Cuba: From Threat to Partner?

May 19, 2017

In 2015, the United States and Cuba reestablished diplomatic relations more than 50 years after they were broken off. As part of the agreement, trade and travel restrictions were eased, prisoners exchanged, and Cuba was removed from the U.S. government’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. Visits by U.S. cruise ships, mail service, and regularly scheduled flights resumed. Journalists and other observers enthused that U.S. tourists, real-estate developers, cigar smokers, rum swizzlers, and even Major League Baseball would reap rich dividends as the tortured U.S.-Cuba relationship normalized. The so-called deshielo cubano (“Cuban thaw”) was hailed as President Barack Obama’s greatest foreign policy triumph.

Today, the future of U.S.-Cuba relations is uncertain at best. Early in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, Trump, virtually alone among GOP hopefuls, offered support for the U.S.-Cuba détente. “Fifty years is enough — the concept of opening with Cuba is fine,” he told The Daily Caller. But candidate Trump’s support had its limits. Using a signature phrase, he also insisted “we should have made a better deal.” Later in the campaign, Trump vowed to roll back if the government of President Raúl Castro failed to release political prisoners and improve its appalling human rights record. Castro, in turn, has insisted that Cuba will never give up its “independence and sovereignty” to preserve détente.

Inside the Trump administration, a major review of Cuba policy is underway. As policymakers weigh options, they should consider areas of potential cooperation. Trade and investment is one obvious area. Unilateral prohibition on U.S. citizens visiting, investing, and selling in Cuba — with the stated purpose of undermining the Castro regime — has been fruitless. And it’s been a terrible deal for U.S. businesses and agriculture, which have had to stand by while European, Chinese, and South American competitors position themselves in the Cuban market and gobble up prime opportunities.

Cuba Looks to the Future

During the 1990s, Cuba weathered, through misery and poverty, the end of decades of patronage from the Soviet Union. In 1999, the Hugo Chavez government in Venezuela threw Cuba a lifeline, which lasted as long as oil prices were high. But now the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela is in a tailspin and the country cannot afford food or medicine, much less largesse for ideological allies. Like his brother Fidel before him, Raúl has long recognized the dangers of Cuba’s heavy reliance on other countries for its survival and has experimented with a state-led, incremental approach to allowing private investment. Havana seeks to manage an economic transition away from crippling communism, to a state-led, limited capitalism along the lines of China and Vietnam. Rapprochement with the United States is part of this strategy. But openness to foreign trade, investment, tourists, and goods does not come without a cost. The Cuban government and army realize that to compete for this investment and commerce, they have to learn to meet the expectations and standards for safety, security, and quality that international markets demand.

Shared Security Threats

Even during the darkest days of mutual antagonism, the United States and Cuba always found the means to cooperate on matters of shared national security. The U.S. Coast Guard has long cooperated with Cuban forces on the open seas to manage migrant flows and rescue shipwreck victims. Routine “fenceline” dialogues take place between Cuban and U.S. officers about emergency response and other issues that arise with the presence of U.S. facilities and personnel on Cuban soil at Guantánamo. And U.S. military doctors and Cuban medical personnel have interacted during visits to the Caribbean by a U.S. military hospital ship.

In a new CNA study, we argue that the long-term interests of the United States in a stable, prosperous, and peaceful Caribbean and Latin American community would be best served through dialogue and, when possible, cooperation with Cuba. Enduring distrust between Washington and Havana means that a strictly bilateral approach isn’t sufficient. We suggest the U.S. government consider supporting a multi-national dialogue, centered somewhere in the Caribbean that includes important mutual partners such as Mexico and Jamaica. Issues related to security offers the most promising areas for progress.

Cuban policymakers recognize that new waves of tourists, commercial shipping, and foreign investors pose security issues. For example, by what legal process will rowdy or violent tourists be processed? Can Cuba screen and protect container ship traffic effectively? Since 2015, U.S. and Cuban officials have been addressing similar technical issues that come with expanded trade and interactions, and private sector actors have negotiated their own accords and practices. But it would better serve Cuba, the United States, and their regional partners if these numerous concerns could be addressed and discussed in a common regional forum, where Cubans could learn from neighbors like Jamaica and Barbados how those nations protect their sovereignty, public security, and resources while benefitting from foreign investment and tourism.

In our study, we examine three areas in particular where shared interests and clear and where Cuba has both an incentive to cooperate, and can provide its own value to a regional dialogue. Migration, for one, is an area where longstanding U.S. policy unnecessarily complicates its relations not just with Cuba, but with Central American partners and Mexico. There are several ways by which the flows of people could be rationalized and managed better. And as Cuba showed during the massive earthquake in Haiti in 2010, Cubans have been willing and able to provide timely assistance, particularly in terms of medical care.

Finally, Cuba faces the threat of transnational organized crime and smuggling as much as any other nation in the region, and that will increase along with further trade and exchange with the United States. Cuba could gain from a better understanding about how its neighbors share information, train together, and support one another — including the United States — to counter this threat. Again, the Cubans bring certain strengths to the discussion. One example is their renowned capacity for regional intelligence.

Dealing with Cuba’s Armed Forces

The Cuban military, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias (FAR), runs not only the nation’s security sector but most of its economy as well, and will necessarily be a major part of any successful engagement. The managerial mindset of many of its officers, however, suggests that they are interested in learning how public and international security requirements can be achieved without sacrificing economic efficiency or value. Cuba is hardly a liberal democracy, nor is likely to become one anytime soon, but neither is China or Vietnam. Some Americans may detest the idea of helping the FAR and the Cuban government become better at making money, but we suggest the alternative — an impoverished, desperate Cuba which has to reach out to patrons like Russia or China for handouts — poses a greater long-term regional risk.

¿Y Dónde Trump?

The Trump administration’s policy review may very well conclude that U.S. interests require a return to the kind of adversarial relationship with the Castro government that emerged shortly after the 1959 revolution. Long-time opponents of normalization, such as the Heritage Foundation, have considerable influence within the administration. Republicans like U.S. Sen.  Marco Rubio remain outspoken critics of U.S.-Cuban détente.

But the president is hardly a conventional Republican politician. Trump’s high-wire style, love of the deal, and disdain for establishment political thinking may lead him to see Cuba as an opportunity rather than as a threat. Moreover, an important Trump constituency, the U.S. business community — including hotel, real estate, and transportation companies — is eager to make sure the thawing Cuban investment climate doesn’t refreeze. And Trump, having repeatedly praised the likes of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi — and having visiting Saudi Arabia on his first trip abroad as president — doesn’t seem particularly squeamish about international strongmen and despotic regimes.

In fact, he seems to take to them. With his party in control of Congress, Trump is uniquely poised to sit down with Cuba’s leadership, set aside thorny disputes and distrust over human rights and political freedoms, and strike a deal. If so, we suggest that shared security concerns, and the use of regional partners as models and hosts, provide a promising platform and venue for such engagement.


Dr. Ralph Espach (@respach) and Dr. William Rosenau (@williamrosenau) are senior analysts at CNA, a nonprofit research and analysis organization in Arlington, VA. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect CNA or its sponsors.