This blog appeared on the website of the Centre for Security Governance on 30 January 2015.
On 17 December, the US and Cuba announced that they would be moving to restore diplomatic ties and release respective nationals held as prisoners. President Obama has committed his country to reviewing the embargo that has been in place since 1962 – the longest-standing one on the planet. By 2017, just before Obama takes his leave as President, this process is to have been completed.
The rapprochement between Washington and Havana is tentative, complicated and uncertain. Its mid- to long- term implications are so embroiled with so many things going on not only in the US and Cuba relationship but also around the globe that it would be foolhardy to hazard a guess as to this initiative’s ultimate impact. All that said, the rapprochement speaks to a potential sea change in the politics of the island state and in several other countries, including in some traditional benefactors of Cuba.
A little more than six months ago, Russian President Putin carried out a whirlwind tour of Latin America, visiting in six days Cuba, Nicaragua, Argentina and Brazil. His objective was clearly to forge a new generation of ties between Russia and the region in an effort to counteract the US role, in the area and more widely.
In Cuba, Putin forgave 90% of the country’s debt contracted in the Soviet period: 32 billion dollars’ worth. In Nicaragua, the Russian President’s visit was associated with speculation about Russian and Chinese money being used to build a Nicaraguan rival to the Panama Canal. In Argentina, he played on the country’s continuing tensions with US legal jurisdictions on possible pay-back arrangements for American holders of the country’s debt. In Brazil, he catered to the elite’s ambitions for their country to be a regional hegemon, rivalling the US role on the continent. It was here that Putin signed into being an accord to set up a BRICS bank to bankroll future development projects in competition with the Western development programmes that have traditionally been dominant in the region.
With the recent tanking of the Russian economy, none of these initiatives would enjoy any credibility today. As a case in point, we can assume that Russia would like to have back those $ 30 billion that it gave to Cuba – just half a year ago.
And then there is Venezuela. While Putin elected not to visit Caracas on his tour, it has played a key role in Moscow’s plans for the region. The country has been an avid buyer of Russian military hardware. Russia and Venezuela have carried out naval manoeuvres together, and so on. But Venezuela, which has been underwriting Cuba’s energy needs to the equivalent of some 15% of its GDP, has an economy that is in free fall. As a case in point, the most popular ice cream bar in Caracas recently announced that it was closing down “… due to a lack of milk”!
The US-Cuba rapprochement will have also sent signals to Russia’s near-abroad. Belarus and Kazakhstan are supposed to play a leading role in Russia’s regional integration schemes. The two countries were founding members of a customs union established with Russia on 1 January 2010. A Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) with more ambitious objectives – and which Ukraine would also have joined if President Putin had had his way – came into force on 1 January 2015. But a successful EEU is predicated on the idea of Russia acting as an effective regional economic hegemon, capable of moving serious resources in its partners’ direction. With the fall of the ruble and the rise of Russian debt payback challenges, this is no longer a viable option.
Well before the ruble’s crash, both countries resisted Moscow’s efforts to vaunt the EEU as a structure that could bring closer political relations across post-Soviet space. Neither supported Russia’s counter-sanctions against the West. The US-Cuba opening will have put another nail in the coffin of Putin’s regional integration ambitions.
A few days after the US-Cuba rapprochement was announced, Belarus President Lukashenko and his Kazak equivalent Nazarbayev travelled to Kiev for parlays with their Ukrainian homologue Poroshenko. Both leaders are quoted as making statements in Kiev that will have raised eyebrows in the Kremlin. At a press conference on 21 December, Lukashenko is said to have denied that he was afraid of anyone, the anyone everyone understood as being President Putin. The following day in a similar public event, Nazabayev referred to the conflict in Ukraine as “nonsense” that should not be happening.
As for China, while it will not abandon Russia, it will very likely raise the stakes. Beijing still looks to Moscow to make trouble in Europe that will diminish the Western democracies’ capacity to counter its ambitions in Asia. What was described as a relationship in which Russia played a supplicant’s role when it agreed major energy deals with the PRC Beijing earlier last year is now likely to become much more so.
The US-Cuba deal also underscores that America’s forty-fourth President is anything but a lame duck. He just may have more impact on the international situation in the last two years of his presidency than he has had heretofore. He might even earn his Noble Peace Prize. At the very least, the opening to Cuba creates a promising electoral opening for 2016 that his Democratic successor is hers or his to squander.
Back to the political situation in Cuba. Raul, the younger Castro, has been in power since 2006. He was re-elected in 2013 to a second term as President that has him serving until 2018, when he will reach the lively old age of 87.
Cuban communists can count. They understand that they have a maximum of three or four years either to become a different kind of politician or to open their own businesses, taking advantage as best they can of the new economic opportunities opened by the rapprochement with the US. Or they can bet on world revolution, Putin-style.
Incidentally, it was Raul Castro’s far-reaching liberalisation of travel restrictions in 2013 that has since allowed hundreds of thousands of Cubans to travel abroad. It was a similar decision that brought the Berlin Wall down twenty-five years ago.