Barack Obama may very well be remembered by history as, among other things, the president who was forced to confront one former Cold War enemy, Russia, while re-establishing full diplomatic relations with another, Cuba.
Exactly one year ago, the February revolution in Ukraine (branded a coup d’état by Moscow) sparked the ouster of then-President Viktor Yanukovych, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and finally its military intervention in eastern Ukraine, which is now effectively split off from the rest of the country.
And it ended with Obama’s stunning Dec. 17 announcement that the White House — the same one that had recently imposed economic sanctions on Vladimir Putin’s Russia for its aggression against Ukraine — would normalize ties with the Castro regime, loosen travel and trade restrictions, and seek to end the U.S. trade embargo of Cuba that’s been in place since 1960.
Obama has won kudos from some quarters for discarding an outdated Cold War-era policy that had failed to rid the island of communism, while confronting an old nemesis whose belligerence is resurrecting Cold War-era jitters in Europe. The contrasting moves — pushing an economic rapprochement to pry Cuba open while tightening the economic noose around Russia — are the latest in a geopolitical chess game that apparently didn’t end with the demise of the Soviet Union.
On the other hand, the president has been slammed by critics who say he’s being naïve in engaging the Castro brothers while not cracking down harder on Putin — abandoning America’s longstanding push for freedom on both fronts in favor of foes who still cling to a Cold War mentality.
But are the two situations comparable, or even relevant to each other?
In Obama’s TV address to the nation, which coincided with the simultaneous return of jailed U.S. contractor Alan Gross to Maryland and three convicted Cuban spies to Havana, the president said that for more than five decades, the United States had sought to uphold democracy and human rights in Cuba by isolating the Caribbean island.
“Though this policy has been rooted in the best of intentions, no other nation joins us in imposing these sanctions, and it has had little effect beyond providing the Cuban government with a rationale for restrictions on its people,” said Obama, noting that Cuba is still governed by the Castros and the Communist Party that came to power in 1959.
“Neither the American nor Cuban people are well-served by a rigid policy that is rooted in events that took place before most of us were born,” said the president, who was barely a year old at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. “Consider that for more than 35 years, we’ve had relations with China — a far larger country also governed by a communist party. Nearly two decades ago, we re-established relations with Vietnam, where we fought a war that claimed more Americans than any Cold War confrontation.”
Obama didn’t mention Russia once in his 15-minute speech, but he did pledge “to engage Congress in an honest and serious debate about lifting the embargo,” which can only be done by Congress since the embargo was codified into law in 1996.
Domingo Amuchastegui is a former Cuban intelligence agent who spent much of the Cold War spying behind the Iron Curtain; during the 1960s, he was head of the European Socialist Countries Department at Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Today, he praises the administration’s policies on both Cuba and Russia, including a nuanced position on the crisis in Ukraine. Obama has supported Kiev’s shift toward Europe and away from Moscow’s orbit of influence, slapping economic sanctions against Russia for backing rebels in the east. But he hasn’t agreed to send Ukraine lethal weaponry to fight those rebels, a move that could dramatically ratchet up tensions with Moscow.
Amuchastegui said the president would have been crazy to give in to “warmongers” by supporting a coup d’état clearly aimed at pulling Ukraine away from its longstanding neutrality and making it another member of NATO along Russia’s western border. The prospect of Ukraine, home to a sizable ethnic Russian population, joining the Western security bloc is a red line for Moscow, which promptly annexed Crimea after Yanukovych’s overthrow.
“Even though the Obama administration was very supportive of the unfolding of the Ukrainian crisis, especially the last stage, the Russian response showed the many dangers that could develop with such a reckless gamble,” Amuchastegui said, insisting that Obama’s attempt to engage both Moscow and Havana “is not playing soft or acting as a coward — it’s realpolitik, a sensible and pragmatic approach, welcomed in both instances by an overwhelming majority around the world and within the United States.”
Michael Singh of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, however, argues that “the Obama administration must be more careful to treat engagement as a means, not an end” — whether it’s Russia, Cuba or Iran for that matter.
“Diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union did not avert the Cold War (though they may have made it less dangerous than it otherwise would have been),” he wrote in a Jan. 12 Wall Street Journal op-ed. “More recently, the Obama administration’s own Russia ‘reset’ proved a failure. Engagement has not transformed relations with Venezuela, nor with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad when it was attempted in the early 2000s or from 2009 to 2011.”
Yet Venezuela’s relations with Cuba may have factored into Obama’s calculus. For years, Caracas has helped prop up the Castro regime with cheap energy, but now that oil prices have tumbled, Venezuela has had to cut back on its largesse, pressuring the island economically in much the same way the Soviet Union did when it stopped being its benefactor after the breakup of communism. The sharp drop in oil prices is also bolstering Obama’s efforts to put the pinch on Russia. Whether the energy slump will dislodge either Putin or the Castros from power is another matter entirely.
Fidel Castro, 88, made no comment about the dramatic developments coming from Washington; many speculate that he’s either dead or close to death. But his younger brother Raúl, 83, who’s ruled Cuba since 2008, said in his own speech that he has no intention of giving up communism or opening the country to free elections.
“Fidel may or may not be dead, but history will likely hold him accountable for today’s Cuba,” quipped Vicki Huddleston, chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana from 1999 to 2002 and later U.S. ambassador to Mali. “But he did have a very good 15-plus minutes on the world stage.”
Huddleston said Obama’s reset with Russia is “in no way a historic change of policy” compared to his “decision to transform the U.S. relationship with Cuba” — which she says is more akin to Richard Nixon’s opening to China in the 1970s.
Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, said the restraint Obama has shown toward Russia’s Putin and his willingness to change course toward Cuba with only two years left in his presidency illustrate how hard it is to discern an “Obama doctrine” on foreign policy.
“Obama looks at each situation on its own terms, asks himself what works and then decides how to act,” he told The Diplomat. “While the effectiveness of the shift in U.S. Cuba policy remains to be seen, Obama reached the conclusion that the approach in place for more than half a century had not worked and needed to be changed. With this stroke — regardless of how conditions play out in Cuba — Obama secured his legacy in Latin America.”
At the same time, Shifter said, “In reacting to the crisis with Ukraine and Russia, Obama has been firm and measured. His policy, which involves economic sanctions but avoids a bellicose posture, appears to be yielding results. Putin faces enormous difficulties, in part the result of sanctions but also plummeting oil prices. So far, Obama’s decision to resist a more aggressive reaction to Putin’s moves seems vindicated.”
For Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), however, the 44th president isn’t “firm and measured” at all — but rather a pushover for tinpot dictators.
A decorated Vietnam War veteran and longtime supporter of anti-Cuba sanctions, McCain has emerged as Obama’s loudest critic on most issues, including the civil war in Ukraine and the administration’s reluctance to get involved militarily.
In September — claiming that “Russia’s aggression threatens the entire global order” — he lashed out at the White House for not sending U.S. guns, missiles and bombs to Ukrainian forces battling pro-Russian rebels in the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk. So far, the war has claimed more than 5,000 lives (including 298 people on board the Malaysia Airlines jet shot down over Ukraine last July) and has driven more than 1.2 million people from their homes, according to the United Nations. Fighting recently resumed and a tattered ceasefire has yet to take firmly hold.
Putin, though, has recently taken a more conciliatory stance on the conflict, perhaps the result of sliding oil prices and Western sanctions that are beginning to take a real toll on Russia’s economy. U.S.-Russia trade is negligible, which is why Obama has turned to the European Union to put the squeeze on Moscow. So far, he has managed to present a united transatlantic front on sanctions, although EU members such as France and Germany are hesitant to impose additional economic penalties on Russia, a key trade and energy partner.
Moreover, providing Ukraine — which has been accused of human rights abuses right alongside the Russia-backed rebels — with lethal weaponry would surely trigger a harsh response from Russia, one that many of America’s closest European allies don’t want to invite.
McCain, however, doesn’t see it that way.
“It is shameful that the administration still refuses to provide Ukraine the military assistance it desperately needs after it has already been dismembered by President Putin and invaded by Russian troops,” said the GOP’s 2008 nominee for president. “Ukraine is struggling to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity, and as President [Petro] Poroshenko said in his address to Congress, ‘One cannot win the war with blankets.’”
Predictably, the same day Obama unveiled his new Cuba “reset,” McCain issued a similarly scathing statement, saying that “like the others before it, [this policy] is one of America and the values we stand for in retreat and decline. It is about the appeasement of autocratic dictators, thugs and adversaries diminishing America’s influence in the world.”
McCain isn’t the only one in Washington who thinks the Cold War’s lessons have been lost on Obama.
“What transformed the Soviet Union into a global threat wasn’t communism or even the Red Army. Rather, it was Moscow’s nuclear arsenal that compelled the United States to fight or wage proxy battles on four continents for nearly five decades,” said Lee Smith, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank.
Writing in the Dec. 29 issue of The Weekly Standard, Smith argues that “Cuba was a problem not simply because of the Castro regime and its efforts to spread revolution throughout Latin America, but because it was the satellite of a nuclear-armed superpower, one that decided to base missiles there in 1962. Cuba was the means by which the Soviets brought the threat of a nuclear attack to our doorstep, a mere 90 miles from Florida. This is the Cold War lesson apparently lost on Obama. If you believe the embargo was a failure, then it means you do not understand its original purpose — to push back against an expansionist totalitarian regime that threatened America at home.”
At the moment, though, Russia is not exactly about to expand its presence off the shores of Florida and Smith’s view is not shared by most of the men and women who have headed the U.S. Interests Section in Havana over the years.
Wayne Smith was a junior officer at the U.S. Embassy in Havana when President Kennedy broke relations with Castro in 1961. He was transferred to the Soviet Union and Argentina, served at a variety of posts in Washington and eventually returned to the Caribbean in 1979 to head the Havana Interests Section. He resigned three years later to protest the Reagan administration’s hard line against the Castro regime.
Perhaps Smith’s sympathetic views toward the Pennsylvania-size island of 11 million can best be summed up by the defiant “Hands Off Cuba!” placard given to him by a student during a 1967 demonstration in Moscow marking the death of revolutionary Ernesto “Ché” Guevara. For years, the Russian-language sign has occupied a prominent place on the wall of Smith’s office at the Center for International Policy.
“If anything, the fact that Russia can’t really be of much assistance to Cuba these days — nor can Venezuela — is one reason Cuba is more interested in engagement with us,” said Smith. “Every other nation in the Western Hemisphere has relations with Cuba, except us. Our policy had reached a point where we were the ones who were isolated, not Cuba. So we’re beginning to move to restructure that.”
Jay Taylor, who ran the Havana Interests Section from 1987 to 1990, said Obama’s dealings with Putin as well as with Raúl Castro prove that the current president has a “relative openness of mind.”
“The reset with Russia hasn’t worked out for a variety of reasons, but it was good to have made the effort,” said Taylor, now a research associate at Harvard’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. “And everybody agrees that on balance, the embargo has been useful to Castro in terms of rationalizing Cuba’s economic situation and increasing his stature around the world. Being able to defy the Yankees only 90 miles away served his purpose. But it’ll be some time before the embargo is fully lifted. Having normal relations is not going to bring about democracy in any substantial way.”
David Lewis, vice president of Manchester Trade Ltd. and an expert on the Caribbean, has a different take on things. He cautions against overstating Cuba’s importance in the broader Cold War anti-communist strategy, then and now.
“I’m one of those who have always believed that our policy toward Russia was really more driven by large-country realpolitik regardless of how communist ideology came into the fight. Russia is no longer communist, and it’s still a problem for us,” he said.
“I don’t believe there was ever communism in Cuba. We just had Marxist-Leninist opportunism, but there’s no real socialism going on there,” Lewis added, predicting that after the embargo is lifted and relations with Cuba are normalized — even if it becomes a tourist paradise for awhile — “it’s just going to fall back into being another small country, no different than any other small country in the Americas. There’s no reason the U.S. should have any different policy toward Cuba, because it is not special.”
In the end, he said, “We’re just a bunch of little tropical Caribbean islands, insignificant in the history of the world, while Russia was a great empire when we were still in caves and teepees,” he said. “Who talks about [Chile’s Augusto] Pinochet anymore today, or the Brazilian military, or [Haiti’s] Papa Doc or [the Dominican Republic’s Rafael] Trujillo? Cuba hit the jackpot getting into big-power politics, but that was a historical glitch. It wasn’t supposed to happen.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.