In Havana, Waiting for Obama or for Putin?

As I left Havana earlier this month, Cuba was eagerly awaiting the United States’ November presidential elections. The buzz around the capital, reportedly from a highly placed source, was that Barack Obama has already talked to Raul Castro by phone. Obama has publicly stated that if elected, he would immediately ease restrictions on Cuban American travel and remittances placed by the Bush administration in 2004, but maintain the embargo, which has been in place since 1961, until there is evidence of Cuban democratization. Indeed, no president could unilaterally lift the U.S. embargo—the main sticking point in U.S.-Cuban relations—because U.S. law (the 1996 Helms-Burton Act) mandates preconditions for this, such as legalization of all political activity and departure of the Castro brothers from the political scene, that Cuba finds unacceptable. But a new president who is open to dialogue with America’s enemies could prevail on a solidly democratic Congress to amend or abrogate the law and thus un-freeze the U.S.-Cuban relationship.

The embargo bans most U.S. trade with and all investment in Cuba. While damaging the country’s economy, it has obviously failed in its intended purpose of getting rid of the Castro regime. Cuba remains a police state in which the population is subject to a repressive control and, excepting favored few, lives at or close to the subsistence level. (Interestingly, the police are among the best paid professionals in Cuba, earning almost twice the miserly average wage of $17 per month). Cuba-watchers debate whether lifting the embargo and flooding the country with U.S. tourists and businesspersons would erode the legitimacy of the current regime or breathe new life into it. Yet there are very good strategic reasons why America should not continue its policy of isolating Cuba, even in the absence of positive signs of democratization on the island.

One reason is that the current U.S. policy makes Cuba a target of opportunity for a resurgent and increasingly hostile Russia. Vladimir Putin talks openly about “restoring our position in Cuba,” and hints are surfacing in Moscow that Russia might reestablish a military and intelligence presence on the island in response to the planned missile defense shield in Eastern Europe. Points of cooperation under consideration include use of Cuba as a refueling stop for long range bombers and for reconnaissance ships and aircraft, and also reopening of a gigantic Soviet-era electronic monitoring and surveillance facility at Lourdes, near Havana. A state visit to Havana in July by hard-line Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin (an ex-KGB member of Putin’s inner circle) and head of Russia’s Security Council Nikolai Patrushev could presage a new strategic dialogue between Moscow and Havana, even though the visit was officially touted as investment-related.

It is hardly coincidental that the warming of Cuban-Russian ties and discussion of a renewed military relationship follows closely on the accession of Raul Castro as de facto Cuban leader. Moscow has historically regarded Raul’s brother as a bit of a nut case, stemming from Fidel’s erratic behavior during the Cuban missile crisis, when (in the Soviet’s view) Castro was trying to provoke a U.S.-Soviet nuclear conflict. With Raul—who resembles a Soviet-style apparatchik—in charge, Russia may feel more comfortable about deploying strategic or intelligence assets on the island.

Another point to consider in reevaluating U.S. Cuba policy—and for doing so in the short term—relates to Cuba’s huge potential energy reserves located deep offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, which the U.S. Geological Survey says could contain 4.6 billion barrels of oil and 9.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. With most of the U.S. east and west coasts closed to offshore drilling and oil prices at well above $100 a barrel, and international demand for hydrocarbons projected to increase massively in future years, U.S. exploration and development of these deposits becomes a tempting prospect—a justification of rescinding the embargo or at least creating an exception to it. Other energy-dependent countries (such as China and India) already are negotiating exploration rights, but because Cuba is a sanctioned country, U.S. companies are forced to stand idly by.

In sum, current strategic and economic realities argue for dealing with the communist Cuban regime “as is”—i.e. not insisting on regime change as a precondition for improving relations. Opening Cuba to commerce and interchange with the United States could, as many argue, plant the seeds of democracy and capitalism there and give Americans some leverage to moderate the regime’s police-state characteristics. But positioning the United States to participate in what could be a Cuban energy bonanza and keeping Cuba out of the orbit of America’s geopolitical competitors represent more immediate challenges that should guide a new U.S.-Havana dialogue.