That would be our POTUS-in-Chief, pulling his self-defined “right thing to do” out of nowhere (some would make a more anatomical allusion) at a time when Cuba has been busy doing exactly the wrong thing.
First, let us at least rejoice that Alan Gross has been released. We can be glad for his sake that he is back home with his family.
The rest of the news is not so good. Obama traded three Cuban spies for Gross and a U.S. intelligence agent, and will open up financial and banking relations to Cuba, besides authorizing travel and reopening a U.S. embassy in Havana:
American officials said the Cuban spies were swapped for a United States intelligence agent who had been in a Cuban prison for nearly 20 years, and said Mr. Gross was not technically part of the swap, but was released separately on “humanitarian grounds.”
In addition, the United States will ease restrictions on remittances, travel and banking relations, and Cuba will release 53 Cuban prisoners identified as political prisoners by the United States government. Although the decades-old American embargo on Cuba will remain in place for now, the president called for an “honest and serious debate about lifting” it.
The concern here is only partly the specific measures taken, however. The context in which they are being taken is of even greater concern.
Russian officials made two major announcements in the last six months: that Moscow would reopen the sprawling Cold War-era listening post near Havana, at Lourdes; and that Russian forces, now including strategic bombers (an unprecedented feature), would resume operating from Cuba to conduct patrols targeting the United States.
Russia has, in fact, been operating intelligence collection ships from Cuba and sending them on patrols off the southeastern U.S. coast.
Meanwhile, Cuba continues to engage in an illicit arms trade with North Korea, which facilitates the proliferation of arms to terrorist groups and bad regimes round the world. (See here and here as well.)
Cuba also continues to be deeply involved in the repressions inflicted by Central America’s socialist caudillos on the people of Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua. For more than half a century, Cuba has been one of the chief security problems of Latin America.
In the last five years, the nexus between the Castroites and the chavistas (Chavez, his successor Maduro, Evo Morales, Daniel Ortega) has expanded to include – increasingly overtly – Iran. Cuba’s trade relations with Iran – always, for such nations, largely a cover for arms and intelligence cooperation – have been growing rapidly in the last several years. (The more warehouses and heavy machinery are ostensibly involved in the commercial trade, the more military-strategic import it typically has. The transportation sector is one of the best covers for military cooperation.)
China, moreover, has been cultivating increased military as well as trade ties with Cuba in the last few years (see here and here as well), and is reported to have intelligence operatives manning a Cuban listening post in Bejucal.
These are some of the big, important things that have been going on with Cuba in the time period that ought to affect our decisions about Cuba. If we’re going to go down the path of normalizing relations with Cuba, each and every one of these things should be on the table. The payoff from pursuing this course should be – explicitly, and up front – a set of verifiable commitments from Cuba to not continue in these activities which are prejudicial to the United States and the security of the Western hemisphere.
Obama has obtained no such promises, nor has he outlined any program of pursuing them. Given all that he should have been concerned about, he has simply caved and made a unilateral gesture that will benefit Cuba, but not the U.S.
In fact, Obama’s opening of travel and financial relations to Cuba will actively harm the U.S. The first people on the plane to the U.S. from Cuba will be spies – and spies not just for Cuba but for Russia, China, and Iran. The difference now will be the casual ease with which they can gain access to the United States by posing as mere Cuban businessmen, tourists, and workers on visas.
Opening financial relations with Cuba will create an even bigger vulnerability. Cuba will have her feet in both worlds: the global financial network in which the U.S. and our allies set the rules, and – beyond doubt – the alternative network which Russia is currently laboring to assemble. (See more about how this fits in with Russia’s strategic intentions here, from an interview given by Russian Defense Minister Dmitry Rogozin.)
Cuba is too dependent on Russia to avoid participating in the alternative financial network, and presumably, as long as the Castroites are in power, they will want to.
Members of the “BRICS” bloc might or might not be interested in joining Russia’s network; if some do so, the U.S. and allies like Japan and the EU will be faced with a serious, high-profile security policy dilemma. When North Korea joins Russia’s network, on the other hand, we can rejoice that our banking system is not connected to Pyongyang to begin with.
But it would be easy to minimize the concern Western observers would feel about little Cuba being a nexus between the two networks. The New York Times editorial posture, for example, would no doubt dismiss the obvious concerns as “conspiracy theory,” at least until some American politician’s family member got caught with taxpayer-assisted commercial interests that were financing arms shipments to Hezbollah, ISIS, or Boko Haram through the Cuban financial-network nexus.
It’s going to be tough enough navigating a world in which Russia operates a separate international financial network, to which some nations will have an interest in belonging. Everywhere there exists a nexus between the networks – a nexus that by definition is outside the control of the Western allies – the SWIFT participants will have to worry about vulnerabilities to shenanigans and skullduggery. (Indeed, the very survivability of the Russian network is likely to depend at times on exploiting the opportunities in such a nexus.)
But we already know what the Castros’ Cuba is. We know that the vulnerabilities created by this nexus in Cuba are inevitable. Now is the dumbest possible time to fling the door open to networked financial transactions with Cuba.
What can Congress do about this? Can it rein Obama in, at least on the matter of opening the banking system to Cuba? That’s a good question. Congress might be able to pass veto-proof legislation, but forcing Obama to implement it is another matter. I don’t see the courts settling this one; foreign-policy powers are one of the least conclusive realms of constitutional law.
Obama has laid an egg, on several levels, and we’re going to see it hatch. The Pandora’s Box his policies are opening looks minor and unserious only to the complacent eye: the eye that knows no history, and thinks the halcyon summer of the last 25 years is the normal state of mankind. It’s not.