Democracy’s resilience into the 21st century is rightly questioned. In 2017, a host of countries worldwide saw threats to civil and political liberties, popular participation, and fundamental human rights. Corruption and state capture by predatory political elites led the news in old and new democracies alike. Verbal and physical attacks on civil society, the press, and minorities were reported in virtually all world regions. And new virulent, nationalist ideologies threaten human rights and the carefully crafted post-World War II international liberal order.
Despite all of the other major foreign policy issues on its agenda, Russia has not forgotten Cuba. Indeed, it appears that Moscow’s strategic interest in this Caribbean island country has grown steadily, despite reported stagnation in their bilateral economic ties (House.gov, October 22). Recently, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin announced plans to establish a signals calibration center in Cuba for Russia’s Global Navigation Satellite System, more commonly known as GLONASS—the Russian equivalent of the United States’ Global Positioning System (GPS). He also announced that Russia may set up an aviation engineering center in Cuba (TASS, October 22). These initiatives are not coincidences or wholly new gambits. Russia has sought to reestablish military bases in Cuba for some time. For instance, in February 2014, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that Moscow was seeking a network of global naval bases that included Cuba and Nicaragua; and Russia could be discussing similar arrangements with Argentina as well (RIA Novosti, February 26, 2014). Although Moscow’s top diplomat, Sergei Lavrov, denied that Russia was seeking or needs foreign bases, he did admit that his country wants “repair and maintenance stations” for its ocean-going fleet. Yet, at the same time, Shoigu observed that Moscow not only wanted the use of ports for its ships but also installations for the refueling of its long-range bombers (TASS, March 17, 2014).
True to Barack Obama’s campaign pledge to directly engage radical regimes without preconditions, and in spite of having no diplomatic relations with them, his administration negotiated a breakthrough diplomatic deal. Meanwhile on the domestic front, the president has thus far prevailed over vehement congressional opposition and a storied, ethnically-based foreign policy lobby in pursuit of such an agreement.
While this capsule description fits the “Iran deal,” that titanic political battle has eclipsed a similar case that preceded it only seven months before: the agreement to restore normal diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba. And rather than any negotiation with Iran, it may be the Cuba precedent that is more clearly instructive of the political strategy accompanying Obama’s use of his executive powers in the context of divided government and acute partisan polarization in Washington.
Since the Obama administration announced the establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba, it’s common to hear people talk about what will happen “now that the embargo has ended.” The new measures are significant for the tone that they set, and there are some concrete changes that will result. It will be easier for certain limited categories of US citizens to travel to Cuba, and the tension between the two governments is somewhat reduced. But the embargo is still very much in place.
This blog is the first in several leading up to the World Policy Institute Board trip to Cuba in May. The trip seeks to re-open a once highly effective dialogue with Cuban leaders. WPI plans to examine the achievements of 55 years of revolutionary society and explore ways to highlight what the U.S. and Cuba can learn from each other.
As the Obama administration and Cuban negotiators examine the 54-year-old unilateral embargo (or “blockade” as the Cubans refer to it), one obstacle—particularly painful for Cubans and extremely important to American interests—must be addressed: Cuba’s continued presence on the U.S. State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.
President Obama directed the State Department to review this designation in December 2014, since Cuba’s removal from that list is entirely justified and long overdue. As a result, when the State Department issues its annual Country Reports on Terrorism on April 30, it is likely to be the first time in 33 years that Cuba is not designated a sponsor.