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Why President Trump’s hard-line approach to Cuba is a mistake

It opens the door to increased Russian influence on the island.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks about the Trump administration's Cuba policy Wednesday at the State Department. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Wednesday that the Trump administration will begin enforcing a long-unenforced provision of the Helms-Burton Act that will allow American citizens to file lawsuits “against businesses that operate on property the Cuban government appropriated after the 1959 revolution.” This follows on the heels of the administration rejecting a deal between Major League Baseball and the Cuban Baseball Federation that would have enabled players to join the majors without defecting.

These actions are just the latest hard-line steps taken by the Trump administration toward the island nation. President Trump began moving toward more-punitive policies with a scathing speech on U.S.-Cuban relations in 2017. The speech soured average Cubans and the Cuban government on Trump and his team, quickly eroding progress made by the Obama administration.

These policies are highly risky for the United States. While Cold War-level tensions are unlikely to resurface, the policies open the door for renewed Russian influence in Cuba, at a time when Russia is also reemerging as a geopolitical foe of the United States.

There is good reason to worry. Over the past 60 years, hard-line policies, along with Cuban attempts to break free of dependence upon the United States, have repeatedly driven Cuba to seek closer relations first with the Soviet Union, then with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. While the Soviet Union initially took a cautious approach to the triumph of Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution, relations between the two countries warmed, beginning in 1960, and even more so after Castro’s 1961 declaration of the revolution’s “socialist” character. Signing a major trade deal in February 1960, the Soviet Union provided Cuba with substantial military and economic support intended to foster and maintain Cuba’s revolutionary project and slight their superpower rival.

For Castro, Soviet support provided an opportunity to break Cuba of a long history of hegemonic — and sometimes exploitative — American influence. As Castro later noted: “We would not in any event have ended up close friends. The U.S. had dominated us for too long.”

In 1969, after a decade of experimenting with a socialist philosophy referred to as “Fidelismo,” Castro pinned the success of his revolution on the mobilization of all national resources toward what he called the 10 million-ton harvest. While the effort resulted in a record-breaking sugar harvest, it fell short of its stated goal, and most observers considered the initiative a failure.

On the heels of that defeat, Castro leaned closer to the Soviet Union. While Havana never stopped exhibiting streaks of independence, Cuba scholars regard the 1970s and 1980s as a period of greater Sovietization of the island’s government, economy and society. In 1976, Cuba ratified a new constitution, modeled on the 1936 “Stalin Constitution,” that explicitly mentioned the Soviet Union in its preamble. As ties between Cuba and the U.S.S.R. tightened, Soviet goods and subsidies boosted and stabilized the island’s economy.

The Soviet Union’s collapse and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Cuba in 1991 did not produce a full-scale rupture in Russo-Cuban relations, but Russia’s difficult reorientation to a market economy diminished its power and influence on the island during the 1990s. The loss of Soviet aid proved similarly devastating to Cuba’s economy and ushered in what Cubans referred to as the “Special Period” of the 1990s. Many questioned whether Cuba’s socialist project could survive the shock.

The failure of the United States to soften its policies toward Cuba allowed Russia to maintain its ties to the island nation during this challenging period. Moscow could not afford to cancel Cuba’s Cold War debts but did try to help through sugar-for-oil swaps, though these represented a precipitous drop from Soviet-era levels of aid. Even this limited contribution to Cuba’s energy sector and boost to the island’s agricultural exports proved vital for the revolution’s survival. As the Russian economy slowly recovered from its market-based transition, aid to Cuba also increased.

In 2009, President Raúl Castro visited Moscow, a first for a Cuban leader since the end of the Cold War. The meeting ushered in a renewal of intimate cooperation between the nations and culminated in agreements in 2015 to work together on education, health, aeronautics, energy and infrastructure. Perhaps most significantly for Cuba, Russia agreed to forgive 90 percent of the island’s Cold War debt.

These agreements came at a critical time for Cuba, with 2014 also marking the peak of Venezuelan oil exports to the island. The precipitous decline in Venezuelan oil subsidies to Cuba exposed Cuba’s continued reliance on foreign aid and necessitated the building of new diplomatic bridges. A 2018 report by Engage Cuba, a coalition of private entities devoted to expanding U.S.-Cuban relations, suggests how Russia (and China) filled, in part, the economic vacuum left by Venezuela’s decline.

Just as significant has been Russia’s military reengagement with Cuba. The Kremlin’s post-Soviet decision to keep its Havana-area Lourdes listening station open through the 1990s proved to be a sticking point in U.S.-Russia relations. Russian officials eventually decided to shutter the station in 2001.

By the end of the decade, however, Moscow began reversing course, docking a high-tech spy ship in Havana. In 2017, Russian officials announced the reopening of the listening station (Russia insists it is to improve communication with its Latin American embassies) and pursuit of an increased military presence on the island. More recently, Putin has mused about Moscow reestablishing missile bases in Cuba and intimated his military is ready for its own Cuban missile crisis. The reduction in Venezuelan oil imports to Cuba in the wake of the collapse of the Venezuelan economy is likely to open the door to even more Russian influence on the island.

Russia’s ability to gradually reassert itself in Cuba in the 2000s came about because of the vacuum presented by decades of hard-line U.S. policies — driven by domestic politics in the critical swing state of Florida — that sought to undermine the Castro regime through anti-communist rhetoric and an ever-tightening trade embargo.

The increasing Russian ties with Cuba demonstrate the damage done by these policies — something the Obama administration tried to ameliorate. While President Barack Obama could not lift the embargo through executive order, he opened the door for increased personal and business travel and communication, while also reestablishing direct diplomatic ties with the reopening of Cuban and U.S. embassies in Washington and Havana. This shift provided a huge boost to Cuba’s critical tourism industry.

The Trump administration’s reversals have been more rhetorical than substantive, though Trump did restrict Americans’ ability to spend money at certain state-run hotels and businesses. But the change in tone undid much of the hard-earned goodwill the Obama White House engendered. This goodwill could have laid the groundwork for future diplomatic and economic gains, reducing the incentive for Cuba to welcome increased aid — and military presence — from Russia and China.

Cultivating a sustained relationship with Cuba based on mutual respect could thwart the influence of Washington’s major geopolitical rivals so close to the coast of the United States. Russian interest in Cuba and hostility to Western influence on the island should be a clear warning sign to U.S. officials of the follies of Trump’s reversion to a harder-line approach.

Geographic proximity suggests Cuba and the United States are natural trading partners, and the two nations have a long pre-revolutionary history of close relations, albeit one tinged by paternalism. North American tourists and capital can assist in Cuba’s transition to a more market-based economy, and U.S. banks can assist with currency unification. After more than a century of first exploitation then the embargo, the United States must chart a new course with regard to Cuba — engagement in a mutually beneficial manner that respects Cuban sovereignty. Washington should help Cuba enact already specified, though stalled, measures meant to stabilize its economy to levels where it may not need patronage from American foes such as Russia or China. Cuba needs willing partners, and if the United States isn’t one, its nemeses will fill the void.