How far can the US bend over Cuba?

This article was first published on the Stratfor website.
The author, George Friedman, is chairman and CEO of Stratfor, the
world’s leading online publisher of geopolitical intelligence.

CubaThe Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), a group vehemently opposed to the Cuban government, came out in favor of easing the U.S. isolation of Cuba last week. The move opens the possibility that the United States might
shift its policies toward Cuba. Florida is a key state for anyone who
wants to become president of the United States, and the Cuban community
in Florida is substantial. Though the Soviet threat expired long ago,
easing the embargo on Cuba has always held limited value to American
politicians with ambitions. For them, Florida is more important than
Cuba. Therefore, this historic shift alters the U.S. domestic political
landscape.

In many ways, the U.S. policy of isolating Cuba has been more
important to the Cubans than to the United States, particularly since
the fall of the Soviet Union. The Cuban economy is in abysmal shape.
But the U.S. embargo has been completely ineffective on the stated goal
of destabilizing the Cuban government, which has used the embargo as
justification for economic hardship. Although the embargo isolates Cuba
from its natural market, the United States, the embargo is not honored
by Canada, Mexico, Europe, China or anyone else beyond the United
States. That means Cuban goods can be sold on the world market, Cuba
can import anything it can pay for, and Cuba can get investment of any
size from any country wishing to invest on the island. Because it has
almost complete access to the global market, Cuba’s economic problem is
not the U.S. embargo. But the embargo does create a political defense
for Cuban dysfunction.

It is easy to dismiss the embargo issue as primarily a matter of
domestic politics for both nations. It is also possible to argue that,
though Cuba was once significant to the United States, that
significance has declined since the end of the Cold War. Both
assertions are valid, but neither is sufficient. Beyond the apparently
disproportionate U.S. obsession with Cuba, and beyond a Cuban
government whose ideology pivots around anti-Americanism, there are
deeper and more significant geopolitical factors to consider.

Cuba occupies an extraordinarily important geographic position for the United States.
It sits astride the access points from the Gulf of Mexico into the
Atlantic Ocean, and therefore is in a position to impact the export of
U.S. agricultural products via the Mississippi River complex and New
Orleans (not to mention the modern-day energy industrial centers along
the Gulf Coast). If New Orleans is the key to the American Midwest’s access to the world, Cuba is the key to New Orleans.

Access to the Atlantic from the Gulf runs on a line from Key West to
the Yucatan Peninsula, a distance of about 380 miles. Running
perpendicular through the middle of this line is Cuba. The Straits of
Florida, the northern maritime passage from the Gulf to the Atlantic,
is about 90 miles wide from Havana to Key West. The Yucatan Channel,
the southern maritime passage, is about 120 miles wide. Cuba itself is
about 600 miles long. On the northern route, the Bahamas run parallel
to Cuba for about half that distance, forcing ships to the south,
toward Cuba. On the southern route, after the Yucatan gantlet, the
passage out of the Caribbean is made long and complicated by the West
Indies. A substantial, hostile naval force or air power based in Cuba
could blockade the Gulf of Mexico — and hence the American heartland.

Throughout the 19th century, Cuba was of concern to the United
States for this reason. The moribund Spanish Empire controlled Cuba
through most of the century, something the United States could live
with. The real American fear was that the British — who had already
tried for New Orleans itself in the War of 1812 — would expel the
Spanish from Cuba and take advantage of the island’s location to
strangle the United States. Lacking the power to do anything about
Spain itself, the United States was content to rely on Madrid to
protect Spanish interests and those of the United States.

Cuba remained a Spanish colony long after other Spanish colonies
gained independence. The Cubans were intensely afraid of both the
United States and Britain, and saw a relationship with Spain — however
unpleasant — as more secure than risking English or American
domination. The Cubans had mixed feelings about the prospect of formal
independence from Spain followed by unofficial foreign domination.

But in 1895, the Cubans rose up against Spain (not for the first
time) in what turned into the struggle that would culminate in the
island’s independence from the country. With a keen interest in Cuba,
Washington declared war on Spain in 1898 and invaded Cuba. The Spanish
were quickly defeated in the Spanish-American War and soon withdrew
from the island. For the United States, the main goal was less about
gaining control of Cuba itself (though that was the net result) than
about denying Cuba to other world powers.

The United States solved its Cuban problem by establishing a naval
base at Guantanamo Bay on the island. Between this base and U.S. naval
bases in the Gulf and on the East Coast, British naval forces in the
Bahamas were placed in a vise. By establishing Guantanamo Bay on the
southern coast of Cuba, near the Windward Passage between Cuba and
Haiti, the United States controlled the southern route to the Atlantic
through the Yucatan Channel.

For the United States, any power that threatened to establish a naval presence in Cuba represented a direct threat to U.S. national security. When there were
fears during World War I that the Germans might seek to establish
U-boat bases in Cuba — an unrealistic concern — the United States
interfered in Cuban politics to preclude that possibility. But it was
the Soviet Union’s presence in Cuba during the Cold War that really
terrified the Americans.

From the Soviet point of view, Cuba served a purpose no other island in the region could serve.
Missiles could be based in many places in the region, but only Cuba
could bottle up the Gulf of Mexico. Any Soviet planner looking at a map
would immediately identify Cuba as a key asset; any American planner
looking at the same map would identify Cuba in Soviet hands as a key
threat. For the Soviets, establishing a pro-Soviet regime in Cuba
represented a geopolitical masterstroke. For the United States, it
represented a geopolitical nightmare that had to be reversed.

Just as U.S. medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles in
Turkey put the Soviet heartland in the crosshairs during the Cold War,
Soviet missiles deployed operationally in Cuba put the entire U.S.
Eastern Seaboard at risk. Mere minutes would have been available for
detection and recognition of an attack before impact. In addition, the
missiles’ very presence would serve as a significant deterrent to
conventional attack on the island — which is why it was so important
for the United States not to allow an established missile presence in
Cuba.

The final outcome of the U.S.-Soviet standoff pivoted on the Cuban
Missile Crisis of 1962, which ended in an American blockade of Cuba,
not a Soviet blockade of the Gulf. It was about missiles, not about
maritime access. But the deal that ended the crisis solved the problem
for the United States. In return for a U.S. promise not to invade Cuba,
the Soviets promised not to place nuclear missiles on the island. If
the Soviets didn’t have missiles there, the United States could
neutralize any naval presence in Cuba — and therefore any threat to
American trade routes. Fidel Castro could be allowed to survive, but in
a position of strategic vulnerability. One part of Washington’s strategy was military, and the other part was economic — namely, the embargo.

Throughout Cuba’s history as an independent nation, the Cubans
simultaneously have viewed the United States as an economic driver of
the Cuban economy, and as a threat to Cuban political autonomy. The Americans have looked at Cuba as a potential strategic threat.
This imbalance made U.S. domination of Cuba inevitable. Cuban leaders
in the first half of the 20th century accepted domination in return for
prosperity. But there were those who argued that the island’s
prosperity was unequally distributed, and the loss of autonomy too
damaging to accept. Castro led the latter group to success in the 1959
revolution against U.S.-supported Cuban President Fulgencio Batista.
The anti-Castro emigres who fled to the United States and established
an influential community of anti-Castro sentiment had been part of the
elite who prospered from Cuba’s high level of dependence on the United
States.

Cuban history has been characterized by an oscillation of views
about the United States, with Cubans both wanting what it had to offer
and seeking foreign powers — the Spanish, the British the Soviets — to
counterbalance the Americans. But the counterbalance either never
materialized (in the case of the British) or, when it did, it was as
suffocating as the Americans (in the case of the Soviets). In the end,
Cuba probably would have preferred to be located somewhere not of
strategic interest to the United States.

The U.S. obsession with Cuba does not manifest itself continuously;
it appears only when a potentially hostile major power allies itself
with Cuba and bases itself there. Cuba by itself can never pose a
threat to the United States. Absent a foreign power, the United States
is never indifferent to Cuba, but is much less sensitive. Therefore,
after the end of the Cold War and the Soviet collapse, Cuba became a
minor issue for the United States — and political considerations took
precedence over geopolitical issues. Florida’s electoral votes were
more important than Cuba, and the status quo was left untouched.

Cuba has become a bit more important to the United States in the wake of the August 2008 Russo-Georgian war.
In response to that conflict, the Americans sent warships into the
Black Sea. The Russians responded by sending warships and strategic bombers into the Caribbean. High-profile Russian delegations have held talks with Cuba since then, increasing tensions. But these tensions are a tiny fraction
of what they once were. Russia is in no way a strategic threat to
American shipping in the Gulf of Mexico, nor is it going to be any time
soon, due to Russia’s limited ability to wield substantive power in
such a distant theater.

But Cuba is always an underlying concern to the United States. This
concern can subside, but it cannot go away. Thus, from the American
point of view, Russian probes are a reminder that Cuba remains a
potential threat. Advocates of easing the embargo say it will help
liberalize Cuba, just as trade relations liberalized Russia. The Cuban
leadership shares this view and will therefore be very careful about how any liberalization is worked out. The Cubans must be thoroughly convinced of the benefits of increased engagement with the United States in order for Havana to sacrifice its ability to blame Washington for all of its economic problems.
If Cuba opens too much to the United States, the Cuban regime might
fall. In the end, it might be the Cubans who shy away from an end to
the embargo. The Americans have little to lose either way.

But that is all politics. The important thing to understand about
Cuba is the historic U.S. obsession with the island, and why the Cubans
have never been able to find their balance with the United States. The
answer lies in geopolitics. The politics in play now are simply the
bubble on the surface of much deeper forces.

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