President Obama just concluded a historic visit to Havana. Republicans have uniformly criticized the president’s visit on multiple fronts: for not cutting the trip short in response to the bombings in Brussels, for not getting enough concessions from the Cuban government and for “empowering dictatorship.” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), a Cuban American, went so far as to call Obama’s visit “an abject failure.”
Democrats have taken a slightly longer view, arguing that Obama’s trip to Cuba and normalization of diplomatic relations is a step in the right direction. Rep. Janice Hahn (D-Calif.) said she hoped the renewed relationship would eventually “translate to a better economy, better lives, better jobs and hopefully less oppression.”
But what would we say about this visit if we shifted perspective from Washington to Havana? (This question is the type of standpoint shift I argue international relations scholarship would benefit from doing more often.) In short, we’d have to acknowledge that Obama’s visit actually signals the triumph of Cuban defense policy. More specifically, it signals the triumph of a policy that Fidel Castro’s government developed and began implementing toward the end of the Cold War, which I call “revolutionary deterrence.”
On the domestic front, a government that implements revolutionary deterrence combines unconventional warfare tactics for defense with domestic policies that give constituents a stake in the government’s continued success. Internationally, it launches diplomatic campaigns targeting adversaries’ allies, as well as transnational social movement activism to undermine adversaries’ domestic political support.
When the Soviet Union launched glasnost in the 1980s and scaled back support of Cuba, the Reagan administration was ramping up hostility toward Latin American revolutions. The Soviets didn’t respond to the U.S. invasion of Grenada or to U.S. support of rebels against the leftist Nicaraguan government because Moscow was unwilling to jeopardize bilateral relations with the United States. This lack of a Soviet response left the Cubans to face any escalated confrontation with the United States by themselves. To meet this potential challenge, the Cuban government redesigned its defense doctrine as part of the broader “rectification” process.
As I was beginning the research for my forthcoming book, “Sandinista Nicaragua’s Resistance to U.S. Coercion,” my then-adviser, Mark Q. Sawyer, was just finishing his own monograph, “Racial Politics in Post-Revolutionary Cuba.” It became clear to us over several conversations at the time that the revolutionary deterrence policy the Nicaraguans implemented to defeat the Reagan Doctrine was almost exactly the same policy the Cubans were adopting during rectification.
The U.S. policy toward Cuba since the early 1960s, known as “rollback,” was designed to use coercion to overthrow the revolution. This policy predated the Cuban Revolution, originating with the Truman administration, and especially that of Eisenhower, but it was revived in its more virulent form in the 1980s as the Reagan Doctrine. In general, rollback involved using economic sanctions and embargoes, diplomatic isolation and low-intensity conflict strategies against leftist governments. The latter included organization and support of proxy armies and covert operations such as assassinations and terrorist bombings.
To defeat renewed U.S. hostility in the 1980s and to deter further escalation, Cuba’s revolutionary deterrence strategy has had four components:
- A strong internal defense apparatus ready for unconventional warfare coupled with powerful internal intelligence networks and capabilities. For example, many Cubans were trained as militia members, while a smaller but significant number received special forces training capable of prolonged guerrilla warfare.
- International diplomatic efforts to undermine the legitimacy of U.S. policy toward Cuba in global public opinion. This included challenging U.S. policy in votes at the United Nations and seeking support against U.S. policy at the Organization of American States and the European Union.
- Cultivation of global opposition using transnational grass-roots activism within the United States and among its allies. Cuba did this by cultivating good relations with religious, human rights, peace and solidarity organizations, and even celebrities.
- Maintaining high internal support for the regime by mobilizing domestic mass organizations, implementing popular social programs or reforms, and cultivation of revolutionary mystique as symbols of Cuban patriotism and nationalism.
But Cuba’s victory is a double-edged sword. Rapprochement does not mean that the U.S. strategic objective toward the island has necessarily changed or that U.S. policy is no longer about creating regime change. On the contrary, when Obama stated, “I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas,” he was really admitting the defeat of rollback, a policy that his administration never favored. After all, rollback is a quintessentially Republican policy rooted in the domestic politics of securing the Cuban American vote to win Florida and the presidency.
Replacing rollback, President Obama has adopted a policy that creates economic openings for U.S. businesses and better political relations with the island and that tries to undermine the Cuban government. The Obama administration is now openly shifting to a “democracy promotion” approach to regime change, which is geared toward opening up the Cuban economy, splitting Cuban society by co-opting and luring certain sectors closer to U.S. interests, and undermining the regime’s internal support, all while pushing for “political reforms” (such as implementation of liberal capitalist representative democracy).
This approach is something that the United States has become adept at using in Latin America and to which the Cuban regime may be quite vulnerable. But for this new tactic to work, the United States needs to create “good” diplomatic relations with Cuba. That means ending the U.S. embargo. This would facilitate the U.S. government’s ability to fund opposition groups it supports, gain economic leverage over the Cuban government and create incentives for political reforms. It remains to be seen how the Cuban government, which despite Obama’s visit is still fighting the remnants of the U.S. Cold War rollback policy, will respond to shifts in U.S. tactics.
Héctor Perla Jr. is an assistant professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz. During 2016 and 2017, he will be in residence at the American Political Science Association Centennial Center in Washington as a Steiger visiting scholar and an APSA congressional fellow. His book, “Sandinista Nicaragua’s Resistance to U.S. Coercion,” will be published by Cambridge University Press in June.