the Shanghai Communiqué, normalizing relations between Washington and Beijing. They promised to consult each other on matters of common interest in world affairs, fundamentally restructuring the Cold War in Asia. Beijing took its seat as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council with interests from the western Pacific to Africa and beyond. It even joined the broad, anti-Soviet coalition that supported Afghanistan’s mujahedeen against the Red Army in the 1980s. Chairman Deng Xiaoping embraced liberal capitalism following Mao’s death and the Chinese economy developed by leaps and bounds. China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001.

Concerning their respective countries’ starkly contrasting systems of governance, Nixon and Mao agreed to disagree. And, as it turned out, reintegration into the community of nations and economic liberalization did not lead to political reforms in China. The Chinese Communist Party institutionalized one-party rule, and it has maintained exclusive power ever since – even as other communist governments fell after 1989. The party confirmed its intention to retain this power when it brutally suppressed an indigenous democracy movement in Tiananmen Square the same year. American presidents, from George H.W. Bush to Obama, have reconciled themselves to these realities, and continued cultivating the evolving U.S.-Chinese relationship.

If U.S.-Cuban relations follow a similar pathway, Havana could gradually rejoin the inter-American system through the Organization of American States (OAS). It might leave its leadership of such counter-OAS efforts as the Organization of Latin American Solidarity (OLAS), and its anti-American rhetoric, such as Che Guevara’s denouncing the United States as “the great enemy of mankind,” in the past. It might also disassociate itself from Hugo Chavez’s more recent Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA). It may partially liberalize its economy, welcoming private ownership and foreign investment, including American investment, on a scale not seen since the pre-revolutionary era. It might even eventually negotiate a free-trade agreement with the United States, or join a sub-regional trade organization such as MERCOSUR, a Southern Cone-based common market that also includes Bolivia and Venezuela among its principle members.

Havana has already offered some indication that it may indeed return to the OAS. Raúl Castro has confirmed that his government will attend the upcoming Summit of the Americas in Panama. His government has also acknowledged that the Obama administration “will discuss with Cuba a solution to the expropriations of a number of U.S. firms by Havana several decades ago.”

The key moment will occur when Fidel, now 88, and Raúl, 83, pass from Cuba’s political scene and new leaders emerge. Much hinges on whether this new leadership maintains one-party rule in post-Castro Cuba and whether the Obama Administration’s successors will accept it if they do, as Mao and Nixon’s successors have done so far in China. Raúl Castro has expressed his hope that Cuba’s revolution will continue: “In the same way that we’ve never proposed that the United States change its political system, we will demand respect for ours.” We should look for future Cuban leaders to signal their evolving attitudes toward the United States, the OAS, and liberal capitalism in their behavior in international meetings, and in editorials published in such official sources as Granma and Prensa Latina.

Alternatively, Cuba could follow an Eastern European pathway, peacefully ushering the regime out through multiparty elections, massive civil disobedience, possibly even through violence. The Soviet Union, Europe, and the United States, furthering détente, recognized Eastern Europe’s postwar borders via the Helsinki Accords in 1975. All signatories pledged to respect human rights, which anticommunists used to mobilize support and press Warsaw Pact governments thereafter. Mikhail Gorbachev rose to lead the Kremlin a decade later. He transcended his predecessors’ politics and fears, tried to liberalize communist governance, and gradually relaxed Moscow’s hold over the region. This enabled Eastern Europeans, from Stettin in the Baltic to Triest in the Adriatic, to overwhelmingly reject communist parties in subsequent elections, and in Romania’s case, to violently overthrow the government, in 1989. The Soviet Union collapsed two years later.

Any of these Eastern European scenarios would require a Cuban leadership committed to Gorbachev-like openness and reform. This leadership would have to share Gorbachev’s tolerance for the human-rights campaigns and democratic, possibly even anti-regime protests the exile community and some Cuban citizens may bring to bear against it. These scenarios, however, remain less likely than the Chinese one. The Communist Party of Cuba, like the Chinese Communist Party, and unlike Eastern European communist parties, survived Gorbachev’s reforms and the Soviet collapse, and it remains just as committed to its system of governance as the Chinese. Americans and Cuban exiles have misunderstood this, underestimating the regime’s strength, and overestimating indigenous resistance to it, since the Bay of Pigs.

Finally, the Obama Administration may be ready to normalize U.S.-Cuban relations and deal with Havana as it is, but hardliners in the Cuban exile community will probably never accept this. These hardliners remain implacably opposed to the Castro regime. This has spilled over into American politics since the revolution. A rift in the Republican Party has already appeared. It will almost certainly influence that party’s presidential primaries, if not the general election, in 2016, something informed Cubans as well as Americans already understand. This in turn may shape and condition Congress’s response to the Administration’s moves. Senator Marco Rubio, Senator Ted Cruz, and Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s remarks and behavior will best indicate which way the wind is blowing as this continues to unfold in the coming year.


James Lockhart is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Arizona and adjunct professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s College of Security and Intelligence. He specializes in US-Latin American relations.