President Lula da Silva met with President Obama last Saturday.  Most likely, he advised the President to change his Cuba policy, and to do it soon.  His visit capped several recent visits to Cuba by various Latin American presidents.  El Salvador and Costa Rica are setting up to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba, leaving the U.S. as the odd man out. Why the rush?  Latin American presidents want to send a strong signal to the Obama administration that it is time to change its policy on Cuba. They know that a rapprochement between Cuba and the U.S. will deal a mortal blow to Hugo Chavez and his Bolivarian revolution.

Tectonic plates may be shifting inside Cuba.  There has long been an internal debate inside the nomenklatura between reformists and defenders of the status quo.  This rift is not ideological, but rather pragmatic.  Cuban leaders know full well how inefficient the Cuban economy is.  They know they need to change, but the debate centers around its political cost.  U.S. policy has historically set the cost of change unacceptably high.  In essence, it’s always been a zero-sum game, where they have to lose (i.e. give up power) in order for us to engage.  The effect of this policy has been to force factions within Cuba to coalesce around the status quo.  Even for the most progressive the cost has been unacceptably high--and they have had other options.

In fact, the assumption that sooner, rather than later, the Cuban regime would run out of options and collapse, has been for U.S. policy makers the most significant but erroneous policy premise.  The regime has not run out of options in 50 years, and it is very unlikely that they will in the foreseeable future.  As long as Cuba remains the bastion of anti-Americanism in the hemisphere, its strategic importance to nations like Russia, Iran and Venezuela is big enough to warrant billions in economic support.

Yet, the Raul Castro government may be signaling its desire to not become beholden to another Soviet Union.  Even after some recent overtures by Russia, little has been agreed.  The fact that Raul Castro and the Cuban military brass dislike Hugo Chavez has been long rumored.  In fact, a not very far-fetched indication of this might be the recent sacking of Foreign Minister Perez-Roque and of Carlos Lage.  Without going as far as the conspiracy suggested by Jorge Castañeda, let us not forget that both of these men had engineered the vast relationship developed between Cuba and Venezuela.  It was Lage who not long ago uttered that regretful phrase that Cuba had two presidents, Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, a phrase widely believed to have been very poorly received by Raul Castro and by the stubbornly nationalistic Cuban military.

Therein lies a major strategic opportunity for U.S. policy.  Cuban leaders know they need to change, but they are intent on doing it at their own pace.  They may be seeking the elbowroom to engineer a soft landing, which fits perfectly with America’s security interest.  A chaotic process of change in Cuba, with a breakdown of law and order, would not only send Cuba in a spiral towards a failed state, but would constitute a security nightmare for the U.S.

In the end, we know precious little about what’s really happening in Cuba.  Our intelligence capabilities there are rather poor.  But the possibility of a strategic opening to distance Cuba from Hugo Chavez, and to gradually increase Cuba’s economic dependence on us, rather than on our adversaries, may give us for the first time an opportunity to have some degree of influence on Cuba’s future, while severely weakening Chavez, his radical allies in the Region, and his grandiose scheme for a Bolivarian revolution.  Such an opening will also give the beleaguered Cuban people a respite and a glimmer of hope for a different and better future.  If this opportunity indeed exists, it is one we cannot afford to miss.  At the very least, we need to try.  All truly democratic countries in the Region would stand by our side.

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Our Opinions

Date Title
3/18/09 Current Record
3/11/09 Raul's Window
Carlos Saladrigas, El Pais
3/3/09 Lugar's Cuba Report Deserves Praise
Tomas Bilbao, Cuba Study Group