By Patricia Lee Sharpe
I wish I were still in the foreign service. This serendipitous conjunction of US and Russian foreign policy makes for a beautiful public diplomacy message: as Vladimir Putin’s Russia fights viciously to hold on to Ukraine, its uppity Cold War satellite, the US under Barack Obama looks to the future, re-establishing diplomatic ties with Cuba.
Obama’s Cuban Surprise
Cuba is an interesting case. Back in the nineteen fifties Cuba was indeed ripe for revolution. Corruption was rife and American gangsters embedded in a flamboyant casino culture had a lot to do with it, while island politicking was dominated by a callous wealthy elite in cahoots with an unsavory dictator. There was reason for ordinary Cubans and many Cuban intellectuals to resent, even hate, the United States for its support of the Batista regime, but Castro’s revolution was a pendulum swing that went way too far. Lands and businesses were confiscated. Freedom of speech and movement evaporated. Tens of thousands of Cubans fled to Florida.
All that was bad enough. But when Havana welcomed a Soviet attempt to install on Cuban soil nuclear-armed missiles that could threaten the US, firm action had to be taken. The US, under President John Kennedy, announced it would blow the USSR’s missile-delivering ships out of the water unless they did an about face and headed back across the Atlantic. This was the Cuban Missile Crisis. For a few days things were very tense, and bomb shelters were best buys. Was the Cold War about to get very very hot? It didn’t, but relations have been frigid ever since. It’s been US policy to girdle Cuba with severe economic sanctions and squeeze, squeeze, squeeze, not only to punish Cuba for becoming a Soviet dependency but to warn others away from a similar path.
Reactions in Miami's Little Cuba
A somewhat moderated version of those severe, even draconian sanctions remains in effect, and a Republican-controlled Congress is playing the Florida card for all it’s worth, threatening to prevent any significant change in US-Cuba relations. (This goes in spades for the ex-Florida governor and 2016 Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush.) However, the Latin American world is praising Obama, which means our influence there is likely to improve, and Miami’s Cuban community is far from unanimously unhappy about the prospect of easier contact with old friends and family. Many are looking forward to eased nostalgia trips to ancestral sites. Some are dreaming of returning to Cuba, not as visitors, but citizens. Business is salivating.
But there are indeed many die hards for whom a thousand years of iron-bound sanctions would not be enough, despite the fact that their version of tough love has failed 100% to make a dent in the Castro regime. Naturally their counterpart Castroites in Cuba will cling as long as they can to a non-productive system, and the wily Vladimir Putin will do his best to encourage them, even though a Russia not rolling in rubles can’t do much in the way of subsidizing loyalty. My own hunch is that the relaxation will hold despite the largely theatrical Republican squawking and change will occur, though gradually and probably without a neat cause/effect sequence that will make either side feel like an out-and-out winner or loser, which should make for greater stability.
Russian Apron Strings for Ukraine
Meanwhile—and this amuses me mightily, Vladimir Putin wants to control Ukraine as a permanent satellite, even though, during the Cold War, it suited Moscow to declare Ukraine a fully independent nation worthy of its own seat in the U.N. In making a case for neutralizing Ukraine, Putin has the support of a good many American analysts of the “expert” variety. According to various documents and discussions, they insist, then U.S. President Reagan promised Mikhail Gorbachev that a post Cold War Ukraine would never be allowed to ally itself with the West. Thus, by not objecting to Kiev’s desire to draw closer to Europe (and, more recently, to NATO, thanks ironically to Putin’s jealous bellicosity), the current administration is breaking a solemn pledge—or so these scholars say.
To these mistakenly scrupulous friends of Moscow, however, I put this question: do Moscow and Washington have the right to determine forever which alliances a sovereign Ukraine will make? I think not, which tempts me to ask them and the present occupants of the Kremlin a further question. If Russia has a right to reincorporate Crimea, wouldn’t it be consistent to pressure Moscow to release its hold on Kaliningrad, a fairly recent Soviet land grab which consists of a patch of territory squeezed between Poland and Lithuania and sharing no common boundary with Russia. But—aha!—Kaliningrad does border the Baltic sea. Thus, like Crimea, it offers a warm water port to a country that is mostly iced in all winter. Russia has big naval bases in both places. As for Kaliningrad, it’s also a nifty launch pad for short and medium range nukes intended to keep Europe on edge. Nevertheless, Mr. Putin: Kaliningrad for Crimea? Seems logical to me, though Kiev might not be as happy as Poland and/or Lithuania–or NATO.
It’s Hard to be Pure
Speaking of naval bases, I can’t help thinking of Guantanamo, that corner of Cuba which, since the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898, has hosted the US fleet. Of course, most people don’t think of that Guantanamo nowadays. They think of the post 9/11 prison, which Barack Obama promised to empty once he was president. Two years into his second term more than a hundred prisoners still languish there. Given the further fact that the Cubans have wanted the US off the island for decades, our strong position on Putin's repossession of Crimea is somewhat complicated, if not entirely compromised. Nevertheless, at this point in time, the US is opening a proper embassy in Havana, not trying to convert the whole or part of Cuba into the 51st state.
Obviously, the Ukraine-Cuba comparison isn’t a tweedledum-tweedledee proposition, but it does suggest that the US is ready to let the Cold War slide into history. Meanwhile, the current President of Russia is doing his best to turn back the hands of time, a trick that’s very hard to carry off. Setting aside the grave issue of his sending troops across recognized international borders, Putin’s scheming/dreaming project to recreate the Soviet empire seems to this writer as quixotic as reconstructing the British raj in India.