Tripoli Today, Havana Tomorrow?

Castro may have survived the 1989 revolution wave. He is unlikely to make it a second time.

Is the shift in U.S. rhetoric about Libya indicative of a changed attitude toward other entrenched autocratic, historically anti-American regimes around the world? Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was quite blunt in laying out her vision for the future of Libya’s “Brother Leader” Muammar Qaddafi: “It is time for Qaddafi to go -- now, without further violence or delay.” She noted too that the United States will consider all possible options—including military action—to assist the process of regime change in Tripoli and served up the classic Washington formulation that nothing is “off the table"

This, of course, reverses the earlier approach, first embarked upon by the George W. Bush administration and continued by the Obama team, of engagement with Qaddafi. Indeed, two years ago, the president even shook Qaddafi’s hand at the G-8 summit in Italy while Denis McDonough, now the deputy national security advisor, defended the outreach by observing that Barack Obama “wants to see cooperation with Libya continue in sectors such as Tripoli's decision a few years ago to give up its nuclear program, an absolutely voluntary decision that we consider positive.”

Qaddafi might have believed that his more constructive posture in global affairs—giving up his weapons of mass destruction, trying to make a positive contribution to the Arab-Israeli dispute with his “Israstine” proposal, and opening up Libya’s energy industry to foreign companies—would buy him a certain degree of immunity. That calculation has failed. But its failure may also make it more difficult for the Obama administration to sustain support for its efforts to engage constructively with another regime that has been even longer-lived than Qaddafi’s: Cuba. Although he stepped down as president in 2008, allowing his brother Raul to succeed him, Fidel Castro, the first secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba, has been at the island’s helm since 1959—ten years before Qaddafi’s coup against King Idris.

The U.S. policy debate on Cuba has grappled with what Donald K. Hansen and Alan M. Marblestone have identified as the “two interrelated questions”; the first being whether the traditional approach of isolation and pressure ought to be replaced with a strategy of engagement, and whether what the Castro brothers have created has any staying power after both men pass on.

Up to this point, the administration seemed to be moving in the direction of accepting that the longevity of the Castro brothers signaled that there was some degree of support for the direction they have taken Cuba. But then seemingly stable and long-lived regimes in the Middle East crumbled away. If Hosni Mubarak’s thirty-year presidency could be swept away, should assumptions about Cuban stability likewise be revised?

Over the last year, the Obama administration had been under greater pressure to loosen the decades-old embargo against Havana, on the grounds that since the U.S. has normal trading relations with other communist states such as China and Vietnam, closing off a lucrative market, particularly to U.S. agricultural exports, made no sense. Meanwhile, a growing bipartisan coalition was also arguing that Cold War-era bans on travel to Cuba made no sense. The agricultural lobby has always been a strong supporter of allowing more sales of food and other products to Cuba. Moreover, as Cuba searches for oil in its territorial waters, “if large quantities of commercially viable oil are found, advocates of a hardline stance towards Cuba are likely to face growing opposition from oil lobbyists in Washington.” 

In January 2011, just before the “Arab Spring” started to bloom in Tunisia, the Obama administration announced that it would work to loosen restrictions on U.S. contact with Cuba. Once implemented, these new regulations would allow religious groups to sponsor travel to the country and academics and students to study and attend conferences and workshops there. Finally, any U.S. citizen—not just someone with close family members are in Cuba—would be permitted to send up to $500 every three months to anyone—as long as they are not senior government officials or high-ranking members of the Communist Party. These steps effectively reverse the measures that were adopted by the Bush administration in 2003 and 2004.