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Fidel is gone, but who will control Cuba is still unclear

Fidel Castro. Photo: Sven Creutzmann

On Nov 26, newly elected U.S. President Donald Trump made a very short comment on the previous day’s breaking news from Cuba, “Fidel Castro is dead!” Later, Trump called Castro "a brutal dictator who oppressed his own people for nearly six decades."

On Nov 28, Trump threatened to roll back U.S.-Cuba relations despite his pre-election pledge to get a “better deal” from Cuba than Obama did. At the end of his race, Trump adopted a different attitude and urged the Democrats to reconsider their plans to normalize relations with Cuba. In this light, it is worthy to note how differently Obama and Trump reacted to Castro’s death.

In contrast, in his condolence message, Obama extended "a hand of friendship to the Cuban people” and admitted that "for nearly six decades, the relationship between the United States and Cuba was marked by discord and profound political disagreements.” “During my presidency, we have worked hard to put the past behind us, pursuing a future in which the relationship between our two countries is defined not by our differences but by the many things that we share as neighbors and friends - bonds of family, culture, commerce, and common humanity," he said.

Obviously, the “six decades” mentioned by both Obama and Trump can be called the “epoch of Castro.” Both Obama and Trump would like to overcome that gap and to regain control over Cuba. Simply, they offer different strategies: Obama suggests using “soft power” and transforming the position of the Cuban leadership, while Trump advocates applying a tough approach and punishing those responsible for the Cuban revolution and its consequences for U.S. proprietors. Now that the Castro brothers are gone, the Americans are looking forward to a new regime in Cuba. And here Obama’s soft policy looks to be more realistic.

In their game against Cuba, the U.S. leaders have a strong ally – a big revengeful army of Cuban emigrants. On the other hand, it was exactly the Cubans’ dislike for the Americans – a feeling that has roots in the general Latin American hatred of the “gringos” and Jose Marti’s nationalism – that paved the way for a Communist regime in Cuba. The Cubans still believe that it was the United States’ decades-long embargo that has caused their current economic problems. On the one hand, the Cuban Communists are typical National Communists, on the other, they are adepts of the revolutionary Bolivarian dream of a united Latin America, a region that is fully independent from the United States and is developing for the benefit of its own people.

One more Bolivarian regime, Venezuela, is facing serious problems and is no longer able to sell its oil to Cuba cheap. If it falls, the Cubans will have no other way but to normalize their relations with the Americans. If they do it softly, with no tough measures applied against their revolutionary leaders, it will be a real “victory” for them. But even if they avoid penalties, they will still face serious material claims.

For the United States, Cuba has always been a high geopolitical priority.

Initially, the territory of the United States consisted of 13 states, each being a former British colony. That territory extended from New England in the north to Georgia in the south and bordered on then Spanish Florida. But after Great Britain’s victory over France in 1763, the French colony of Louisiana, except New Orleans, was ceded to the British and was actively colonized by Americans, while the French territories west of Mississippi were given to Spain. In 1795, the United States and Spain made a deal demarcating their border. The deal allowed the Americans to freely navigate Mississippi. The Appalachian Mountains were a big barrier for people and cargoes moving from the west to the east. So, the best way for the Americans to go westward was Ohio and Mississippi.

In 1800, Spain gave Louisiana back to France. At that time, that territory covered present-day Louisiana, Iowa, Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, partly Wyoming, Colorado, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota and Texas. But in 1803, U.S. President Thomas Jefferson purchased that vast colony from Napoleon. He had two aims in mind: a territorial depth for defense against the British and new lands for farmers and planters.

Since that time, the Middle West has become a real treasure for the United States. The port of New Orleans was a strategic gain for the Americans. Their bread shipped along Mississippi to New Orleans and farther across the Atlantic Ocean catalyzed the industrial revolution in England as cheap imported grain made British farmers free for work in industry. On the other hand, the money earned from that grain fueled industry boom in America. New Orleans became the second biggest U.S. port and a hub for international cargo traffic and slave trade. It is still the biggest U.S. port for bulk cargo shipments.

The U.S. ships carrying cargo from New Orleans to the Atlantic Ocean had to pass by Florida and Cuba. In order to ensure their safety, the Americans decided to gain Florida. In 1819, they bought it from Spain and in 1845, they annexed independent Texas. In 1812-1815, the British tried to capture New Orleans but were routed by Andrew Jackson, the 7th U.S. President. During the American Civil War, New Orleans was the key goal of the North.

Now that Florida and Texas were in the Americans’ hand, Cuba remained the only thorn in their flesh. The straits near Florida and Yucatan were narrow enough to be controlled by the Spaniards from Cuba. But there was an even bigger threat: the British had a sea base on the Bahamas and could use any slightest pretext to capture Cuba and to blockade New Orleans. They already did that during the Seven Years’ War in 1756-1763.

The Spaniards were weak at that moment and might have lost Cuba to any European power wishing to get a key to New Orleans. The Americans had no strong navy at that time and would not have been able to prevent such a turn.

In the late 1880s, military control over Cuba became the Americans’ key foreign priority. It was then that they launched a new security policy and started to build a navy, which just three decades later grew from a force protecting U.S. commercial ships into a force dominating in the whole western hemisphere.

During the U.S.-Spanish war, the Americans destroyed the Spanish fleet and blockaded the Spaniards in the Cuban ports. The launch of the Panama Canal project was one more step towards the capture of Cuba as it let the Americans bring together their Atlantic and Pacific fleets. Now Cuba was an obstacle in the way towards Panama.

The Americans helped the Cuban nationalists to liberate their country from the Spanish rule. For Cuban guerillas, the Americans were liberators. But once Cuba broke away from Spain, it faced control by the United States. In 1901, it was ruled by a U.S. military administration. In June 1901, the U.S. Congress adopted the Platt Amendment, a law on the stay of the U.S. occupation troops in Cuba.

On May 22, 1903, Cuba and the United States signed a permanent treaty, which was based on that very amendment and strongly restricted Cuba’s sovereignty.

The Platt Amendment consisted of eight provisions. The first provision said that “the government of Cuba shall never enter into any treaty or other compact with any foreign power or powers which will impair or tend to impair the independence of Cuba, nor in any manner authorize or permit any foreign power or powers to obtain by colonization or for military or naval purposes or otherwise, lodgment in or control over any portion of said island.” The third provision said that “the government of Cuba consents that the United States may exercise the right to intervene for the preservation of Cuban independence, the maintenance of a government adequate for the protection of life, property, and individual liberty, and for discharging the obligations with respect to Cuba.” Provision VII said that “to enable the United States to maintain the independence of Cuba, and to protect the people thereof, as well as for its own defense, the government of Cuba will sell or lease to the United States lands necessary for coaling or naval stations at certain specified points to be agreed upon with the President of the United States.” The eighth provision stipulated that “by way of further assurance the government of Cuba will embody the foregoing provisions in a permanent treaty with the United States.” On the basis of that treaty, Cuba leased the United States a land for a Guantanamo military sea base, which is still one of the biggest moot points in U.S.-Cuban relations. The Americans paid the Cubans an annual rent of 2,000 pesos in gold.

In 1934, the Platt Amendment was formally cancelled and the Americans began paying a rent of $3,400. The Americans obtained an extraterritorial status for the base and were there throughout the six-decade U.S.-Cuban conflict. Even the revolution was unable to drive them out of Cuba and this proves how important that island is for the United States.

Cuba played no less important role during WWII. On the one side, the Germans were seeking to gain control there, on the other side, the Americans put their man, Batista, there and make the island part of their submarine defense system. Germany’s submarines could have been more efficient had they had support from Cuba.

It was not the first time that the Americans had to react to a foreign power’s interest in Cuba. But it is still unclear how they ate Castro’s blow. Perhaps, they were tired of Batista’s corrupt dictatorship and hoped that Castro would be just one more decorative democratic regime. They neglected the factor of the Soviet Union, who used that chance to get access to the Western Hemisphere. It seems that the Americans did not expect any Soviet activity outside Eurasia.

Once Castro came to power he terminated Cuba’s treaty with the United States and forced the U.S. military mission out of his country. After his visit to Washington in April 1959, he launched an agrarian reform, which was a big blow on U.S. agricultural monopolists.

The Americans counteracted by imposing an oil embargo. The Cubans began buying oil from the USSR and nationalized their oil refineries. To each new American pressure, the Cubans reacted with one more U.S. asset (be it bank, hotel or railroad) nationalized. As a result, in Oct 1960, the United States had no big property left in Cuba. On Jan 3, 1961, the Americans broke their diplomatic relations with Cuba and made several attempts to suppress the Cuban revolution but each they faced a Soviet counterstrike. As a result, in the 1960s, the United States and the USSR were on the verge of a thermonuclear war.

In the late 1960s, Cuba became a real geopolitical gift for the Soviet Union. At that time, the Americans had much more nuclear arms than the Kremlin had. The Russians had no nuclear bombs that could reach the U.S. territory. Cuba helped them to solve that problem by hosting Russian missiles in 1962.

This made Cuba a potential threat for the United States. As a result, the Americans were forced to make a deal with the Russians. They promised not to attack Cuba in exchange for the Kremlin’s pledge not to deploy nuclear weapons in that country.

Since then, Cuba has been one of the biggest stumbling stones for the Americans. In tandem with the Soviet Union, it curbed their control over the Caribbean and their navigation between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Even more, by means of Cuba, the Soviet Union promoted a series of anti-American revolutions in Central and South America. The Russians had no nuclear weapons on the island but they had Lourdes SIGINT Station and ports for ships and submarines.

The collapse of the Soviet Union was a big relief for the Americans as Cuba ceased to be a threat for them. But no direct threat does not mean no potential threat. Even though Cuba no longer had a geo-political guarantor, the Americans could not just make short work with it as they might face protests from all over Latin America. Obama’s careful policy began yielding fruits in 2014-2015. The Americans insist on change of regime as a prerequisite for them to lift their sanctions but all the Cubans can promise them for the moment is neutrality. This is not enough for a deal. But the Americans are not in a hurry as they have no potential rival in the region.

Present-day Russia is evading presence in Cuba as it does not need one more problem with the United States. In July 2015, the United States and Cuba restored their diplomatic relations but what they have today is almost what they had on Jan 3, 1961. The tape of the conflict has been rewound but the sides still have a long way to go towards real reconciliation. The key obstacle to it is the Americans’ wish to get back their lost property and to punish the Cubans for their revolution.

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