Why Cuba (and the rest of the Americas) still matters

Lorenzo Cico, JHU:

As the clock winds down on Obama’s presidency, many wonder how his presidency will be remembered. Although it’s certainly early to make a final judgment on his foreign policy, there is enough material to both reflect back and predict the years to come. So far President Obama can take credit for the death of Osama bin Laden, the nuclear deal with Iran, and a strong response to Ebola, However, he also leaves behind a US military presence in Afghanistan and a muddled situation in Syria and Iraq with ISIS. On the latter, many foreign policy experts question both the president’s decision to remove American troops from Iraq in 2011 and his reliance on Turkey and Saudi Arabia as allies in the fight. No sooner can we forget the stalemate in Ukraine and the planned Pacific pivot, which has failed to stop China from building entire new islands in the South China Sea. All of this has also come with a reduction in military troop strength and readiness. The independent Commission for the Future of the Army move has criticized this move for making the Army too small to meet its planned and unexpected deployments in the near future. The Obama administration is seemingly on the wrong side of many of these issues, and I will make no pretenses of defending them—he has a Press secretary for that. However, there is still the Cuban issue.

With his announcement this week that he will visit Havana in August 2016 in honor of the opening of the new US embassy and his final push to close Guantanamo Bay, President Obama may have played his last foreign policy card: Cuba. For these reasons, I predict that in fifty years when we look back on the Obama presidency, the re-opening of relations with Cuba will stand out as the highlight of his foreign policy. Many critique Cuba as being too globally unimportant and a distraction from the pressing problems the US is facing in in the Middle East, Europe, and Asia at the moment. However, if we look at Cuba separately from the war on terror, the island looms large in American history. From the USS Maine, the Battle of San Juan Hill, the Bay of Pigs fiasco, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, the tiny Caribbean Island has been a key part of a policy from which the Democratic Party has historically distanced itself: the Monroe Doctrine.

President James Monroe first articulated a policy of American interventionism in the Western hemisphere against the European powers in a speech to Congress in 1823. It was the centerpiece of US foreign policy for over a century until it was usurped by the Cold War scare. Ultimately, although nuclear war was averted in 1963, an independent communist Cuba remained an annoying thorn in the America’s side as a holdover of the communist world, even after the collapse of the USSR.

The Monroe doctrine was never a hit with our Southern neighbors.  American imperialism instilled resentment in the long run, especially in Central America, with blunders such as the Cuban Communist revolution, interventions in Nicaragua, Panama, Grenada, and Haiti, as well as Chile and Colombia. Despite its clear overreach, American policy had clear strategic goals in the latter half of the twentieth century. These included regional stability and the prevention of the spread of Communism. Currently, our nation is lacking such a clear direction in foreign policy, as exemplified by President Obama’s refusal to enforce a red line in Syria.

It is clear that Cuba needs us more than we need them. Lifting sanctions and allowing tourist travel will boost the Cuban economy. In the future, better relations with Cuba will open the possibility of exporting American cars to replace the sedans from the 1950s that currently roam the streets of Havana. The US has now bounced back from the global recession much better than any of its southern neighbors. Increased relations with Cuba should prompt a redirection of economic efforts southwards to help struggling economies. Additionally, in a time when President Obama emphasizes leading from the rear, America needs to make as many connections with other countries as possible, especially economically. In July 2015, reacting to the opening of relations with Cuba, Democratic representative Steven Cohen of Tennessee smartly judged the situation, saying, “These decisions will also help promote human rights and freedom in a country where we have had little influence for too long.” It has been more than fifty years since President Kennedy imposed sanctions on Cuba in the hope that economic distress would force regime change. Instead, the resourceful Cuban people have dealt with the political and economic consequences of the Castro regime. Opening economic relations may offer a unique approach to changing the Cuban regime. Many Cuban-Americans still have relatives in Cuba, and looser restrictions would allow them to send money and goods back home, slowly introducing Cuba to global goods and democratic ideas. Cuba is not the only country where the US has tried to impose sanctions, and so far the track record is not successful—Iran and North Korea’s regimes are still going strong. Maybe it’s time to try a different approach to changing human and political rights. After all in Cuba, unlike in Iran and North Korea, we can make mistakes. If we get it wrong we can return to the previous half-century’s status quo.

Cuba matters because it may be the reorientation the US needs to get its confused foreign policy back on track. After a decade and a half of neglecting its own hemisphere in favor of the glamour in hunting terrorists, the US should take this Cuban opportunity as a way to reset, reengage, and lead our own hemisphere, which needs leadership now more than ever. The United States has strong economic partners in South America, especially Brazil, that it can turn to in this effort and other countries that may soon need economic help. If Cuba works, it may open the door to Venezuela, another nation with which the US has struggled. Venezuela is currently facing an economic implosion that cannot be ignored.  Symbolically, Cuba can be an American victory that truly signifies the end of the Cold War. Most importantly, President Monroe was right, our primary sphere of interest is here in the Western hemisphere, not in Europe, the Middle East, or anywhere else.

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