How Do We Know the US’ Cuba Policy Failed?

By Kindred Winecoff

Dan Drezner has a good post on the US-Cuba détente and how it is consistent with Obama’s foreign policy pattern of seeking to alter undesirable status quo situations. I agree with all of it but the ending:

…it’s hard to deny that America’s Cuba policy had failed.

It’s worth asking what objective motivated America’s Cuba policy before concluding that it failed. Several possibilities:

1. Limiting the expansion of global communism into the Western Hemisphere (c. 1960-1990).

It’s easy to forget that this actually was a thing once upon a time. Castro’s early Cuban government was not only brutal on the island but also actively sought to export revolution elsewhere, and provided material support to rebels pursuing that end. Castro encouraged Khrushchev to deploy nuclear weapons during the Missile Crisis and, at least for a time, sought those weapons for himself. The embargo did limit Castro’s material influence during the Cold War, and thereby cut off one of the main potential routes of activity for the USSR in the West. It meant that Castro would no longer be able to credibly promise to assist those seeking to overthrow US-friendly governments. And, among other things, this ensured that on the occasions where the Cold War hotted up it would not be near the US’s territory.

2. Limiting the influence of left populists in the Western Hemisphere (c. 1990-2010).

The post-Cold War era was greeted triumphantly in many parts of the West, but not so much in Latin America. The devastating effects of the debt crises of the 1980s and 1990s, along with IMF-mandated structural reforms, reinforced anti-American sentiment in the region. There remained a pervasive idea that Latin America was stuck in a dependent relationship with the US that would forever forestall development. Faced with this and rapid development elsewhere in the world, new leaders like Chavez, Morales, and Correa looked to the Cuban regime as a model of resistance and pushed for solidarity in opposition to the US-led international order. Discrediting this idea — using both carrots and sticks — has been a key objective of the US in the years since, and as regional alternatives to the US stagnate or collapse that goal looks closer to being achieved than it possibly ever has.

3. Winning elections in Florida (c. 1990-present).

Who says the embargo was about primarily about foreign policy objectives in the recent past? Successive presidential elections more or less came down to several thousand votes in Florida (or were expected to do so), and until quite recently the Cuban expat community has vociferously opposed normalization with Castro’s regime. There’s a pretty simple electoral math here: keep the anti-Castro Cuban-Americans happy, or you could lose to the person who does.  

4. The end of the Castro regime.

Was this a true foreign policy goal of the US after the Kennedy Administration? Maybe they would have liked to see it happen, but Castro was very much contained and the US foreign policy apparatus has traditionally been comfortable containing regimes it doesn’t like. There doesn’t seem to be much evidence that the US was pursuing regime change per se at any point since the 1960s, and it certainly isn’t doing so today. Regime change is risky, and the US has had no compunction about isolating, but otherwise tolerating, distasteful governments.

So did the US’ Cuba policy fail? The answer depends on what is meant by the question, but it seems to have achieved much of what it wanted to achieve at very little cost. I’d call that a limited win or, at the very worst, a slightly aggravating stalemate. Given that it had achieved limited success, and that the course of history rendered other objectives moot, the Obama administration was quite right to change the policy. But that does not constitute an admission of failure.