It’s More Than Cigars and Rum: Why Cuba Matters
The Trump administration’s rollback of Obama’s opening to Cuba is a step in the wrong direction.
The fraught strategic relationship of the United States with Cuba — which was then a Spanish colony — began on Feb. 15, 1898, when the USS Maine, an aging, undersized battleship, mysteriously blew up in Havana Harbor. The Hearst newspaper chain, in what we would think of today as “fake news” or “alternative facts,” created an inflammatory story about Spanish saboteurs having destroyed the warship. As was the case after the Pearl Harbor attack almost half a century later, the nation was suddenly galvanized into war. “Remember the Maine” became the battle cry; a young Theodore Roosevelt lead a daring charge up San Juan Hill, which later won him the Medal of Honor, and launched his political career.
Cuba began a brief sojourn as a quasi-American colony, the United States stumbled its way through administering it, and eventually it became an independent nation, but one economically intertwined with its neighbor to the north until the communist revolution led by the Castro brothers in 1959. Cue a brutal dictatorship, the long twilight of the embargo, and a failed theory of how to shift the trajectory of America’s Cuba policy. When I spent three years as the head of U.S. Southern Command several years ago, we saw Cuba not as a security threat but as a potential source of refugees, the location of a detention camp at Guantánamo Bay, and an irritant to the Cuban-American population of southern Florida — but we saw it neither as a serious security challenge nor an opportunity for diplomatic engagement.
All that changed with the Barack Obama administration’s opening of Cuba, which was the right course of action. Capitalism is a fitting weapon to direct at the current Cuban regime. Now that President Donald Trump has executed an ill-advised and halfhearted effort to reverse some of the Obama changes, it is time to examine why Cuba matters to the United States and what we should do going forward.
Diplomatically, an open, pragmatic relationship with Cuba moves the United States into a vastly stronger position in the hemisphere. Our ability to work with powerful partners like Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil — all of which have sensible relationships with Havana — is strengthened by a common approach. If we seriously want a solution in Venezuela, for example, we should be working in concert with our friends through the Organization of American States (OAS) — a prospect that would be far easier if we had an aligned position on Cuba. Ditto on our counternarcotics efforts throughout the hemisphere.
Should we diplomatically confront the Castro regime on its evident human rights failures? Of course — and that will be more likely to succeed in the OAS if we are perceived to have a pragmatic relationship with Cuba. We will have more diplomatic capital, both in the OAS and in Havana if we maintain significant diplomatic relations and a robust embassy presence. Building a bridge to Cuba, instead of relying on the failed policies of building walls, helps us throughout the region.
Economically, the outcry from American businesses makes it clear that further openings are good for the United States. Jobs will flow from the increased tourism, airline flights, agriculture, information technology, and other manifestations of trade. If the principal object of the Trump administration is really “putting America to work,” moving away from or freezing economic openings with Cuba only diminishes U.S. jobs at the expense of European and Asian firms that are only too happy to do the work.
And, strategically, an open relationship with Cuba has much to offer. We need Cuban partnership to help our efforts to interdict narcotics, deal with refugee flows, partner on medical diplomacy, and team up on disaster relief. Keeping the strategically important naval station at Guantánamo Bay is a big net positive. The potential to work with this massive island — the largest in the Caribbean — is significant.
What should we do?
First, we should reverse the Trump decisions in the economic and visa spheres, returning to the more sensible Obama baseline. We need to provide more economic incentives, creating carrots that can then become bargaining chips on human rights issues. This will also do more than anything else to build a groundswell of public resistance to the broken, authoritarian regime led by a doddering Raúl Castro.
Second, the Guantánamo Bay naval station, as I have written elsewhere, should over time be closed as a detention camp and reimagined as an international installation with the capability to respond to natural disasters throughout the region, stockpile humanitarian supplies, base ships and aircraft conducting medical diplomacy, act as a refugee center in the case of unrest or disaster in the Caribbean, and support counternarcotic efforts.
Third, Cuba should become part of the counternarcotic efforts that are conducted out of Key West, Florida — just 90 miles from Cuban shores at the very successful Joint Interagency Task Force South. We already have 15 nations participating in those operations, which have interdicted thousands of tons of cocaine over the past decade; Cuba as a partner would be a powerful signal and a means to improve our capability.
Fourth, we need to keep the pressure on the Cuban regime by publicizing its misdeeds, shining a light on dissidents, improving our strategic communication with the Cuban people, and taking violations to the OAS.
The United States and Cuba have much to offer each other; the sooner we get our relationship in balance and move forward on a path to greater integration, the more we will benefit economically, diplomatically, and strategically. We need to look beyond the emotions of the USS Maine explosion and the half-century of communism to the potential future we could enjoy — including the rum and cigars.
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