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Cuba: Threat or Paranoia?

Commentary, 27 August 2010
As Cuba is designated once again a state sponsor of terrorism by the United States, the fifty year old hostilities are returned to the spotlight. But how much of a threat does this Communist regime really pose to the world’s only superpower?

As Cuba is designated once again a state sponsor of terrorism by the United States, the fifty year old hostilities are returned to the spotlight. But how much of a threat does this Communist regime really pose to the world's only superpower?

By Kate McDonnell for

Che GuevaraThe 5 August publication of Cuba's continued designation as a state sponsor of terrorism by the United States was met with extreme indignation by the Cuban authorities. While the US openly admits that the Castro regime no longer actively supports rebellious factions in Latin America, it is accused of providing a safe haven for members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the National Liberation Army of Colombia (ELN), and the Basque Homeland and Freedom Organisation (ETA)1.

On this basis, despite Cuba's steps towards law enforcement cooperation with the US, the Communist state has been maintained on the four-strong list of terrorist-sponsoring states: an argument that strongly suggests America simply wants an excuse to maintain hostile and wary relations with the island. But how much of this is due to a real threat, and how much is simple Cold War paranoia? An observation of the island state suggests that Cuba is far from being a menace to its capitalist neighbour.

Fidel's legacy

The smooth accession of Raúl Castro to the position of president in 2008, two years after his older brother's formal resignation from power and four years after Fidel's infamous fall from the podium after a graduation speech in 2004, suggests a high level of stability within the Cuban regime. Rather than violent scrambles for power, a peaceful transition occurred, with none of the public displays of anti-government sentiment analysts anticipated. After handling an operation as delicate as installing a new president - the first since the 1959 revolution - the death of a former leader, while potentially unsettling, could be tackled as a simple PR job.

However, it must not be forgotten that the Cuban government owes much of its public loyalty to the personality cult developed around Fidel himself. It is his face displayed on murals across the country, it is he towards whom Cuban's direct their own personal loyalties, and it was he that lead the revolutionary army into power fifty years ago. Even while undergoing medical treatment, Fidel has written prolifically, maintaining his presence through the internet and the publication of his memoirs. His personality cult continues, and his death will have a direct effect upon the loyalty of Cuban citizens. However, with Raúl firmly in power, the authorities will at least be spared the frantic search for a new leader when Fidel passes away. In such a situation there would exist the danger of a military coup, attempted revolutions and even the entire collapse of the state, which would at the very least threaten US borders and refugee control.

As it is, Fidel's death is unlikely to turn into a threat for the United States. But what danger can be expected from Raúl's time in power?

Raúl and his loyalties

Naturally, the position of Raúl's allegiances will have a significant effect upon the future of the Cuban nation. Upon his accession to power, it was widely believed that he would use his position to open the market and introduce liberal reform. While this has occurred on a very limited scale, it appears that this prediction was rather over-optimistic.

Raúl's position as head of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias - FAR), who were greatly bolstered by the controlled economic reforms initiated in 19932, suggested that the new president would be in favour of expanding such open-market conditions to benefit the rest of the country. In reality, however, Raúl's loyalty may lie less with the introduction of capitalism and more with the military itself. He was in favour of the 1993 reforms because they benefitted the army, not because he saw them as an intrinsically positive development.

This allegiance to the armed forces is not unexpected, but may well be giving the US some cause for alarm. The Cuban military currently manages around 60 percent of the economy3, making it the strongest institution in the country. With its former head now in charge, the chances of a military state arising appear to be rather high. Indeed, the military exercises of 2004, shortly after Fidel's public collapse, were the largest executed in nearly twenty years. It is reasonable to suppose that this was intended as a 'show of strength', not just for Cuba, but for Raúl himself (knowing, as he would, that he was the obvious candidate for power after his brother) and an indication of the route down which Cuba will be heading.

Fortunately for the United States, the Cuban military is not in a position to turn its weapons outwards. In 2009, the army numbered approximately 60,000 regular troops, who are trained almost exclusively for defensive manoeuvres4. Cuba has been preparing for a US invasion since the creation of the Communist regime, and it is here that its powers lie. Were a hostile force to enter Cuban airspace or waters, they would encounter stiff resistance from the Cuban Navy and Anti-aircraft capability, but since the removal of Soviet forces in the early 1990s, the island has neither shown any inclination towards, nor any ability to launch an effective attack against the US. Subsequently, a military threat from Cuba is a distant and unlikely event: even if it were to occur, it would be not take long to suppress.

The threat from below

Cuba has managed to avoid the pressure-cooker of social unrest faced by many other enclosed regimes. The post-revolution mass emigration and the permitted exodus of the 1980 Mariel boatlift allowed great numbers of future dissidents to leave the country, thereby diluting the number of protestors who remained.

Nevertheless, to suggest that there is no force for change in Cuba is to distinctly understate the matter. Indeed, Cuba appears to have what may result in a very effective movement for social reform.

Rather than a single movement, the opposition to the regime is represented in a multitude of small organisations, operating independently5. While this does not make for an effective single front against the Castro government, it does ensure survival. The Cuban authorities have historically worked to root out these organisations by sending agents to infiltrate and neutralise the groups6. This tactic has proved incredibly ineffective, however, as even total annihilation of a single organisation has very limited, if any, effect upon other dissident forces. The forced exile of the owners of Cuba's first independent library, for example, did not stop another 135 from being set up over the next decade, as there was never a hierarchical structure to the movement which aimed to end the censorship of literature.

While the small and widespread nature of the existing dissident groups (approximately 87 per cent existing outside of Havana) does mean that there is little immediate threat of a successful rebellion against the government, the resilient nature of the movement could well lead to trouble for the regime in the future, especially as economic polarisation continues, causing many more people to seek out fellow dissatisfied citizens.

Fortunately, for both the regime itself and for other wary nations, the vast majority of these dissident organisations appear to be seeking peaceful reform of the Cuban social and political environment. A turbulent uprising can be almost entirely ruled out by the groups' commitment to non-violence. Furthermore, the strength of the FAR within the state would be more than sufficient to subdue any appearance of outright rebellion, and the current financial situation in Cuba means that defiant organisations would be unlikely to obtain sufficient funding to support any violent attempt against the state.

Russian partnership

One threat from Cuba does not come in the form of violence or political turbulence. In 2009, Russia renewed its cooled relations with Cuba, securing oil-drilling rights off the island's coast. The effects of this partnership are yet to be seen, but Russian control of assets in the Gulf of Mexico will not be looked on favourably by the United States7.  With oil becoming an increasingly valuable and expensive commodity, such a move by Russia could be seen as a threat to US fuel security. Unfortunately, maintaining hostile relations with Cuba is unlikely to improve the situation. The best way to secure the region's assets would be to make an agreement to drill in the area themselves: a situation that would require a distinct change in policy towards the regime, and more diplomatic effort than the US appears willing to commit.

Groundless fears

It seems that, despite the United States' wariness of the Cuban regime, the island in fact presents a very limited threat. Indeed, its continued hostility towards Cuba is likely to cause more problems than it will cure in the future. The hand of friendship would encourage any successful reform by the expansive anti-Castro movement among the Cuban populace to be administered in the US image, and would greatly improve any opportunity of gaining access to further Gulf oil supplies.

Those events which would be unaffected by US relations, including the occurrence of structural collapse following the death of Fidel Castro and use of the military by Raúl to cement his hold over the country (a possibility, given the strong mutual loyalty that exists between Raúl and the FAR), are either highly unlikely, or would pose very little real threat to the United States themselves. Any difficulties which arose could almost certainly be tackled through diplomatic channels, without the need for armed conflict.

It seems, therefore, that while the US continues to look with distrust upon the Communist regime less than a hundred miles from its shores, there is little reason for it to fear Cuba's future. Indeed, if it continues to do so, it may find itself missing out on opportunities to further its own interests.


 The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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