Tag Archives: Cuba

Is It Time to End the Cuban Embargo?

The United Nations General Assembly voted to condemn the US embargo on Cuba earlier this week. Only the United States and Israel voted against the resolution, which passed by a vote of 186 in favor and 2 against. The embargo, put in place by the United States in 1963, less than 10 years after a communist movement led by Fidel Castro seized power in the country. According to the Cuban government, the embargo has cost the island nation at least 109 billion euro. Despite improving relations between the two countries, the embargo remains in place, largely because of political differences between Congressional Republicans and the Obama White House.

What do you think? What purpose does the embargo serve? Has it been effective in achieving that goal? Why? And should the United States lift the embargo against Cuba?

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A New Era of US-Cuban Relations?

The United States formally reopened its embassy in Cuba yesterday, reestablishing formal diplomatic relations that were terminated in 1961 amid Cold War tensions. For more than 50 years, the United States maintained an “Interest Desk” at the Swiss Embassy, permitting it to engage in discussions with the Communist-led government in Cuba without extending formal diplomatic recognition.

The move is the latest in a series of agreements between the United States and Cuba intended to normalize relations between the two countries. Separated by less than 100 miles, the two countries had tense relations throughout much of the 20th century.  The Cuban government regularly accused the United States of attempting to interfere in its domestic affairs, including launching several attempts to assassinate the country’s former President, Fidel Castro, and attempting to invade the island during the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961. For its part, Cuba welcomed Soviet missiles on to the island, sparing the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

What do you think? Should the United States restore diplomatic relations and normalize relations with Cuba? What effects might such a move have on the stability of the Communist government here?

The Global Politics of Smuggling

Han Solo: Now that's my kind of smuggler!

Han Solo: Now that’s my kind of smuggler!

Alright, I’ll admit it. When I think of smugglers, the first thing that comes to my mind is Han Solo. In reality, though, smuggling has a long history. Smuggling refers to the illegal transport of goods or persons, usually across international boundaries, in violation of domestic or international law. Smuggling is most often motivated by a desire to avoid paying taxes, but can also involve illegal immigration or emigration (e.g., human trafficking) or the trafficking of illegal substances (e.g., drugs,  weapons, or counterfeit goods).

Over the weekend, Panamanian prosecutors announced they would file charges against 35 crew members of the Chong Chon Gang, a North Korean ship passing through the Panama Canal. The ship’s manifest indicated it was carrying 10,000 tonnes of sugar bound from Cuba to North Korea. But inspection of the ship’s cargo found 240 tonnes of weapons,  including two Volga and Pechora anti-aircraft missile systems, nine missiles “in parts and spares,” two Mig-21 Bis and 15 engines for those airplanes. The weapons were found inside containers hidden within the sugar shipment.

Cuba described the weapons as “obsolete defensive weapons” and contended they were headed to North Korea for repair. The Panamanian government described the same weapons as “sophisticated.” The MiG-21 is a fighter jet with a limited range that first entered service in 1959. The missile systems in question are similarly dated and easily evaded by current US aircraft technology. Given this, the description of the weapons as “sophisticated” might be a bit of a stretch.

Regardless of the quality of the weapons themselves, it seems clear that the shipment was undertaken in violation on a United Nations Security Council embargo on weapons shipments to North Korea. United Nations Security Council Resolution 1718 (2006) requires that all United Nations Member States “shall prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer to the DPRK, through their territories or by their nationals, or using their flag vessels or aircraft, and whether or not originating in their territories, of…battle tanks, armoured combat vehicles, large calibre artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles or missile systems.” More expansive sanctions are imposed by Resolution 1874 (2009).

North Korea has a long history of flaunting United Nations resolutions and has often sought to exacerbate tensions with the broader international community. North Korea might also be seeking to reduce their reliance on Chinese support by expanding the number of trading partners it has.

The real question, though, is why would Cuba undertake such an exchange? The Cuban government had been moving to normalize relations with the United States, and had been making effective progress in this endeavor. Cuba has very little to gain from such a minor transaction, but it stands to lose a great deal now that the shipment has become public. Even assuming every element of the Cuban government’s story is true, that they were transporting the weapons systems to North Korea for repair, and that the sugar was payment, Cuba has little to gain. Philip Peters, President of the Cuba Research Center, noted that “This appears to be a violation of the U.N. resolution. But in military terms it has almost no significance at all. What this incident says about Cuba is that there aren’t a lot of places where you can go to get these old airplanes and antiaircraft systems fixed.”

And writing for The New Yorker, Jon Lee Anderson observes that, “It is difficult to know, as yet, just why Cuba would have wished to secretly load [weapons] of Soviet vintage onto a North Korean cargo ship, the Chong Chon Gang, which then concealed that cargo underneath ten thousand tons of Cuban brown sugar. But the explanation that Cuba’s foreign ministry quickly offered on Tuesday, a day after the ship’s dramatic seizure by suspicious Panamanian authorities at the Atlantic entrance to the Panama Canal, was somewhere between decidedly strange and scarcely believable.”

What do you think? Will the discovery of Cuban weapons bound for North Korea undermine negotiations to normalize relations between Cuba and the United States? Or will Cuba’s explanation mitigate any negative diplomatic effects? Take the poll or leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

The Cuban Missile Crisis

President Kennedy Pauses for Reflection During the Crisis

President Kennedy Pauses for Reflection During the Crisis

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. On October 27, 1960, a US U-2 spy plane was shot down over Cuba by a Soviet missile crew. The crisis began two week earlier, when CIA flights located and identified Soviet missile installations on the island. By October 27, the options had been considered, the blockade/quarantine had been imposed, and secret negotiations were underway.

On October 27, however, the CIA reported that at least five separate missile sites appeared to be fully operational. With tensions running high, both sides were on the brink of full-scale nuclear war. Indeed, “Black Saturday” as it came to be known, marked the closest both sides would get to a full-scale nuclear exchange during the Cold War. On several occasions on that day, we were a whisker hair away. For example:

After the first U2 plane was shot down, the US sent another. It was decided at the time that the second flight was ordered that because antiaircraft missile batteries in Cuba were under direct Soviet control, a second downed plane would represent an escalation on the part of the Soviets, and the US would respond with a full-scale attack against Cuba. This would have necessitated a Soviet response, likely by invading US allies in Europe. Fortunately, according to McNamara’s recollection, Soviet Premier Khrushchev had reached a similar conclusion and ordered the Soviet commander in Cuba to refrain from responding to US over flights of the island.

In an effort to dissuade Soviet submarines from reaching Cuba, the US Navy was

Vasili Arkhipov

Vasili Arkhipov

dropping “signaling depth charges” on the Soviet Foxtrot-class B-59 diesel-electric submarine. Unknown to the US Navy at the time, the B-59 was equipped with nuclear-tipped torpedoes and had orders to launch them if the submarine’s hull was breached. The decision to launch the nuclear torpedoes required the concurrence of the three ranking officers. While two concurred, the third, Vasili Arkhipov, refused, and the torpedoes were never launched.

Another U2 spy plane accidently made an unauthorized ninety-minute flight over the far eastern coast of the Soviet Union. This prompted the Soviets to launch interceptors from their bases in the region. The US similarly scrambled American fighters armed with nuclear air-to-air missiles over the Bering Sea. The U2 spy plane was recalled, and there was no engagement between the fighters.

The same day, Khrushchev received a letter written by Cuban President Fidel Castro in which Castro urged the Soviet Union to use its nuclear force to defend Cuba in the event of an attack. In the letter, dubbed “the Armageddon Letters,” Castro writes, “I believe the imperialists’ aggressiveness is extremely dangerous and if they actually carry out the brutal act of invading Cuba in violation of international law and morality, that would be the moment to eliminate such danger forever through an act of clear legitimate defense, however harsh and terrible the solution would be.” The US had active plans to launch an invasion of Cuba, and had already warned its NATO allies in Europe that, “the situation is growing shorter… the United States may find it necessary within a very short time in its interest and that of its fellow nations in the Western Hemisphere to take whatever military action may be necessary.”

The crisis itself was averted the morning of October 28, when Kennedy and Khrushchev agreed to deescalate the crisis. The Soviet Union agreed to withdraw its missiles from Cuba. In exchange, the United States agreed to issue a speech at the United Nations in which it promised to recognize the inviolability of Cuba’s borders, its sovereignty, and to refrain from interfering in its internal affairs. The United States also secretly agreed to remove US missiles from Italy and Turkey.

In a recent analysis of the crisis published in Foreign Affairs , noted political scientist Graham Alison wrote,

Fifty years ago, the Cuban missile crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear disaster. During the standoff, U.S. President John F. Kennedy thought the chance of escalation to war was “between 1 in 3 and even,” and what we have learned in later decades has done nothing to lengthen those odds. We now know, for example, that in addition to nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, the Soviet Union had deployed 100 tactical nuclear weapons to Cuba, and the local Soviet commander there could have launched these weapons without additional codes or commands from Moscow. The U.S. air strike and invasion that were scheduled for the third week of the confrontation would likely have triggered a nuclear response against American ships and troops, and perhaps even Miami. The resulting war might have led to the deaths of 100 million Americans and over 100 million Russians.

So why were we able to avoid the devastation to which Alison refers? Realists and liberals offer competing explanations.

For realists, American military superiority made the Soviets less likely to follow through on their threats. At the time, the United States had a 17 to 1 advantage in nuclear capability. Assuming rationality, Khrushchev could not stand up to the United States nor force them to back down. Left with no other choice, Khrushchev backed down.

But what about personal motivation? Both Kennedy and Khrushchev understood that neither side could win a nuclear exchange. Both were afraid that once conflict started, it would escalate beyond control. Clear lines of communication (and thus empathy) between Kennedy and Khrushchev would allow them to recognize and overcome the no-win situation. Indeed, after the crisis was resolved, a red phone system was set up to facilitate direct communication between the White House and the Kremlin.

What do you think? Is the realist or the liberal explanation of the Cuban Missile Crisis more compelling? Or does another approach offer a richer understanding. Take the poll and let us know what you think.

Inside North Korea

The Korean Border

The South Korean-North Korean Border (courtesy flikr)

I just rediscovered VBS TV, a group of investigative journalists who do some great reporting. They have a new documentary in which two of them manage to get into North Korea. Their report gives an unusual inside view of one of the world’s most reclusive regimes. After enduring days of indoctrination, scripted tours, and “unique” restaurants, in the final clip they conclude that the division between North Korea and the West is similar to the division between the West and the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War. The challenge, they note, is that North Korea remains an authoritarian society isolated from the rest of the world. As they note in the video, “They [North Koreans] didn’t have punk. They didn’t have jazz. They didn’t have blues. There are no cultural similarities whatsoever…This is a time machine. This is 1930s Russia; 1950s Soviet Union. So they see me as the imperialist aggressor, and I see them as the land that time forgot.”

It’s an interesting notion. And it leads to some interesting conclusions. If the threat of hard power against North Korea (in the form of sanctions or the use of military force) has been unsuccessful in deterring them from pursuing nuclear weapons, is it possible that the use of soft power could be more effective? Could student and cultural exchanges bring down the North Korean regime in a way that the threat of force could not? And if so, what does this suggest about U.S. policy toward Cuba? The Cuban embargo, which has been in place since 1960, has clearly not forced Cuba’s hand. Could cultural exchanges and social pressure be more effective in promoting change in Cuba than the threat of hard power? It’s an interesting possibility.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

The major news networks yesterday were giving virtually non-stop coverage to the upcoming inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama.  Obama is already on his journey to Washington DC for Tuesday’s inauguration.  In his weekly radio address, President-elect Obama warned of the challenges facing the nation, the most critical of which include unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a global economic crisis.  Despite the challenges, however, the television news networks focused extensively on the pomp and circumstance of the ceremonial inauguration itself. 

Here’s five important stories you might have missed among all the ceremony:

1.  Hamas and Israel reached a one-week ceasefire on Sunday, temporarily halting the three-week old conflict which has already resulted in more than 1,100 Palestinian and 13 Israeli deaths.  The political fallout of the conflict also looks to be severe, with Qatar and Mauritania announcing they would terminate political and economic ties with Israel over the conflict. With the largest Muslim and Jewish comminutes in Europe, France is also bracing for an increase in sectarian violence between Jewish and Muslim communities.

2. After signaling that a deal had been reached last week and then seeing that deal collapse, Russia and Ukraine announced on Saturday that they had again reached an agreement which would permit Russia to resume natural gas shipments to the European Union.  Russian natural gas supplies are normally shipped through pipelines in Ukraine, and these shipments account for approximately twenty percent of the E.U.’s total natural gas consumption.  In the new one-year agreement, Russia offers Ukraine a 20 percent discount on natural gas prices in exchange for a promise not to increase transit fees for using the pipeline.  Some countries in Eastern Europe have been without heat for twelve days as Russia and Ukraine struggled to come to a solution to the standoff.  But political wrangling in Ukraine could still derail the deal.

3.  Ethiopian troops completed their planned withdrawal from Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, on Thursday.  The withdrawal raises concerns about the viability of Somalia’s pro-Western government and the increasing influence of Islamic extremists in the country.  Ethiopia threatened to withdraw its forces several months ago, complaining that the international community had not provided sufficient resources to support its mission and the government of Somalia.  In the absence of Ethiopian or other military forces, it is feared that Somalia may expand its reputation as a home to Islamic terrorists.

4.  There is growing speculation that Fidel Castro, former president of Cuba, may be in grave health.  Castro has not appeared in public since July 2006, and has recently cancelled a number of meetings with foreign dignitaries.  In a public speech on Sunday, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, one of Castro’s closest allies, appeared to offer his eulogy, noting “That Fidel is his uniform, who walked the streets and town late at night, hugging the people, won’t return.  That will remain in memories.”  Fidel’s brother, Raúl Castro, has served as president of Cuba since July 2006, when his brother was forced to resign for health reasons.  Since then, the economy of Cuba has struggled, the extensive welfare protections afforded workers have begun to decline, and the government has begun to promise greater openness and transparency.

5.  A closely fought by-election in Malaysia has been won by the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, part of the country’s Islamic opposition.  While the results will not alter the balance of power in the national parliament, they do raise concerns about the ability of the incoming National Front government to effectively govern.  

And for two bonus stories this week:

6.  In Japan, sharp divisions are appearing in the Liberal Democratic Party, the party which has ruled Japan for all but 11 months in the past 53 years.  Yoshimi Watanabe, who served as state minister for administrative reform from 2007 to 2008, tendered his resignation from the party last week amid the declining popularity of the party with the electorate.  The opposition Democratic Party of Japan appears well-positioned to win the next national election, which must take place by September. 

7.  Iran’s ex-Prime Minister, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, may run as a candidate in the presidential elections scheduled for June.  Mousavi is widely seen as a reformist candidate possessing the popularity to potentially defeat incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

The conflict between Hamas and Israel in Gaza continued this week, with Israeli air strikes and rocket attacks by Hamas through much of the week culminating with an Israeli ground attack over the weekend.  So far, more than 400 Palestinians and 4 Israelis have been killed in the fighting.  A Libyan-sponsored United Nations resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire was blocked by the United States on Saturday.  Meanwhile, some international observers warned that the use of military force will not achieve a stable solution to the Gaza conflict

In other news from the previous week:

1.  The Chinese government has moved to isolate dissidents who support Charter 08.  The Charter, often referred to as the most significant push for opening the one-party state in China since the Tiananmen Square protests, has been signed by 7,000 Chinese and foreign intellectuals.  The Charter warns of “the possibility of a violent conflict of disastrous proportions” if the Chinese Communist Party does not move towards greater democratization and political openness. A number of signatories to the document have been detained by police, and the government has cautioned the media against carrying interviews with the Charter’s signatories.

2.  Tensions between Russia and Ukraine are growing as both sides seek to mobilize support for their position in Europe.  Russia cut off natural gas flows to Ukraine last week, accusing the Ukrainian government stealing gas from the pipeline; the Ukrainian government denies the charges.  The standoff is a major concern for several members of the European Union, which secures up to 20 percent of its natural gas demands through the disputed pipeline. 

3.  Cuba celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution on January 1.  The revolution led to the overthrow of the dictatorial government of Fulgencio Batista and the establishment of a communist state under the leadership of Fidel Castro.  The resignation of Fidel Castro earlier this year, the economic slowdown on the island, and the devastation brought by two hurricanes have left the country in crisis.  As a result, celebrations of the revolution were scaled back.  The future of U.S.-Cuban relations is likely to be a significant policy question for the incoming Obama administration.

4.  John Atta Mills, the leader of the opposition National Democratic Congress, was declared the winner of Ghana’s presidential runoff elections on Sunday.  He defeated Nana Akufo-Addo of the ruling New Patriotic Party to win the presidency in elections characterized as free and fair.  Ghana has long been viewed as the model for political and economic reform in Africa, and the peaceful political transition in Ghana is viewed as a model for other struggling countries.

5.  On Friday, the government of Sri Lanka announced it had seized control of the northern town of Killinochchi in the northern part of the country.  Sri Lanka has effectively been divided in half for years, with the northern part of the country under the de facto control of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (the Tamil Tigers) and the southern part of the country under the control of the Sri Lankan government.  The government’s victory in the Tiger stronghold of Killinochchi is widely seen as a dramatic blow to the Tamil Tiers.