Earlier this month, Panamanian security forces seized an undeclared stash of weapons aboard the North Korean ship Chong Chon Gang. The revelation that the shipment was from Havana has sparked interesting speculation, with some commentators making references to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
Just a day after the ship was stopped, Cuban authorities claimed ownership of the sugar and weapons found. Cuba's Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement saying that the weapons were obsolete, from the mid-twentieth century, and were headed to North Korea for repair as part of an agreement between the two countries.
Cuba's explanation sought to calm the hype surrounding the incident and seems to be accurate in describing the weapons as outdated. If what they say is correct, then this incident in Panama was a political mistake, which, to paraphrase Talleyrand, is "worse than a crime." The arms may be obsolete, but nevertheless, shipment and transfer to North Korea is a violation of UN sanctions. (Given North Korea's aggressive behavior, the Security Council, acting under chapter VII of the UN Charter, explicitly prohibits any military-related transaction with the Pyongyang regime.)
This incident reveals a serious lack of institutional coordination between Cuba’s branches of government. It could not come at a worse time, just after the announcement of a new wave of economic reforms by Vice President Murillo and on the eve of migration talks with United States. The nature of diplomacy means that although they are officially about migration, these negotiations will include other topics. If President Raul Castro is serious about order and efficiency, as he has stated, then this situation qualifies as a major fiasco and should result in several dismissals.
This will also have serious repercussions for foreign policy. Those confiscated weapons are not in themselves a threat to the United States or world peace, but Cuba will now have to answer to the Security Council committee that administers UN sanctions. Worse, Cuba’s image in the world is already harmed by a link to a regime with one of the worst human-rights records and erratic international behavior. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea is not of the people, nor is it democratic or a republic. It is a dynastic regime, with each new descendant of the house of Kim worse than the last. Cubans should know better. Just last April 5, former president Fidel Castro urged the North Korean leadership to behave reasonably and "prevent a war in Korea."
The Cuban leadership should prepare for serious damage control. Cuba remains on the U.S. State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism, even though the Bush administration removed North Korea from it. Cuba should keep its distance from North Korea’s dog-and-pony show and fully cooperate with the UN. It's not enough to cobble together a paragraph about Cuba's commitment to world peace and disarmament. Havana, as a member of the international community, must declare its unequivocal rejection of attempts by North Koreans to sneak into the club of nuclear powers. It is time to set priorities: Cuba should focus on creating a friendly international environment for its ongoing reforms. Everything else is secondary.
Something Always Happens
Taking place on the eve of the resumption of bilateral talks based on the 1994-95 U.S.-Cuban migration accords, the detention of the Chong Chon Gang evokes an old pattern in bilateral relations between Havana and Washington. Not only have relations been held hostage by Cold War logic, they have also suffered from unexpected pitfalls. "Something always happens," say the pessimists. The instant the news broke about the ship being confiscated by Panamanian president Ricardo Martinelli, Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Senator Marco Rubio demanded the talks be called off and reiterated that Cuba must remain on the list of terrorist-sponsoring countries. That is exactly the opposite of what the reaction should be.
It is time for policymakers in Havana and Washington to learn some crisis management, linking or separating issues as convenient to national interests, rather than leaving them up to the circus of the radicals on both sides. The United States should focus its superpower efforts where the threat warrants: Pyongyang. The discovery of this Cuban-North Korean violation offers an opportunity to further isolate the North Korean regime, adding measures of monitoring and control of any transaction with the country. North Korea is a threat to peace in East Asia, a violator of the nuclearnonproliferation system and a known smuggler of weapons to conflict zones such as the Congo or Yemen. Cuba is none of these things.
Any action against Cuba should take place within the multilateral framework of the sanctions against North Korea. It is up to the Security Council to get full cooperation from Cuba on this incident, in such a way that intensifies North Korea's isolation. As White House press secretary Jay Carney declared: “if it’s determined that materials found on board that vessel violate sanctions, then the body that levied the sanctions…would handle enforcement matters.” Abandoning negotiations on the implementation of migration agreements or continuing to unfairly keep Cuba on the list of terrorism-sponsoring countries distracts from efforts to place greater pressure on North Korea.
Cuba must answer for its alleged violation of UN Security Council resolutions 1718, 1874 and 2094. But Senator Rubio would like the United States to approach the situation like a butcher, when what is needed is a surgeon. U.S. diplomacy is sophisticated enough to correct its flawed policy towards Cuba while at the same time supporting multilateral pressure exerted by the UN’s seamless application of sanctions against the DPRK. It is not in the national interest to obfuscate clear multilateral standards of nonproliferation applied to any military transaction with the DPRK with arbitrary and unilateral double standards on terrorism applied to Cuba. There is plenty of evidence that North Korea has violated the nuclear nonproliferation regime, while none exists that Cuba participated or sponsored any terrorist act in the last twenty years.
Avoiding Another Mistake
The resumption of migration talks between Cuba and the United States is an opportunity to launch a new positive cycle in the bilateral relationship. High-level negotiations on topics amenable to give and take creates incentives for goodwill gestures, even in areas that are not officially included on the agenda—such as the imprisonment of U.S. aid worker Alan Gross and the inclusion of Cuba on the state sponsors of terrorism list. An act of goodwill by one party may be reciprocated by the other. Official face-to-face communication safeguards against one party pocketing unilateral concession without reciprocating.
Assuming there is no faction in Havana interested in "egging on" hostility between the two countries for their own benefit—a notion that is too conspiratorial but that cannot be dismissed outright—Cuba’s decision to ship obsolete Soviet military equipment in a North Korean ship was irresponsible. By following through with the bilateral talks while demanding application of the UN resolutions, President Obama's administration has made the wise decision not to respond to irresponsible behavior with more of the same. Hopefully it will remain on that course.
Arturo López-Levy is a PhD candidate at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He worked as a political analyst for the Cuban government since 1992 until his resignation in 1994. He is coauthor of the book Raul Castro and the New Cuba. Twitter: @turylevy.