Breaking the Ice, Not Melting It: The U.S. Rapprochement with Cuba

October 11, 2016

The suitability of the word, “rapprochement,” remains to be seen. U.S. foreign policy towards Cuba took a major swing in December with the proposed resumption of diplomatic relations for the first time in 54 years. In January, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Roberta Jacobson, became the highest-ranking U.S. government official to visit the island in 35 years. But despite this improvement and those forthcoming, the events of the past month mean seemingly little—the embargo remains in place, as does one-party rule in Cuba. Latin America has not achieved importance in Washington; indeed, the Washington Post’s coverage of the Assistant Secretary’s historic visit on January 22 made only a sidebar note on the back cover. “Rapprochement” may not be decided policy.

How will the United States’ commitment to restoring ties be evaluated? Surely Cuba’s actions will have at least as much to do with it as Washington’s. But those actions are limited, and Latin Americanists in the U.S. know it. Beyond freeing more political prisoners, as it did in January, there is little more the Castro regime is willing to concede. Political ties will be officiated and strengthened (unbeknownst to many, they have already existed for years) by the opening of embassies and exchange of ambassadors, as well as through the State Department’s probable removal of Cuba from its list of “state sponsors of terrorism.” However, economic and social pacification are hampered by an embargo older than some of those Congressmen who maintain their political lives supporting it. In this worst-of-times to propose lifting the embargo in Congress, many believe the President’s move was simply a symbolic addition to his résumé, a mission left for a more favorable Congress or a few creative bureaucrats to uphold and truly bring to fruition at a later date.

However pessimistic a view this seems, there may actually be a strategy in this half-hearted shot at “rapprochement.” There is thus far no White House pivot towards Latin America, but there are some important strategic considerations that Washington may have considered.

First and likely foremost: Venezuela. While just a stain on the overall foreign policy canvas as far as the United States in concerned, many experts in the State Department have been watching the volatile, supposedly despotic, and certainly erratic government with increasing concern. Cuba and Venezuela have shared deep economic and political ties since the late Hugo Chávez’s ascendance to power in 1999, and his legacy of underfunded socialism has left a hapless Maduro regime reeling. Cuba’s about-face with the United States apparently left Caracas hurt; even their supposedly interlinked intelligence services gave Maduro no notice. The Cuban economy’s reliance on Venezuelan subsidies has undoubtedly been affected by falling oil prices, making these subsidies potentially unreliable. Consider this, and then factor in active U.S. efforts to draw Caribbean nations currently dependent on Venezuelan oil towards renewable energy, and you have a competent, effective Yankee sabotage strategy in the making. If it is Washington’s intention to foment political change in Venezuela through economic isolation, then pulling Cuba back into orbit seems as good a policy as any. After all, Cuba’s comfort with a flailing Venezuela is unlikely to hold water if eventually given the opportunity to restore its economy by opening markets with the United States. Communism isn’t what it used to be.

The other consideration in Washington that gains more traction each day: the Castros are old. Very old, in fact. And the transition of power to some other regime official in the near future is likely to draw similarities to Chávez’s slightly democratic transition to Maduro. In other words, it will not carry much weight. Drawing Cuba away from Venezuela may quicken regime change in Caracas, and then determining Havana’s future will consist of a brief waiting game. Interestingly, the future of both Cuba and Venezuela remain so uncertain that it does not appear that Washington has developed a concrete response to regime change yet—alarming when considering how potentially soon this could occur. If there is a strategy, it is likely deep in the corridors of the State Department, awaiting the appropriate time to be sprung on Obama Administration officials preoccupied with Russia, Yemen, and the Islamic State. At least the United States should have representation in both countries when push comes to shove in either.

The Cuba endeavor, while more cautious, far more bitter, and sadly a good bit less hopeful, has similarities to President Obama’s and Secretary of State Clinton’s olive branch to Myanmar—or Burma, as Washington still prefers. A restoration of ambassadors and a presidential visit had all the makings of newfound friendship, rife with business opportunity and potential for positive change. Yet two-and-a-half years later, although superficially democratic, human rights abuses and political imprisonment are rampant. A pivot to Asia and freedom of capital could not make Myanmar a resounding success in that timeframe, so what will such efforts in light of 54 years of estrangement and an impenetrable trade embargo do for Cuba in Obama’s last two years? Probably not much.

But it could do a great deal in Venezuela. And it could, when such time does soon occur, do wonders for the United States’ leverage in negotiating political transition in Havana. Truthfully, it could have an effect on Cuba’s long-term future that the current administration is simply unable to calculate or pursue at this point in time. Legacy-building or not, “rapprochement,” should it prove to be so in the long run, may end the embargo and undo any number of other historic foreign policy mistakes. However, lest we get ahead of ourselves, let’s acknowledge that those in Washington must break the ice before they melt it.

About Author(s)

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Jesse Smith
Jesse is a 2015 alumni of the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. He received an MPIA in Security and Intelligence Studies, as well as a graduate certificate for Latin American Social and Public Policy.