The United States and Cuba: a way forward

President of Venezuela Nicolas Maduro and 90-year old Fidel Castro meet in Havana
Havana, March 19, 2016: President of Venezuela Nicolas Maduro (L) and leader of the Cuban revolution Fidel Castro; bankrupt Venezuela no longer can afford to offer aid to Cuba (source: dpa)
  • The Cuban economy is in dire straits as Venezuela’s aid has dried out
  • As long as the U.S. trade embargo remains in force, President Barack Obama’s hands are tied
  • One obvious step forward could be to reintegrate the Cuban armed forces into hemispheric security activities

It has been a year and a half since Havana and Washington agreed to normalize relations. Significant progress has been made since, although less than optimists had anticipated. Two tremendous obstacles must be addressed in order to sustain this improvement.

As to the successes achieved, by far the most significant is the marked change in attitude throughout the hemisphere toward the United States. U.S. President Barack Obama will bequeath to his successor relations with Latin America in which anti-Americanism is at its lowest ebb since the start of the Cold War. The region’s cooperation with Washington on matters ranging from trade and investment to the environment and fighting crime is better than at any time in decades.

Potential business

In the bilateral relationship itself, there have been some modest advances. On the U.S side, there has been a rush to enter a market that many think could be highly profitable. Tourism from the U.S. has increased by 75 percent during the first year of the new policy. Commercial flights between the two countries are to resume in a matter of months. A plethora of hi-tech U.S. companies are racing to win contracts to equip the island with internet and other communication services that have been woefully inadequate. American agricultural machinery makers have sent their representatives to Havana to offer modern replacements for Cuba’s antiquated Soviet-era equipment – a restored farming sector could prove important to the island’s economy in the years ahead. The boost in tourism should continue, too, as barriers to using things like U.S.-based credit cards or the services of lodging rental outfit Airbnb are gradually removed.

Economic hurdles

The two principal obstacles to further progress are very different in nature and call for separate solutions. The first is Cuba’s economic cratering. This has been brought on by the economic and political collapse of Venezuela, its principal ally and backer for more than a decade. The government in Caracas can no longer supply Cuba with cheap petroleum and loans to purchase goods overseas. The Cuban government has had to ration energy and many basic consumer goods.

The U.S. might seem perfectly positioned to help – were it not for the second obstacle, the trade embargo. As long as it remains in force, the room for maneuver for the U.S. president, the principal force behind the opening with Cuba, is severely restricted. The Cuban-American group that controls congressional policy on Cuba and has steadfastly opposed the reset has lost much of its clout, but retains the capacity to block further progress. The embargo is unlikely to be lifted unless the U.S. elections in November return control of the senate to the Democrats.

Meanwhile, the question remains of how to continue improving conditions under the existing law. An answer could be based on U.S. links with the Cuban Armed Forces, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias, or FAR.

The military’s role

FAR is the most trusted institution in Cuba these days. Its responsibilities dramatically expanded after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is now involved in about 60 percent of the Cuban economy, especially in the tourism, biomedical, mining and cigar-making sectors. FAR is reform-minded, reasonably efficient and relatively free of corruption – the opposite of the Communist Party of Cuba. The army has created a cadre of experts in business administration, many of them with international training or experience.

A major downside to such a setup is, of course, an ever-present danger of corruption taking hold. To counter it, Cubans rely on education of the officer corps and severe means of deterrence, including a special branch within the FAR counter-intelligence apparatus to fight graft. Without making exaggerated claims on behalf of the FAR, it appears to be more corruption-free than similarly privileged services in other countries.

Constructive steps

During the last quarter century, a dose of mutual trust has quietly been built between the FAR and the U.S. military, as the two sides cooperated in countering narcotics trade and illegal immigration, and conducted natural disaster relief operations together. This trust was acknowledged by the U.S. State Department in its International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR).

Building on this foundation is possible, providing that careful choices are made regarding the specific areas of cooperation and keen attention is paid to how the relationship develops. The Cuban side must be allowed to move at its own pace. For the U.S., one obvious step could be to reintegrate the FAR into hemispheric security activities, making it a part of multilateral efforts to tame drug trafficking and organized crime. In the remaining months of the Obama administration, this could be the most constructive step forward in the bilateral relations.

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