Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor warned President –elect Donald Trump that reversing the normalization process with Cuba could have harmful consequences.
Mr. Rhodes gave a number of reasons including that the death of Fidel Castro offers an opportunity for a political transition as Raul Castro, the current president announced he will retire in 2018. He also added that closing off Cuba now is likely to embolden the hardliners. In addition, Rhodes believes that closing the doors to Cuba at this juncture could harm relations between the United States and other Latin American countries.
Interestingly enough, President –elect Trump never spoke of stopping the normalization process or specifically returning to the situation before December 17, 2014. Mr. Trump, through his spokesman pointed out that he will demand religious and political liberalization for the island including liberation of political prisoners. However, Rhodes suggested that insistence on demanding respect for human rights in Cuba has only led to more repression.
The arguments brought by the Obama Administration are difficult to sustain. According to Pedro Roig, a Cuba expert, who published a detailed report in 2014, there is an entire structure in place aimed at guaranteeing the continuity of the regime even after Raul Castro leaves office or dies.
The regime secured key supporters in the armed forces and in the government bureaucracy. The armed forces control 65% of the economy. More than half of the 14 members of the Politburo are military men. Furthermore, there is a younger generation of people in high office that are also part of the central committee of the Communist Party. By the same token, Fidel and Raul’s children as well as members of their extended family and children of other high officers, occupy important positions. Many of them are in their fifties. As such they are likely to keep the regime in place for many years, if not decades to come.
Therefore, neither Raul’s retirement nor his eventual death can secure a transition as the Obama Administration asserts.
By the same token, Obama’s contention that relations with countries in Latin America would be at risk if the normalization process changes course is false.
For more than a decade and a half the left dominated the political scene in Latin America and indeed they pressured to de-isolate Cuba and reintegrate it into the family of the Americas. However, the political scene has now changed.
Most recently, Cuba’s strongest ally in the region, Venezuela, was suspended from MERCOSUR, the South American common market trade block.
The suspension was due to Venezuela’s lack of compliance with MERCOSUR’s rules and violations of human rights and democratic governance.
In two other key countries, Brazil and Argentina, the left is no longer in power. In Uruguay a moderate left-wing government also voted to suspend Venezuela.
The bottom line is that Venezuela has become isolated after 16 years of stealing the limelight. Therefore, it is logical that Cuba may no longer enjoy the regional status it once did. The MERCOSUR decision on Venezuela is a powerful sign of this development. The countries that still remain zealous supporters of Cuba are Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, all part of the Bolivarian Alliance and led by authoritarian leaders.
A Trump Administration is in a position now to take the upper hand in relation to Cuba as well as to Venezuela and their allies. This is a perfect moment to apply pressure on Cuba to change human rights policy. It is also a great moment to develop an overall new strategy aimed at neutralizing countries that still maintain the legacy of Castro and Chavez. Such a legacy is still highly problematic, to say the least, as these countries maintain relations with Iran, with terrorist elements and with drug cartels.
Trump’s appointment of General John Kelly as head of the Department of Homeland Security is an encouraging sign. Kelly has denounced a Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guards presence in Latin America which are mostly harbored by countries associated with Cuba and Venezuela. He also understands very well that ISIS can take advantage of the vulnerable American Southern border. Most recently Southern Command confirmed the infiltration of Sunni Arabs to the U.S. through that border.
A new policy in the Western Hemisphere will require a strong diplomatic effort and cooperation from Latin American countries.
We do not need to treat the Western Hemisphere as a battlefield. Latin America is about more than this. However, treating the hemisphere only in commercial terms, ignoring all the issues mentioned above, or making a reconciliation policy with Cuba a centerpiece of what requires a much larger approach, should not continue to be our official policy.