Courtesy Reuters

Rethinking the Embargo

By Rens Lee

To the Editor:

Jorge Castañeda ("Morning in Latin America," September/October 2008) argues for rethinking the United States' Cuba policy because it has not worked and is increasingly irrelevant. Yet there are also compelling economic and security reasons for ending the isolation of Cuba now, without imposing preconditions or waiting for a democratic transition.

Current U.S. policy makes Cuba a target of opportunity for a resurgent and increasingly hostile Russia. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin talks openly about "restoring [Russia's] position in Cuba," and hints are surfacing in Moscow that Russia might reestablish a military and intelligence presence on the island in response to the planned U.S. missile defense shield in eastern Europe. Points of cooperation under consideration include using Cuba as a refueling stop for long-range bombers and for reconnaissance ships and aircraft and reopening a gigantic Soviet-era electronic monitoring and surveillance facility near Havana. A state visit to Havana in July by the hard-line Russian deputy prime minister, Igor Sechin (a reported former KGB agent and a member of Putin's inner circle), and the head of Russia's Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, could presage a new strategic dialogue between Moscow and Havana, even though the visit was officially touted as investment-related.

Also, it is hardly coincidental that the warming of Cuban-Russian ties and the discussion of a renewed military relationship have followed closely on the accession of Raul Castro as the de facto Cuban leader. Moscow has historically regarded Raul's brother Fidel as emotionally volatile, a view stemming from Fidel's erratic behavior during the Cuban missile crisis, when, in the Soviets' view, Fidel was trying to provoke a U.S.-Soviet nuclear conflict. With Raul -- who resembles a Soviet-style apparatchik -- in charge, Russia may feel more comfortable deploying strategic or intelligence assets on the island.

Another good reason to reevaluate U.S. Cuba policy relates to Cuba's huge potential energy reserves in the Gulf of Mexico, which the U.S. Geological Survey says could contain 4.6 billion barrels of oil and 9.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. With most of both the East Coast and the West Coast of the United States closed to offshore drilling, oil prices at well over $100 a barrel, and international demand for hydrocarbons projected to increase massively, U.S. exploration and development of these deposits are becoming a tempting prospect -- and may provide a justification for rescinding the embargo or at least for creating an exception to it. Other energy-dependent countries (such as China and India) are already negotiating exploration rights in the Gulf of Mexico, but because Cuba is a U.S.-sanctioned country, U.S. companies are forced to stand idly by.

Cuba can also play a potentially pivotal role in controlling the Caribbean drug trade. The island lies only 90 miles from Key West, on a direct flight path between Colombia's Caribbean coast and the southeastern United States. Cuba has seized some 65 tons of narcotics in the past decade, most of it heading toward the Bahamas and the United States. The United States and Cuba have an obvious mutual interest in stemming this flow (Cuba because some of it ends up on the island, creating an incipient drug market and a window of opportunity for organized crime). Yet they have not entered into a formal agreement to fight drugs -- even though Havana maintains such agreements with 32 other states -- and what cooperation exists occurs episodically on a case-by-case basis. Washington and Havana need to engage more fully on the issue, jointly deploying intelligence and interdiction assets to disrupt smuggling networks that operate in the western Caribbean. Yet Washington shies away from a deeper relationship, fearing that it would lead to a political opening and confer a measure of legitimacy on the Castro regime.

In sum, current strategic and economic realities argue for dealing with the communist Cuban regime as is -- not insisting on regime change as a precondition for improving relations. Opening trade with Cuba could, as many argue, plant the seeds of democracy and free enterprise and give Americans some leverage to moderate the regime's police-state characteristics. But positioning the United States to participate in a potential Cuban energy bonanza and keeping Cuba out of the orbit of both regional drug kingpins and the United States' geopolitical competitors represent more immediate challenges.

Rens Lee

Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Research Institute