Should the Biden administration decide against US military intervention in Haiti, such a decision runs the risk of setting a dangerous precedent. Moreover, it will serve as a signal to America’s allies and adversaries around the world. For allies such as Taiwan it poses a dangerous question: If the United States is reluctant to use its military power to aid a friendly nation in its own backyard, what does that say about the US commitment to come to Taiwan’s defense in the event of a Chinese attack? The Biden administration has promised to support Taiwan if China turns its sights on the island nation. A reluctance to answer Haiti’s request for military assistance leaves little margin for error when US actions do not measure up to US words and promises.
From the vantage point of an American adversary, the absence of a US intervention in Haiti could serve to entice it to increase its footprint and influence in the Western Hemisphere. Perhaps even to add fuel to the fire and bring about further instability that could be used to its advantage. Venezuela is a convenient base of operations for the usual lineup of suspects- China, Russia and even Iran, to orchestrate moves in the Western Hemisphere. Or Venezuela can initiate action on its own, albeit in limited fashion. Cuba has been a close friend and ally of the Maduro regime. If the situation in Cuba deteriorates, Venezuelan assistance will be fast in coming. Exactly what form the assistance would take is open to debate given Venezuela’s limited resources of course.
China has been moving beneath the radar in the Western Hemisphere for years. Its footprint has not yet been established firmly, yet inroads have been made in Venezuela and other places. Beijing has deepened ties with a number of nations in Latin America and the Caribbean. China is looking to develop and establish a permanent presence in the region. Right now, Panama seems to be the likely target, but in the event of an American slip up elsewhere in the region, the Chinese footprint could end up in the Caribbean.
The United States must weigh its moves in the Caribbean carefully and take into account the intentions and agendas of its global competitors. The Biden administration’s foreign policy team has not had smooth sailing so far this year. From butting heads with China, to the resurgence of the Taliban in the last days of the Afghan drawdown, the White House and State Department have been rocked back on their heels, so to speak. Still, that provides no justification to ignore the importance of the Caribbean to US policy. Friends and enemies alike are watching events in Haiti and Cuba closely.
In this era of strategic competition the Caribbean has regained significance. Washington needs to remember this.
Protest rallies broke out in Cuba today as citizens took to the streets and voiced their discontent with the current government, as well as shortages of food and medicine that have grown significantly worse since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a nation where dissent is often dealt with swiftly and brutally, the protests appear to have taken the government by surprise. The protest rallies took place in cities and towns around the country. Santiago, Santa Clara, Matanzas, Cienfuegos and Holguín all saw protests, as did a number of smaller towns. Eventually, they came to Havana where a strong police presence was waiting. Thousands of people took part nationwide, making today’s protests the largest in Cuba since the Balsero crisis in 1994.
A shortage in COVID-19 vaccines seems to have been a contributing factor for today’s events too. Cuba has been setting record highs in the number of COVID cases of late. Efforts to control transmission of the virus have not kept up with the rise in cases. Cuba’s economy is also in the midst of a contraction. Economic sanctions and multiple layers of bureaucracy have combined to bring production in agricultural and essential food sectors to a near standstill. Of course, these problems are all symptoms of the main ailment facing Cubans: the authoritarian government in Havana.
It did not take very long for the Cuban government to lay blame for the protests at the feet of the United States. The next step in the government’s response will be watched closely by the US and other nations in the region. This is the first major test for Cuba’s leader Miguel Díaz-Canel since he assumed power in April of this year.
For the US, the Cuba demonstrations could serve to bring about another test for the Biden administration which is now contending with Haiti and the aftermath of its president’s assassination last week.
As Venezuelans endure their nation’s second major power outage in a month, and recently arrived Russian troops go to work on the ground, the United States is beginning to scrutinize Cuba’s role in the Venezuelan crisis. The Trump administration has said publicly that Cuba is the prime reason Nicolas Maduro remains in power. Havana’s support for Maduro and his government has been essential. The close ties between Venezuela and Cuba reach back to the heady days when Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro ruled. These men, and the nations they led, were socialist brothers fighting the influence of the United States across the Caribbean, and South America.
Their successors are trying desperately to keep the tight relationship from unraveling. As Venezuela’s political and financial situations have spiraled out of control, it’s more dependent on Cuba’s aid than ever before. Unfortunately for Cuba, its moves in Venezuela are starting to attract US attention at a point where the stakes are growing high. The US has gathered and unleashed a heavy salvo of diplomatic and economic pressure on Nicolas Maduro’s government to punish, and eventually dismantle it once and for all. The efforts of Cuba, and a handful of nation-states outside of the Western Hemisphere, are working on the opposite hand to keep Venezuela afloat, and diminish the effect US sanctions, and diplomatic pressure are having.
Cuba has been present and active the longest. Its influence is felt on many levels of Venezuelan life. Cuban doctors have been working to prop up Venezuela’s failing medical system. Cuban military advisers have been training the Venezuelan military, and in some instances Cuban officers have assumed command responsibilities in some of Venezuela’s most capable combat units. There are reports that Venezuela’s military strategy is shifting towards fighting a ‘prolonged asymmetrical war’ against a US invasion, and this doctrinal change was made by Cuban military advisers.
How the US chooses to combat Cuba’s influence remains to be seen. Despite a brief warming of relations between Havana, and Washington during the later Obama years, relations are icy once again. The Trump administration does not regard Cuba as a potential ally like the Obama administration had. President Trump, and his national security team regard Cuba as an unrepentant agitator, and supporter of left-wing regimes across the hemisphere. If US policies and actions aimed at Maduro end up having a negative effect on Cuba, the Trump administration will not lose any sleep over it. If bringing down Maduro can help destabilize the Cuban government, the United States is all for it.
The difficult part for Washington will be identifying the right opportunity when it comes along.
The United States is withdrawing all non-essential personnel and dependents from its embassy in Havana. The move comes in response to mysterious attacks that have left diplomats and other embassy staff members ill. Since fall of 2016 over twenty embassy staff members have reported health problems that range from nausea and vertigo through to mild brain trauma. Washington suspects that sonic attacks are the cause behind these health problems. Two Canadian citizens were also affected by these attacks. A joint investigation involving the FBI, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and Cuban authorities has been underway for some time, but has yet to uncover the guilty party. The US has let it be known that it does not believe Cuba is responsible for the attacks, instead believing it is the work of a third party. The US is appreciative of Cuba’s cooperation, but holds the Castro government ultimately responsible for the safety of American diplomats in Cuba.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez on Tuesday to discuss the situation. The meeting was the highest level of diplomatic contact between the United States and Cuba since the inauguration of President Trump in January. The State Department said the discussion was ‘firm and frank’ and Tillerson ‘conveyed the gravity of the situation and underscored the Cuban authorities obligations to protect Embassy staff.’ Both countries appear cognizant of the negative effect this matter could have on US-Cuban relations. Relations between the two nations are in a delicate spot right now. President Trump’s Cuba policy thus far has been centered around drawing back on the appeasement and reopening of relations undertaken by his predecessor. Even before Trump’s inauguration his view on the US-Cuba rapprochement was dim. As long as these mysterious attacks on US diplomats continue, it causes more damage to relations and diminishes the chances for a lasting peace between the two former Cold War rivals.