WORLD POLITICS REVIEW, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019
Cuba faces a much tougher international environment today than it did just a few years ago. Relations with Latin America have cooled as relations with Washington have regressed to a level of animosity reminiscent of the Cold War. In response, Havana is looking to old ideological comrades in Moscow and Beijing to compensate for the deterioration of ties in its own backyard.
These setbacks abroad come at a time when the Cuban economy is vulnerable. Export earnings have been falling, foreign reserves are low, and the debt service burden is heavy, as Cuba tries to retire old debts that it renegotiated. Despite the economic reforms begun in 2011, domestic productivity is still weak, making Cuba dependent on foreign investment for capital to fuel growth.
A decade ago, progressive governments dominated Latin America. Cuba had friendly presidents in every major Latin American country except Mexico and Colombia, and even those two were not actively hostile. In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez saw himself as a protégé of Fidel Castro, promoting “21st-century socialism” in the hemisphere financed by his country’s vast oil wealth. At its peak, Venezuela provided about two-thirds of Cuba’s oil consumption at highly subsidized prices, with the cost offset by some 40,000 Cuban doctors and teachers serving Venezuela’s poor.
Under Presidents Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s state development bank provided $832 million in loans to modernize Cuba’s aging port at Mariel. Pressure from Latin American heads of state at the Sixth Summit of the Americas in Colombia in 2012 contributed to President Barack Obama’s landmark decision to normalize U.S.-Cuban relations.
But in recent years, the progressive “pink tide” of leftist governments has given way to a riptide of conservatism. Chavez is gone and his successor, Nicolas Maduro, presides over an ever-worsening political crisis and an economy in free fall, with 80,000 percent hyper-inflation last year. Venezuela’s oil production is down by two-thirds because of mismanagement and neglect. Oil shipments to Cuba have fallen by 50 percent, forcing the government to ration energy consumption by state entities, stunting economic growth.
In Brazil and Colombia, far-right governments have aligned themselves with Washington’s threatening stance toward Havana. New Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s denunciations led Cuba to end its “More Doctors” program, under which some 8,000 Cuban physicians served Brazil’s poor, earning Havana $250 million annually. In Chile, Argentina, Ecuador, Guatemala, Paraguay and Peru, progressive presidents have been replaced by conservatives. In short, Latin America has become a much less hospitable diplomatic environment for Cuba. It is no coincidence that on his first major international tour, Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel’s destination was not Latin America, but Russia, followed by North Korea, China, Vietnam and Laos.
The reversal of Havana’s fortunes in Latin America has been serious, but the reversal of relations with Washington has been disastrous. In the two years after Obama and Castro announced their plans to normalize relations on Dec. 17, 2014, the two governments re-established diplomatic relations, expanded trade and travel, and signed 23 bilateral accords on issues of mutual interest. Some 60 U.S. companies signed commercial deals with Havana, and the number of U.S. visitors jumped 57 percent between 2014 and 2016. Castro’s strategy of opening Cuba to U.S. trade and investment as part of his plan to modernize the economy seemed to be paying off.
Donald Trump’s election changed all that. In June 2017, Trump declared he was “canceling” Obama’s policy of engagement and tightening the embargo. Then the mysterious medical problems that afflicted some two dozen U.S. diplomats in Havana became the excuse for downsizing the embassy, thereby crippling educational, cultural and commercial exchanges. Washington imposed a travel advisory warning Americans not to go to Cuba, and in the first half of 2018, the number of U.S. visitors plummeted nearly 24 percent. However, cruise ship arrivals increased over the next six months, so the total number of U.S. visitors ended the year flat.
Then John Bolton, who targeted Cuba during George W. Bush’s administration with false claims that Havana was developing biological weapons, became Trump’s national security adviser last April. Speaking in Miami on the eve of the U.S. midterm elections, he ratcheted up the threatening, insulting rhetoric, declaring Cuba a member of a “Troika of Tyranny”—along with Venezuela and Nicaragua—and promising more sanctions to come. The administration is reportedly weighing sanctions on individual Cuban officials, imposing more restrictions on travel to the island, and returning Cuba to the Department of State’s list of state sponsors of international terrorism.
But the most serious sanction under review is allowing Title III of the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act—known as the Helms-Burton Act, for its original sponsors—to go into effect. Suspended by every president since the law passed in 1996, Title III would allow U.S. nationals, including Cuban-Americans, who lost property after the 1959 revolution to sue both the U.S. and foreign companies in U.S. courts for “trafficking” in their property—that is, making a profit from it.
During its first two years, the Trump administration continued the suspension of Title III, which has to be renewed every six months. But with a new deadline looming this month, hard-liners in the National Security Council—led by Bolton and Mauricio Claver-Carone, a long-time lobbyist for regime change policies aimed at Cuba—argued against suspension. The result was a short 45-day suspension, giving the Trump administration more time to assess the consequences of letting Title III go into effect.
Activating Title III would open a floodgate of litigation and damage Cuba’s efforts to attract foreign investment since U.S. and foreign firms would be loath to risk getting caught up in costly court fights. It would also prompt counter-measures by European governments unwilling to countenance Washington’s assertion of extraterritorial jurisdiction over their firms.
Faced with this new standoff in the Caribbean, Cuba is rejuvenating relations with its old Cold War allies, Russia and China, both of which are expanding their presence in Latin America. Moscow was the first stop on Diaz-Canel’s first major foreign trip last November, and he came away with $260 million in new economic assistance and $50 million in military aid to refurbish Cuba’s aging Soviet-era arsenal. Diaz-Canel and Russian President Vladimir Putin reaffirmed that their “strategic partnership” extended beyond just economic cooperation. In Beijing, Diaz-Canel met with President Xi Jingping and signed several economic cooperation agreements. China pledged new investments in communications, energy and biotechnology—sectors where U.S. firms had hoped to gain a foothold before U.S.-Cuban relations soured.
A small island like Cuba has to be integrated into the global economy in order to prosper. Raul Castro clearly recognized that when he sought to repair diplomatic and commercial relations with Latin America and the United States. Historically, Cuba has suffered because of its economic dependence on a series of global patrons: Spain, the United States, the Soviet Union and Venezuela. Cuba’s leaders would prefer to diversify economic ties across a wide range of countries regardless of ideology. But the Trump administration’s renewed hostility, along with the collaboration of conservative Latin American governments, leaves Cuba no choice but to look for allies among Washington’s global rivals.
William M. LeoGrande is professor of government at American University in Washington, D.C., and co-author with Peter Kornbluh of “Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana.”