Angling Havana: Reverberations in Tehran, Miami and Beyond

Big news one the Cuba front – I’m not really a LatAm specialist (I’ve dabbled), but this one has a lot of angles. I wrote a short piece for Discors, which is posted below, but it primarily focuses on the U.S. domestic politics angle. So first a few observations on the international affairs side.

Iran Angle
One of the big issues in negotiating with Iran is that they don’t believe the U.S. is capable of making a deal. Opposition in Congress etc. will torpedo any agreement made with Washington, and leave Iran in a weaker position. This allows Iranian hardliners who oppose any deal with the U.S. to shrug off any progress made in negotiations.

However, by quickly doing a 180 on US-Cuba relations, the president is demonstrating that he can make things happen – if the other side will play ball. The Iranians should take note, the president can make a deal, U.S. policy can change. But it won’t if they aren’t ready to deal.

(There is definitely evidence that they are all hard-liners who are just playing us. That’s another issue. I still believe the U.S. should negotiate in good faith. That way, if/when negotiations fail, the U.S. is in a stronger position to garner international support for further sanctions and – if necessary – militayr action.)

National Security
My good friend BJ Tucker, an insightful analyst who has followed Cuba carefully, notes that without a superpower patron, Cuba is not a major strategic problem. However, they punch well above their weight in penetrating U.S. intelligence. In his own post on Discors he wrote:

Cuba may be a small nation with limited convention military power and a minuscule economy, but it compensates rather skillfully for these shortcomings by aggressively engaging in espionage against its larger neighbor to the north. In fact, Cuba ranks in the top five among nations that aggressively target the U.S. 

Beyond the Myers and Montes cases, Cuba has worked with Iran in cyber-espionage related activities, and most recently hosted Russian signals intercept vessels. Cuba is also known to provide intelligence collected on the U.S. to third parties. 

The totality of these cases requires the U.S. to dedicate substantial resources to counter these activities – resources that could be employed elsewhere against larger foes. A normalization of relations will not stop Cuba from collecting on the U.S. However it will slowly change target prioritization and veracity of Havana’s collection efforts.

As a guy who studies national security decision-making, it is important to note how issues – even small ones – can clog up the process and devour high-level time and energy. Short-term, Cuba will take up a lot of time as the relationship is reorganized. But long-term this will free important resources both at the working levels in the bureaucracy and at the top levels of the National Security Council.

Also, U.S. policy towards Cuba has long been an irritant throughout Latin America. A minor Cold War holdover that got in the way of doing business. With this removed, the U.S. may be better positioned to cooperate throughout the hemisphere. Also, Latin America generally feels ignored or bullied by Washington (and with some reason). Undertaking a major initiative in which the U.S. changes its policy will be a generally positive step.

Cheap Oil
Mexico may be collateral damage of cheap oil – Cuba may be a gift horse. Cheap oil leaves Venezuela struggling and will little extra cash to throw Havana’s way. This loss of a patron, may have left Havana far more willing to talk seriously with the U.S.

Cheap oil is going to have a range of complex effects, some good, some ill. The longer it goes, the more comples the impact.

Domestic Politics in Cuba & the US
Finally, there are the questions of how this will affect Cuba and the U.S. For that, here is my post in Discors:

First and foremost, it is wonderful that Alan Gross is home, free, and re-united with his family. There are many terrible things happening all over the world. But one tragedy is over. 

The strategic implications of a new relationship with Cuba are not enormous. Still, it will remove and ongoing irritant in U.S. relations with Latin America and a distraction from more serious national security concerns. Castro and company remain thuggish kleptocrats, but this will be an important test case for the power of an open economy to transform an autocracy. Hopefully the lot of the Cuban people will improve. 

The implications for domestic policy in the United States are interesting. President Barack Obama could certainly use a win, and this is precisely the sort of game-changer that presidents are uniquely capable of creating. Future presidents will undoubtedly appreciate that this annoying Cold War holdover no longer crosses their desk. 

But the new relationship with Cuba may cast a shadow on 2016. The diehards of Miami’s Little Havana will never forgive any Democratic nominee for opening up to Cuba. But imagine Clinton vs. Bush, with Miami’s Little Havana as a key battleground? Shades of 2000? How did Cuba become such a central player in our political clan warfare? Will history repeat itself, this time as a farce?

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