The United States Should Be Wary of Engaging Cuba

We’ve been down this road before as a nation and the results weren’t promising.

The Wall Street Journal recently published several revelations regarding Chinese spying operations targeting the United States from Cuba, as well as the impending construction of a Chinese military base on the island, which sits just over ninety miles from the United States’ coastline. These reports have thrust Cuba back into the center of our national political discourse and have catalyzed a new call for United States’ re-engagement with Cuba. The members of this movement (foreign policy scholars, elected officials, and lobbyists of various stripes) justify their demands by promulgating the notion that a U.S. détente with Cuba would serve as an effective counterbalance to increasing Chinese influence on the island. 

This idea is not new; America’s enemies have had a strong presence in Cuba since Fidel Castro seized control of the island on Jan. 1, 1959, through a violent revolution, and interested parties in the United States have been insisting upon the adoption of a soft foreign policy towards the brutal dictatorship for just as long. However, this argument for rapprochement rests upon the belief that the United States’ efforts at accommodation would be matched in-kind, and that greater cooperation will eventually lead to a growth of U.S. influence on the island — which couldn’t be more wrong. The United States has been down this road before and the resulting historical record couldn’t be more harrowing.

In the early seventies, Nixon’s administration attempted to re-establish relations with Castro’s Cuba, utilizing Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as an intermediary.  Unfortunately, the United States – under President Nixon – began discussions with Cuba, only to be forced to abandon these efforts during the early years of the Ford administration due to Castro’s dedicated support for terrorism abroad and due to Cuba’s various disastrous international interventions (e.g., Angola in 1975).

In the nineties, Bill Clinton attempted his own version of re-engagement with Cuba, which, unbeknownst to the US government, was simultaneously operating a large spy network in the United States, known as the Wasp Network. This spy network was tasked with collecting damaging information on the United States, but it was also tasked with planning terrorist attacks on American targets, and conducting assassinations of American citizens. The Cuban government also responded by shooting down two unarmed American civilian aircraft, resulting in the death of 4 American citizens.

When Obama first began to restore Cuban relations in 2009, Cuba responded by seizing and imprisoning Alan Gross, an American citizen performing human rights-related work on the island. In 2013, Cuba was caught smuggling weapons to North Korea, in violation of a litany of international sanctions. In 2015, Cuba was caught receiving smuggled weapons from China. Additionally, in 2015 when an American diplomatic delegation was visiting Cuba, the island’s government invited a Russian spy ship into Havana’s harbor as a symbol of Russia’s and Cuba’s unbreakable alliance. Finally, during Obama’s “Cuban Thaw,” multiple human rights organizations reported a drastic increase (rather than the expected decrease) in Cuban oppression of its citizens.

In 2012, on July 22nd, Cuban government agents brutally murdered the island’s foremost human rights activists, Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero. The Cuban regime acted with impunity, despite being actively engaged in negotiations with the United States over a proposed prison exchange, for the release of Alan Gross. Over ten years later, on June 9th, 2023, the Organization of American States (OAS) finally released its investigative report confirming the Cuban regime’s culpability in the death of these two men. Additionally, this report outlined the continuous harassment to which Payá was exposed for years prior to his extra-judicial killing, intimidation which caused him to relocate his wife and children out of fear for their safety.

Additionally, recent research performed at the National Endowment for Democracy highlighted the existence of a coalition of states dedicated to subverting the multilateral, human rights-centric institutions which characterize the US-led, civilized, and liberal world order. The report indicates that Cuba occupies a post as one of the original members of this coalition, which is now firmly under Chinese leadership; the report also notes that Cuba is one of the coalition’s key organizers, and presumably, one of its most active participants. Cuba’s central role in the weaponizing of international institutions should not come as a surprise when, in the past, Cuban diplomats have been willing to resort to vengeful and unbecoming acts of personal violence to further their diplomatic goals. Additionally, Cuba has shown nothing but complete disregard and disdain for international institutions such as the UN, and it violates many of the international conventions that it signs. For example, Cuba became a signatory to the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in 1995, and yet the Cuban regime still engages in the torture of prisoners of conscience to this day, without compunction. 

It is important to ensure that those in the United States who are pushing for re-engagement with the despots in Cuba, know that it comes with a price; and whereas Americans may pay some portion of that price, hopefully the case of Oswaldo Payá serves as a reminder that innocent Cubans pay an extreme price every day, simply for the “crime” of desiring to be free. Payá paid the highest possible price for his activism, he paid with his blood, and with his life.

Engagement is often an admirable strategy for dealing with aberrant nations motivated primarily by national interest, however, nations which are governed by zealots preoccupied with an ideology of illiberalism and anti-Americanism are unlikely to abandon their dogma (or their aggressive antagonism), regardless of the incentives. 

Put simply, in order for the goals of re-engagement to succeed, the United States must seek substantial evidence of an adversary’s willingness to change as well as a desire for liberalization and reconciliation, as a pre-requisite. Castro’s Cuba was built upon the most virulent ideological foundation, one dedicated to seeing the destruction of the United States and the end of the present era of United States’ global leadership. This ideology outlasted Fidel Castro himself, and the West’s hopes for Cuban liberalization through regime change were consistently dashed, by both Raul Castro and Miguel Díaz-Canel. 

Instead of appeasing a brutal dictatorship, and turning a blind-eye to nearly sixty-five years of provocation, the United States should take decisive action — in defense of its national security, as well as in defense of the Cuban people, who have been denied their dignity and human rights by a litany of despots. Rather than foregoing the values that America is supposed to uphold, the values of freedom, the values of liberalism, the values for which we in the United States have fought for several centuries, we should stand shoulder to shoulder with the Cuban people, and shout Cuba Libre!

 [Image credit Wikimedia Commons]

Logan M. Williams is a student at the University of Connecticut, studying History and Global Studies, and he is presently a researcher at the Center for a Free Cuba. The Center is an organization dedicated to monitoring human rights abuses within Cuba and to advocating for Cuba’s eventual liberalization. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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