Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro agreed to an exchange of prisoners being held on espionage charges. In addition, Washington and Havana agreed to hold discussions with the goal of establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries. No agreement was reached on ending the U.S. embargo on Cuba, a step that requires congressional approval.
It was a modest agreement, striking only because there was any agreement at all. U.S.-Cuba relations had been frozen for decades, with neither side prepared to make significant concessions or even first moves. The cause was partly the domestic politics of each country that made it easier to leave the relationship frozen. On the American side, a coalition of Cuban-Americans, conservatives and human rights advocates decrying Cuba’s record of human rights violations blocked the effort. On the Cuban side, enmity with the United States plays a pivotal role in legitimizing the communist regime. Not only was the government born out of opposition to American imperialism, but Havana also uses the ongoing U.S. embargo to explain Cuban economic failures. There was no external pressure compelling either side to accommodate the other, and there were substantial internal reasons to let the situation stay as it is.
The Cubans are now under some pressure to shift their policies. They have managed to survive the fall of the Soviet Union with some difficulty. They now face a more immediate problem: uncertainty in Venezuela. Caracas supplies oil to Cuba at deeply discounted prices. It is hard to tell just how close Cuba’s economy is to the edge, but there is no question that Venezuelan oil makes a significant difference. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government is facing mounting unrest over economic failures. If the Venezuelan government falls, Cuba would lose one of its structural supports. Venezuela’s fate is far from certain, but Cuba must face the possibility of a worst-case scenario and shape openings. Opening to the United States makes sense in terms of regime preservation.
The U.S. reason for the shift is less clear. It makes political sense from Obama’s standpoint. First, ideologically, ending the embargo appeals to him. Second, he has few foreign policy successes to his credit. Normalizing relations with Cuba is something he might be able to achieve, since groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce favor normalization and will provide political cover in the Republican Party. But finally, and perhaps most important, the geopolitical foundations behind the American obsession with Cuba have for the most part evaporated, if not permanently than at least for the foreseeable future. Normalization of relations with Cuba no longer poses a strategic threat. To understand the U.S. response to Cuba in the past half century, understanding Cuba’s geopolitical challenge to the United States is important. Read more…
Written by George Friedman on Dec. 23rd: Mr. Friedman is chairman of Stratfor.
Published in http://www.realclearworld.com/articles/2014/12/23/the_geopolitics_of_us-cuba_relations_110875-3.html