Trump’s Hostility Towards Cuba Provides Opportunities for Russia              

As noted in previous posts, President Donald Trump in only one year in office has expressed hostility towards Cuba in various ways. Those actions have created opportunities for other countries to increase their connections with Cuba and thereby damage U.S. business relations with the island and potentially U.S. national security.

Opportunities for Russia

The foremost beneficiary of these U.S. changes has been Russia.

On December 16, in Havana Cuba President Raúl Castro and Economy Minister Ricardo Cabrisas met with the head of Russian oil company Rosneft, Igor Sechin, for discussions about increasing Cuba’s purchases of oil from Rosneft and modernizing the island’s oil refinery in Cienfuegos. Also participating in the meeting was Mikhail L. Kamynin, Russian ambassador in Cuba.[1]

This May Rosneft started shipping some oil to Cuba, the first significant such sales since the early 1990s. The resumption of this relationship is in response to the U.S. hostility and discouraging U.S. business with the island and to the significant reduction of Venezuela’s shipments of such products to Cuba and the resulting shortages of fuel and electricity for Cubans.

Other Russian beneficiaries are Avtovaz, Russia’s biggest carmaker; KAMAZ, Russia’s largest truck manufacturer; and Sinara, a large locomotive manufacturer. Next month Avtovaz will ship 300 new shiny Lada automobiles to Cuba and hopes to ramp up such exports, thanks to financing from Russian government development bank VEB. Last month Sinara delivered the first of 75 locomotives worth $190 million ordered by Cuba in 2016.[2]

In addition, Russian Railways (RZD) is negotiating to upgrade more than 1000 km of Cuban railroads and to install a high-speed link between Havana and the beach resort of Varadero, in what would be Cuba’s biggest infrastructure project in decades worth $2.26 billion

Aleksandr Bogatyr, Russia’s trade representative in Cuba, said that there Has been a “renaissance” as he forecast bilateral trade could grow to $350 million to $400 million this year, one of its highest levels in nearly two decades, up from $248 million in 2016.

A major obstacle to all of these deals is Cuba’s lack of cash and Russia’s own economic problems. Yet in 2014 Russia forgave 90 percent of Cuba’s $35 billion Soviet-era debt and started providing export financing to Russian companies looking to sell to the cash-strapped island.

An outsider to the Russian connection, Jason Marczak, Director the U.S.-based Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, observed, “Russia sees it as a moment to further its own relationship with Cuba” and “the more the Russian footprint increases in Cuba, the more that will reinforce hardened anti-U.S. attitudes and shut out U.S. businesses from eventually doing greater business in Cuba.”

Challenge to U.S. National Security

All of this also represents a national security challenge to the U.S. This April a group of high-ranking military officers wrote an open letter to the Trump administration urging continuation of the U.S. opening with Cuba. One of the letter’s signatories, retired U.S. Army Brig. Gen. David L. McGinnis, said, “If Russia is willing to offset oil supplies from Venezuela and some other things, maybe Cuba doesn’t have much of a choice but to let them re-establish political warfare operations there.”

This general Russian threat to the U.S. is recognized in the National Security Strategy of the United States of America that was released on December 18. At the very start on page 2 it states,, “China and Russia challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity. They are determined to make economies less free and less fair, to grow their militaries, and to control information and data to repress their societies and expand their influence.” This was made specific with respect to Cuba  on page 51 with the following statements: “In Venezuela and Cuba, governments cling to anachronistic leftist authoritarian models that continue to fail their people. Competitors have found operating space in the hemisphere. . . . Russia continues its failed politics of the Cold War by bolstering its radical Cuban allies as Cuba continues to repress its citizens.”  (Emphases added.)

The U.S. National Security Strategy reacts to the Russian challenge by saying that  the U.S. with Canada and “key countries in the region . . . . will build a stable and peaceful hemisphere that increases economic opportunities for all, improves governance, reduces the power of criminal organizations, and limits the malign influence of non-hemispheric forces. . . . We will catalyze regional efforts to build security and prosperity through strong diplomatic engagement. We will isolate governments that refuse to act as responsible partners in advancing hemispheric peace and prosperity. We look forward to the day when the people of Cuba and Venezuela can enjoy freedom and the benefits of shared prosperity, and we encourage other free states in the hemisphere to support this shared endeavor. (Emphases added.)

But this presidential document fails to acknowledge that this Russian involvement was precipitated, in part, by the Trump Administration’s own hostility towards Cuba and that a continuation of normalization of relations with Cuba would not have provided “operating space” in Cuba for “competitors” like Russia.[3]

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[1] Reuters, Cuba’s Castro and Russian Oil Executive Meet in Havana, N.Y. Times (Dec. 17, 2017); Raúl receives Igor Sechin, Granma (Dec. 18, 2017).

[2] Reuters, Cuba Boost Trade Ties with Cold War Ally Russia as U.S. Disengages, N.Y. Times (Dec. 19, 2017).

[3] White House, National Security Strategy of the United States of America (Dec. 2017).

 

 

 

The Future of U.S.-Cuba Normalization Under The Trump Administration

Many U.S. citizens who welcomed the last two years of U.S.-Cuba normalization are worried about whether that policy will be continued by the future Trump Administration. Therefore, examination of past comments about Cuba by prospective members of that future administration is appropriate. Here is such an examination.

A prior post recounted the responses to the death of Fidel Castro from President-elect Donald Trump, Vice President-elect Mike Pence, prospective White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and Trump aides Kellyanne Conway and Jason Miller. The basic conclusion of their remarks was that Mr. Trump would be seeking a better deal with Cuba than the Obama Administration had negotiated.

More recently, at a December 16 “thank You” rally in Orlando, Florida, Trump told the crowd, “America will also stand with the Cuban people in their long struggle for freedom. Their support has been unbelievable. The Cuban people. We know what we have to do, and we’ll do it. Don’t worry about it.”[1]

Additional negative views about U.S.-Cuba rapprochement are found in comments by others in the prospective Trump Administration.

The most negative words came from Cuban-American Mauricio Claver-Carone, transition team member for the Department of the Treasury. After the election in an op-ed article in the Miami-Herald he argued,“Obama’s new course for Cuba has made a bad situation worse.” It concluded with this statement: “There’s no longer any rational strategy behind President Obama’s ‘Cuba policy.’ It has gone from what it initially portrayed as a noble purpose to pure sycophancy in pursuit of ‘historic firsts. Unfortunately, those Cuban dissidents who recognized Obama’s intent from the beginning and labeled it ‘a betrayal’ of their fight for freedom have now been proven correct. Their foresight has come at a terrible cost.”[2]

A similar hostile analysis of rapprochement come from Mike Pompeo, a Congressman from Kansas and the nominee for Director of the CIA.[3] Here are two examples. Immediately after the December 17, 2014, news of the release of Alan Gross from Cuban prison, Pompeo said, “Unfortunately, the Obama Administration has once again taken the opportunity to appease America’s enemies by releasing convicted spies, reviewing Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terror, and attempting to re-establish diplomatic relations with the Castro regime. In March 2016 Pompeo said, Obama’s trip to Cuba was “misguided for the flawed Cuba policy it represents,” including the dropping “ Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list, . . . [loosening] sanctions, and . . . [opening] a U.S. Embassy in Havana while there has been zero needed political reform, no increase in freedom, and inadequate loosening of Castro’s grip on power.”

General Michael Flynn, the proposed White House National Security Advisor, sees Cuba as an enemy. Promoting a book he co-authored (The Field of Fight), Flynn stated his belief that the U.S. is in “a global war, facing an enemy alliance that runs from Pyongyang, North Korea, to Havana, Cuba, and Caracas, Venezuela. Along the way, the alliance picks up radical Muslim countries and organizations such as Iran, al Qaeda, the Taliban and Islamic State.” (Emphasis added.) Another Kelly article says the world is divided into two sets of enemies. First, there are the radical Islamists, whom he sees as America’s principal foes. Then there is a constellation of hostile anti-democratic regimes that he calls “the alliance” that includes both Islamists and non-Islamists that collaborate against the West because we’re their common enemy. The alliance includes Russia, Syria, North Korea, China, Iran, Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela and Nicaragua.” (Emphasis added.) [4]

Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, however, has not expressed an opinion on U.S.-Cuba relations. Only tangential clues turn up. [5] For example, Tillerson has negotiated multi-billion dollar deals with Putin and Kremlin-confidant Igor Sechin, the head of a Russian state-owned oil company who has negotiated oil deals with Cuba. But at ExxonMobil’s May 2014 annual stockholders’ meeting, Tillerson said the company had no plans to participate in Cuban deposits development by Russian oil major Rosneft because of U.S. sanctions against Cuba.

Guardedly positive comments about Cuba have been made by General John Kelly, the nominee for Secretary of Homeland Security, who recently served as the U.S. military’s Commander of the Southern Command with responsibility for the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. Last January Cuba was a first-time participant in the Caribbean Nations Security Conference, when Kelly said, “We’ve normalized now and, regardless of how we think of each other in terms of politics, we have very, very common challenges.” Kelly also said that the Naval station at Guantanamo Bay is “strategically valuable” and should remain open after the detention facility is closed and possibly jointly operated with Cuba employing Cubans. At an earlier Pentagon briefing he said, “the Guantanamo Naval Base is a hugely useful facility to the United States.”

In an October 2015 interview, Kelly said that the U.S. “Coast Guard has worked with the Cubans over the years, but mostly in terms of rescue-at-sea and humanitarian activities. But the other four services – Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines – have had zero relationships with the Cubans. There is a meeting called the “fence-line meeting” at Guantánamo where the Base Commander, a U.S. Navy Captain, meets about weekly with a counterpart on the other side. They talk and chat a little bit, but it’s not much of a relationship.’ In addition, “There are no drugs in Cuba.” [6]

As Kelly neared retirement as Commander of the Southern Command in January 2016, he said, “What tends to bother [terrorist groups and rights activists] . . . is the fact that we’re holding them [at Gitmo] indefinitely without trial … it’s not the point that it’s Gitmo. If we send them, say, to a facility in the U.S., we’re still holding them without trial.” If “ it were agreed Guantanamo should be closed, logistically it wouldn’t be hard, and remaining detainees could be held in the U.S.— “They’re not going to escape, for sure.”

One advocate for rapprochement in the Trump team is (or has been?) Kathleen (K.T.) McFarland, named as Deputy National Security Advisor. She has publicly backed open relations with Cuba. In 2014, she wrote “We must take steps now to ensure that Cuba doesn’t become a Russian or Chinese pawn, and thus serve as a launch pad to threaten America’s security were they to establish a military presence.” [7]

Basic Internet searches about the following members of Trump’s team failed to find any comments about Cuba: General James Mathis (Secretary of Defense), Vincent Viola (Secretary of the Army), Steven Mnuchin (Secretary of the Treasury), Wilbur Ross (Secretary of Commerce), Todd Ricketts (Deputy Secretary of Commerce), Nikki Haley (U.N. Ambassador) and Jeff Sessions (Attorney General).[8]

Conclusion

The above analysis of commentaries by members of the Trump team regrettably suggests a dim future for continuation of normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations. Those of us in the U.S. who believe that this is an erroneous move need to continue to advocate for normalization and to share that opinion with our Senators and Representatives, the Trump Administration and our fellow U.S. citizens.

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[1] Lemmongello, Trump thanks Florida at Orlando rally, Orlando Sentinel (Dec. 116, 2016).

[2] Claver-Carone, Obama’s Cuba policy makes bad situation worse, Miami Herald (Nov. 16, 2016).

[3] Pompeo, Rep. Pompeo Responds to Shift in Policy with Cuba (Dec. 17, 2014); Pompeo, Independent Journal Review: Mr. President, There Is A Reason No U.S. President Has Visited Cuba for 88 Years (Mar. 21, 2016).

[4] Carden, The Real Reason to Worry About Gen. Michael Flynn, Nation ( Nov. 18, 2016); Totten, How Trump’s General Mike Flynn Sees the World, World Affairs (Nov. 30, 2016).

[5] Schoen & Smith, Why Rex Tillerson would be a disaster as Secretary of State, FoxNews (Dec. 13, 2016); ExxonMobil says not to cooperate with Russia’s Rosneft in Cuba, Prime Bus. Net (May 29, 2014). Tillerson’s close relationship with Sechin is covered in MacFarquhaar & Kramer, How Rex Tillerson Changed His Tune on Russia and Came to Court Its Rulers, N.Y. Times (Dec. 20, 2016) and Kashin, Rex Tillerson’s Special Friend in the Kremlin, N.Y. Times (Dec. 22, 2016).

[6] Assoc. Press, Cuba to attend security conference with US for first time (Jan. 12, 2016); U.S. Dept Defense, Department of Defense Press Briefing by General Kelly (Mar. 12, 2015); Lockhart, A Conversation with General John F. Kelly, SOUTHCOM Commander (Oct. 15, 2015); O’Toole, Here’s What America’s Longest-Serving General Most Fears, Defense One (Jan. 11, 2016).

[7] Ordońez, Trump’s been inconsistent on Cuba. Will Castro’s death make a difference? McClatchy DC (Nov. 26, 2016).

[8] As always I invite comments pointing out errors of commission or omission. No similar searches were done for Ryan Zinke (Secretary of Interior), Rick Perry (Secretary of Energy), Andrew Puzder (Secretary of Labor), Ben Carson (Secretary of Housing and Urban Development), Tom Price (Secretary of Health and Human Services), Betsy DeVos (Secretary of Education), Scott Pruitt (Administrator of Environmental Protection Agency), Linda McMahon (Administrator of Small Business Administration), Seema Verma (Administrator of Center for Medicare and Medicaid), Stephen Miller (Senior Advisor to President for Policy), Gary Cohn (Director of National Economic Council), Mick Mulvaney ( Director of Office of Management and Budget) and Don McGahn (White House Counsel).