Tripoli Today, Havana Tomorrow?

March 2, 2011 Topic: SanctionsTradeSociety Region: CubaLibyaUnited States

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.

Given the restructuring of the Cuban economy, the changes announced by the administration in essence permit Americans to support “private economic activity” by providing financial support for those who will become self-employed or set up small businesses. While such measures may help to support the long-term trend of liberalization on the island, it also means that the Communist Party has a potential safety net when, as is widely expected, it moves later this year to abandon the commitment to ensuring full employment for all Cubans in the state sector and begins to lay off redundant workers.

But a close analysis of the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia indicate that concerns about persistent unemployment and rising food prices were important drivers of the anti-government protests. Those who argue against further openings to Cuba make the case that engagement will only prolong the existence of the Castro government. After the administration announced that it was reversing the Bush-era restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba, the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, complained that the new policies “certainly will not help the Cuban people free themselves from the tyranny that engulfs them.” And if the lesson being taken from Libya is that energy companies, eager to access Libya’s oil and natural gas bounties, lobbied Western governments to let the Qaddafi regime off the hook, then some in Congress are certain to dampen the lure of Cuban offshore oil by forcing energy companies to decide whether to do business in Cuba or in the United States—taking a page from the sanctions which have been imposed, with varying and mixed degrees of success, on Iran.

Administration rhetoric about supporting freedom in the Middle East may also constrain its ability to sustain any further openings to Cuba. It is not accidental that the first wave of op-eds in South Florida are linking developments in both regions, with the argument being advanced that the president’s Latin America team is “out of touch” given the developments in Libya. 

When Obama lifted some of the Bush-era bans in January, there was optimism that in several months, he might take more steps to end the trade embargo altogether. In light of the protests sweeping through the Arab world, however, that assumption may no longer be valid. Castro survived the 1989 wave that brought down communist regimes in Eastern Europe, but will he and his brother be able to withstand the 2011 iteration blowing from the Levant? All bets are off.