by Michael Kline, Ph.D.
As a former senior operations officer in the CIA clandestine service, I have avidly followed Cuba-U.S. relations since shortly after the Fidel Castro takeover in 1959. Throughout much of this period I witnessed U.S. endeavors – through an economic embargo and international isolation – to overthrow Castro and, failing that, to foster a respect at home for human rights and at least to prevent him from exporting his revolution. After 50 years, it’s clear that this U.S. policy to isolate and strangle the Castro regime economically has had mixed results at best, and served instead as Castro’s justification for demonizing the United States and promoting his hemispheric and global ambitions.
I believe that circumstances have now changed sufficiently – for us and Cuba – to recommend significant modifications to that policy. The most obvious shift is the transition of power from Fidel to his evidently more pragmatic and measurably less ideological brother Raul. Cuba is hurting economically. The loss of military and economic assistance that followed the demise of the Soviet Union has accentuated Cuba’s severe economic crisis, made even worse by three catastrophic hurricanes that battered the island this year. In the United States, the election of Barack Obama has weakened the position of the major exile political groups opposed to relaxing political and economic pressure on Cuba. Miami Cubans voted Democratic, helping Obama to win 57 percent of the Latino/Cuban vote in Florida.
Both countries have strong reasons for normalizing relations and breaking the cycle of mutually failed policies on terms favorable to both. I favor ending the embargo, not through one-sided concessions by the United States but as the product of serious direct diplomacy requiring the Cubans, among other things, to alter their human rights policy, including release of all political prisoners, and the end of censorship and state control over the media and free flow of information. The ultimate goal of any U.S. policy remains as always: eventual return of Cuba to democracy and the rule of law.
In exchange, the United States can negotiate issues of prime interest to the Cubans, such as closing the Guantanamo military base; removing Cuba from the State Department’s State Sponsors of Terrorism List; ending restrictions on travel and remittances by Cuban Americans; reversing the ban on scholastic, cultural, and sports contacts; renewal of bilateral trade; and promoting Cuban participation in regional and global economic and political organizations.
Negotiating with Cuba to end the embargo is a logical foreign policy initiative for the incoming Obama administration and, for the United States, a win-win opportunity. The United States is the only major world power still maintaining an embargo, and a return to normalcy in relations with our traditional neighbor to the south would be widely acclaimed. U.S. policy would be aligned with Europe, the United Nations, and regional organizations, which are increasingly breaking ranks with the United States through new political, cultural, and trade agreements with Cuba.
There are numerous hard issues to be addressed, but a normalization of relations would bring multiple advantages for both countries. For Cuba, it would lift the embargo that has unfortunately added immeasurably to the suffering of the Cuban people and contributed to the devastation of the Cuban economy. For the United States, it would create a strong firewall against Russian and Chinese efforts to supplant U.S. influence in the hemisphere. It would help erode the increasingly shaky hemispheric position of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. U.S. business interests would benefit by removing artificial barriers to trade with a once major trading partner, and position the United States to participate in exploiting large oil deposits recently discovered in Cuban territorial waters. Progress toward our ultimate goal of returning Cuba to democracy and the rule of law will be slow, but opening negotiations that aim to establish the kind of relationship that the United States has with China or Vietnam would, by itself, be a major breakthrough.
Michael Kline, Ph.D., retired from the CIA as a Senior Intelligence Officer in 1990. From 1988 to 1990, he was the CIA officer-in-residence and adjunct professor at the University of Miami in Florida, where he also earned his doctorate in international relations theory.