Another Improbable Possibility: A Trump, Putin and Castro 'Great Game'

The global geopolitical chessboard was knocked over by the U.S. electorate on November 8, 2016. Fortunately, consigned to institutionalized memory is a mental map of where all the pieces stood. However, president-elect Trump has repeatedly stated that he has no intention of returning the pieces to their old positions. No one yet knows if a variation of the old game or a totally new game will be set.

As the most powerful country in the world, the U.S. must play myriad games with thousands of opponents simultaneously. To complicate matters, many of these traditional opponents are themselves experiencing their own game-changers. The statistical possibilities of where all of the pieces of all of these games might fall are simply mind-boggling.

Looking specifically at the Cuba-U.S. Great Game, in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election, it was possible to predict a range of places where the pieces might have landed, as well as a number of the initial strategies.

In the U.S., the internal game will pit the business lobby vs. the pro-embargo lobby. In Cuba the internal game must balance the need to protect the country's sovereignty while bolstering the economy through further foreign (and U.S.) trade and investment. However, on November 25, 2016, this newly forming Cuba-U.S. chess game was knocked over by the death of Fidel Castro, the Cuban Grand Master of the Great Game.

President Obama's condolence message was respectful and in line with the condolence messages sent by all major international leaders, including the Pope. President-elect Trump, instead, reverted to hard line anti-Castro regime-change rhetoric. He called Fidel Castro a "brutal dictator" and promised "the Cuban people" that the U.S. would do everything in its power to ensure their journey toward "prosperity and liberty." Cuban-American legislators triumphantly took to the air-waves, while jubilant exiles celebrated of the death of el tirano in the streets of Miami. Together, they beat the drums of the regime-change policies.

Though Trump's hardline stance surely scored a few easy points with the pro-embargo forces, it remains to be seen if he will actually follow through on this rhetoric and rolls back substantial aspects of Obama's policy changes. This would not be easy to do. President Obama's policy had bi-lateral support, as well as the support of the U.S. business lobby. Moreover, it is in the national interest of the U.S. to increase commercial opportunities that do not take jobs away from U.S. workers, and to prevent a major wave of disgruntled economic migrants.

Should the Trump administration begin to round-up illegal of immigrants, building a wall on the US-Mexican border, and barring most Muslims from immigrating to the U.S, it will also become very difficult to argue that the U.S. policy of regime change in Cuba is justified on human rights grounds (not that American human rights violations have ever gotten in the way of chastising Cuba for theirs).

Miami, Union City and sectors of Washington may have cheerfully celebrated the death of Fidel Castro. But does this really change anything in Cuba? Not in the political sphere. The transfer of power to Raul Castro and his administration has long been consolidated. Besides, only one side in this dispute has the guns. The dissidents only have international moral authority and wide press coverage. Far from a fair match.

As in a chess game, nevertheless, the loss of one piece, even and important one can open an opportunity to advance in new ways. Without his brother around to symbolize (and lead) the ideological purity of the Revolution, Raul Castro is now free to rally the more progressive forces within the Cuban nomenklatura and to speed up market reforms.

If the U.S. business lobby and the anti-embargo forces can firmly and quickly ally themselves with these more progressive forces within Cuba, as well as with the more pro-business forces within the Trump administration, they could actually manage to reframe the discourse in the U.S. towards the continuation of the normalization process.

For the Cuban people, the declared nine days of mourning will serve as period of observance of their leader's passing (with visible sorrow for many and less visible jubilation for others). For the Cuban government, the 'duelo' will also serve as a camouflaged soft state of siege that facilitates SWAT team responses to acts of civil dissidence (ni se te ocurra - don't even think about it). The five days of military maneuvers that followed the election of Trump now make more sense as part of the preparation for Fidel's demise.

Despite the above analysis, myopic Cuba-US focused predictions have always proven to be insufficient because they under-estimate the role of crucial international allies. From a Cuban point of view, once the normalization process with the U.S. began in December of 2014, these allies were even more important since they provided a necessary counterweight to the increasing influence of the United States. The current confusion in the U.S. over which way to go in Cuba will allow these governments to further solidify their positions.

However, the national Great Games being played by these allies in their own countries could radically alter their ability to stand by Cuba in an era of renewed U.S. hostility. ALBA is experiencing it's sunset. Brazil is in political and economic turmoil. Europe is turning nationalistic and xenophobic. China is getting bellicose in the East and expanding its reach in the West and South. Canada may be the only major ally that is stable enough to provide steady backing.

Current Cuba-Russia relations, especially in light of a Trump presidency, are truly a riddle, wrapped in mystery inside an enigma. The year 2014 brought a marked improvement in their bilateral cooperation facilitated by the write-off of most of Cuba's $35 billion debt. And in 2016, Russia proposed the deployment of missile systems in Cuba, as well as the resumption of work on the Lourdes spy base. Russian oil companies have been granted exploration concessions in Cuban waters. The Russia-Cuba rapprochement is real.

How will, how can, how should the U.S. respond? Senator Marco Rubio is worried. However, Trump's oft stated willingness to "get along" with Russia and with Putin far outpaces his willingness to get along with any other country or leader so far. And he already owes Putin a favor: Russia's alleged (confirmed by U.S. intelligence) cyber attacks repeatedly crippled Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. President Obama has retaliated in a definite 'cut it out' move. Trump thinks that the Democrats are sore losers and that America just needs to move on. Putin has not made a retaliatory move. He is leaving the field wide open for Trump to proceed with his planned rapprochement. A brilliant Chess Master's level move.

Putin's wish to return Russia to its imperial greatness is sure to clash with America's wish to maintain its own. Thus, in Moscow, despite the niceties between the two leaders, the Trump presidency is not especially regarded as auguring the start of a bilateral rapprochement. And in Washington, a fiercely anti-Russia Republican Congress and administration might not look at Russian overtures with much sympathy.

What the developing friendship between these two autocratic men might do for Russia, however, is to give the Kremlin an opportunity to devise strategic moves that it was previously unable to even imagine were possible. These could include a more aggressive joint-position on China and a possible unwillingness on the part of the U.S. to come to the defense NATO allies should Russia keep throwing its weight around its former satellite countries. It is not clear exactly what the friendship might do to advance the interests of the U.S. Nevertheless, it is not difficult to imagine that a Trump-Putin friendship would advance the personal business interests of incoming Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil's former top executive.

But regardless of what takes place between the U.S. and Russia in the European/Asian theatres Cuba might be able offer these men an ideal place to test-run a collaboration of sorts. The island is neither a military threat nor an important commercial ally of either country. Conversely, it holds high symbolic value for both major powers. The once truly once 'unthinkable' possibility of a Trump-Putin entendre on Cuba, could actually take place.

Granted, the Chinese wouldn't like it. They are likely to limit their credit lines as a way to show displeasure. The Canadians and the Europeans would not like it either, but they are unlikely to pick a fight over it.

What might President Castro think of such a Trump-Putin entendre on Cuba? The island's history is closely bound with both of these super powers. The Cubans know how to deal with the Russians and with the Americans. From a corporate and political culture point of view, the 'strongman' style of these three men would certainly allow them to 'bond' easily. It could even give Raul Castro a respite from those who are clamoring for Cuba to adopt liberal values (the very same values that seem to be in retreat in the U.S., Russia and the E.U.).

A Trump-Putin entendre on Cuba is likely to be accompanied by considerable economic and business growth. All it takes is Russian technical advisors, cheap oil and credits, but this time to fuel the American hotels for American tourists and imported American cars. If this scenario were to take place, this would put in check the prospects for a 'free and democratic' Cuba, something very attractive to some and absolutely abhorrent to others.

What Raul Castro would certainly have to fear in any Trump-Putin alliance is a pincer maneuver that does not favor the island. Thus could take the form of a return to the days when Cuba was used in a proxy war or worse, a rapacious advance by both Russian and American business interests. Cubans have proven to be magnificent Great Game chess masters. But fighting formidable foes on two fronts has defeated even the greatest warriors.

In sum, a new Russia-U.S. axis is possible. It would have to be forged through the will of two leaders with authoritarian tendencies (and formidable track-record in the case of Putin) and over the protestations of their respective administrations. Though a follow-up Trump-Putin entendre on Cuba is, at this moment in history, improbable and nearly inconceivable, it is not any more inconceivable than a Trump presidency was on the day he announced his candidacy or a Leave vote on the day of the Brexit referendum.

At the close of 2016, all the chess pieces are still on the floor. Everyone is angling for an advantageous position and second-guessing everyone else. Regardless of what happens, a bit of advice from the Greeks comes to mind: "An alliance with a powerful person is never safe" (Phaedrus). Russians and Americans, take heed.

For Cuban leaders, an alliance with two powerful persons at the same time, no matter how positive, should certainly bring great cause to worry. Raul would surely wish that Fidel were alive. And Miguel Diaz Canel, Cuba's designated leader as of February 2018, should start lighting candles to his favorite Orisha to make sure that Raul Castro sticks around for a little while longer.

(A version of this article appeared in the November 2016 edition of Cuba Standard.)