On March 21, 2016, US President Barack Obama and Cuba's leader Raul Castro held a historic joint news conference. Obama's visit to Havana, the first made by an American president since Calvin Coolidge's trip in 1928, was regarded as a seminal event in the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the Cold War-era adversaries.
This trip, combined with America's removal of Cuba from the state sponsors of terrorism list and Obama's pledge to end the long-standing US trade embargo against the Caribbean island, has led many international observers to describe the improvement in US-Cuba bilateral relations as a "Cuban Thaw."
Upon closer inspection, however, the medium-term outlook for US-Cuba relations is not so optimistic. Cuba's trade and foreign policy is closely linked with Russia and China, so Castro will be careful to ensure that any improvement in relations with the United States will be checked and limited, as he does not want to harm these vital alliances. Also, the Cuban Communist Party's continued intransigence on human rights issues and escalation of repression in recent months could deal a devastating blow to prospects for a successful normalization of US-Cuba relations and undermine America's credibility as a guardian of human rights in Latin America.
Why the Cuba-Russia-China Axis Limits the Scope of the Cuban Thaw
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba has relied extensively on forging diplomatic and economic relationships with Russia, China and left-wing regimes in Latin America like Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua. Castro's alliance-building efforts helped ensure that the Cuban Communist Party retained its iron grip on power and weathered the economic depression and relative isolation of the 1990s "special period."
As the Cold War-era fear of Communist diffusion was irrelevant after 1991, American policymakers had a choice between normalizing relations with Cuba or clamping down even more aggressively on the regime in the hope that greater isolation at a time of weakness would trigger a democratic overthrow. Washington chose the latter approach.
The October 1992 Cuban Democracy Act and 1996 Helms-Burton Act banned foreign subsidiaries of US companies from trading with Cuba and cracked down on private humanitarian aid to Cuba.
These efforts and the Bush administration's hardline anti-Castro stance, which included the symbolic gesture of labeling the country as an "outpost of tyranny" in 2005, ultimately did not dislodge the regime from power. The Castro family's survival in the face of American pressure encouraged Cuba to consolidate alliances with countries opposed to US interests, perpetuating the rift that began with the Communist takeover in 1959.
This anti-American alliance consolidation means that Obama's normalization is a belated move with limited prospects for success. Cuba's ability to strengthen ties with the United States without jeopardizing its relationships with its steadier partners, China and Russia, is very limited. In response to Obama's trip to Havana, the Chinese state media warned Cubans about America's hostile intentions, pointing to a history of American "arrogance" and "interventionism" in Latin America. The nationalist Global Times paper even alleged that normalization was a cover for the Obama administration's real strategy of instigating an Arab Spring-style revolution in Havana, that would lead to the Communist regime's fall from power.
China's scathing resistance to Obama's cordial Cuba policy is aimed squarely at preventing America from becoming a genuine competitor with Beijing for economic influence over the island. The initial resources-for-manufactured goods linkage between China and Cuba has blossomed into a full-fledged investment partnership between the two countries in recent years. China has assisted Cuba financially in its efforts to extract offshore oil, in the construction of a deep-water port city at Mariel and in the construction of hospitals.
As China is attempting to expand its economic influence in Latin America, Cuba is a vital foothold. China has a clear vested interest in preserving its pre-eminent position relative to other extra-regional actors. The depth of the Beijing-Havana partnership makes it impossible for Cuba to dramatically expand economic linkages with the United States in the face of Chinese opposition.
Cuba's cooperation with Russia is also significant and even more anti-American in character than its ties with China. Russian President Vladimir Putin's efforts to consolidate ties with Cuba, in order to combat international isolation resulting from the Ukraine crisis, became apparent with his July 2014 visit to Havana. On that trip, Russia pledged to eliminate 90% of Cuba's $35 billion debt obligations to Moscow and announced an expansion of Russian investment in the offshore oil industry.
This agreement, combined with past Russian investments in the agriculture and construction sectors of the Cuban economy, makes Moscow an indispensable player in Cuba's economic future. Raul Castro implicitly acknowledged Russia's extensive influence over Cuba by expressing solidarity with the Kremlin during the 2008 Georgian War and 2014 annexation of Crimea. In the current climate of hostility between Washington and Moscow, Putin would regard any Cuban attempt to concretely strengthen ties with the United States as a betrayal of the historic alliance.
Should Russia scale back its economic investments in the Gulf of Mexico, Cuba would not only lose capital but also the international status associated with its ability to resist what it regards as "American imperialism" in Latin America. The Cuba-Russia-China axis is very difficult for America to rival or dissolve, and it ensures that for the foreseeable future, Obama's Cuban Thaw might be more symbolic than transformational in its impact.
Implications of the Normalization on Human Rights in Cuba
While advocates of Obama's normalization policy towards Cuba have correctly pointed out that the trade embargo and international isolation were ineffective in encouraging Castro to liberalize his regime, it is equally unlikely that improved relations with Washington will facilitate tangible human rights improvements. As anti-Americanism still remains central to the Cuban Communist Party's doctrine, appearing to kowtow to the US political establishment by accepting democratic reforms would be disastrous for the legitimacy of the party's elites.
Fidel Castro made a public statement condemning Obama's visit to Cuba, arguing that his rhetoric was "syrupy" and warning Cubans not to accept any gifts from the "empire." With Raul Castro due to step down in 2018, a transition that will make way for a historic generational shift in Cuba's political leadership, party elites are careful to ensure that closer relations with the United States will not lead to America dictating Cuba's political actions at home.
According to numerous indicators, authoritarianism in Cuba has become demonstrably worse under Raul Castro. Cuba arrested 6,600 people for political crimes in 2012, compared to 2,074 arrests in 2010. Many of these arrests were only for a few hours or days, but the frequency of the crackdowns on civil liberties in Cuba sanctioned by the ruling elites is alarming. US policymakers must also be careful to not read too much into small-scale liberalization reforms like Castro's 2012 pledge to ease travel restrictions for Cubans, as this promise occurred simultaneously with a period of escalated repression.
The crackdowns have continued unabated in the wake of Obama's normalization of ties with Cuba. Episodes like the arrest of four dissidents calling for freedom during the Pope's September visit to Havana, the detentions of 1,500 people for political opposition in the lead-up to International Human Rights Day on December 10, and the violence employed against human rights advocates ahead of Obama's March visit, are powerful demonstrations of Cuba's intransigence on human rights issues.
The likelihood that Cuba's repression of dissidents will remain an enduring feature of Communist rule for the foreseeable future should be unnerving for US policymakers. It is also an issue that will undoubtedly polarize the US political establishment and the Cuban American community on the normalization policy. Republican presidential candidates, Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, both of Cuban descent, have scathingly condemned Obama's trip to Havana. The perception that the US government has turned a blind eye to Castro's political prisons will not sit well with more hawkish Cuban-Americans. Cuba's unwillingness to compromise on human rights will risk making any US deal with Havana appear one-sided, with America offering Cuba enhanced economic opportunities without receiving any concessions in return.
Moving beyond the domestic arena, the Castro regime has continued to trumpet its alliances with some of the world's worst violators of human rights. These partnerships, in many cases, directly counter America's international interests. While Cuba has denied that it sent troops to Syria to assist Russian and pro-Assad forces, Cuba's close relations with Iran make it a natural partner of the Assad regime. While Cuba has rhetorically opposed Iran's development of nuclear weapons, Castro has encouraged the empowerment of Iran to fight against major world powers and has insisted that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, despite compelling evidence to the contrary.
Since the normalization, Cuba has also expressed fierce opposition to the Obama administration's sanctions against Venezuela and held a ceremonial meeting with North Korea's leadership in September, celebrating 55 years of positive relations. These policies demonstrate that the normalization has not changed the fundamental direction of Cuban foreign policy in a way amenable to American interests.
Obama's decision to normalize relations with Cuba is a historic step that rectifies a long-standing historical anomaly in US foreign policy and is a belated recognition of the changing international environment since the end of the Cold War. But its prospects for success remain slim, as long as the Communist Party retains power in Cuba, as its regime survival and economic interests run contrary to the United States on most major issues. Normalization will therefore be a bumpy, gradual rapproachment with long periods of stagnation and rollback, rather than a trajectory towards genuinely improved relations.