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Yesterday, in a reversal of five plus decades of U.S. foreign policy, President Barack Obama announced that his administration will move toward restoring relations with Cuba. His plan includes opening an embassy in Havana, a State Department review of Cuba's designation as a terrorist state, a relaxation on existing travel restrictions to Cuba, and a raise on remittances to Cuban nationals, among other things. Other moves, such as lifting the banking and travel embargo, will require the consent of the legislature, an unlikely prospect, at least right now, in a Republican-dominated Congress.
Obama characterized his new Cuba policy as an attempt to discard an outdated past, a relic from the cold war era that no longer exists. He stated:
We will end an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests, and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries. Through these changes, we intend to create more opportunities for the American and Cuban people, and begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas....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. 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 reestablished relations with Vietnam, where we fought a war that claimed more Americans than any Cold War confrontation.Of course, the immediate beneficiaries from Obama's policy shift was Alan Gross, the American contractor who was held in Cuba for the past five years, an unnamed U.S. intelligence agent, held for almost two decades in Cuba, and three Cuban agents, who, likewise, were in U.S. prisons for years. Almost simultaneous with Obama's announcement was the release of Gross, the American spy and the three Cubans.
Not everyone is happy about this new opening to Cuba, though. For instance, according to Senator Marco Rubio, a son of Cuban immigrants, "This entire policy shift announced today is based on an illusion, on a lie, the lie and the illusion that more commerce and access to money and goods will translate to political freedom for the Cuban people....All this is going to do is give the Castro regime, which controls every aspect of Cuban life, the opportunity to manipulate these changes to perpetuate itself in power.”
Perhaps, and human rights and good governance aren't things we should ignore. That said, Rubio's statement isn't a strong enough reason to continue to keep Cuba in exile. Opening up to Cuba is the right course, in my estimation. But my argument isn't based on the so-called power of engagement, a go-to point made by liberal policymakers and analysts and academics.
No, instead, my argument derives directly from realist international relations logic. A growing and increasingly muscular China is expanding its interests around the world, even in America's backyard, as it looks to compete with the U.S. for global power, influence and leadership. Cuba is a perfect political match for China's interests going forward. A closed, isolated and communist Cuba, one that is poor and desperate, is ripe for China to insert itself in a significant way. And currently, China is in a good position to keep Cuba's economy afloat, something that's needed in Havana, especially now that Venezuela, its main backer, is suffering from its own economic troubles. But more importantly, China can use Cuba as a client state to frustrate and undermine, even threaten, America's position in the Western Hemisphere. In short, China can use Cuba much the same way the Soviets did during the cold war. In this case, just like Washington seeks to pin down China in the broader Asia, making it difficult for China to spread its wings, Beijing will very likely seek to do the same to the U.S. in Washington's neighborhood, as that will make it hard for America to spend the time, effort and resources to contain China. This is where Cuba-China relations were headed as long as America continued to freeze Cuba from the extant regional and international orders.
Developing better relations with Cuba makes good strategic sense. As of now, the U.S. is vulnerable to Chinese penetration in America's backyard. Why allow these security vulnerabilities to continue to exist and perhaps fester over time? Opening up to Cuba doesn't mean that Washington will be able to completely ameliorate these things. But it does mean that the U.S. doesn't intend to cede Cuba to China. China will have to compete for Cuba, something, I'm sure, it didn't anticipate. And in a best case scenario, if the U.S. establishes good ties with Cuba, it might well be able to remove a point of access in its neighborhood.