Cuban Two Step? Havana, Washington and Moscow in 2016

The archetypical asymmetric relationship between Cuba and the United States has undergone historic change. After more than 50 years, bilateral diplomatic relations have been restored and in March 2016 Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba for 90 years. Obama’s desire for a foreign policy legacy is often named as the primary reason for the rapprochement between these two Cold War enemies. Havana’s changed relationship with Caracas, triggered by the deteriorating economic situation in Venezuela, is thought to be another cause. But the reconciliation can be seen in another light – as a challenge to the traditional assumption regarding asymmetric relationships that the larger of the countries dominates the smaller.

For more than 50 years Washington had attempted to economically and politically isolate Cuba, but by the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century this position had been ‘turned on its head.’ It was the United States that had become politically isolated in Latin America, and it was isolated with regards to the issue of Cuba. This was in part due to changes in Cuban foreign policy in the early 1990s, which had seen the island’s political influence increase both regionally and throughout the developing world. Add to that the appearance of progressive governments, or the ‘pink tide,’ in Latin America in the early 2000s, and many Latin American leaders began to question Washington’s treatment of Havana, which appeared to remain dominated by Cold War thinking. This was most noticeable in June 2009 at the 39th General Assembly of the Organisation of American States (OAS) when, under pressure from the member states, Cuba’s suspension to the organisation was revoked. A very different scenario from the OAS’s Eighth Meeting of Consultation of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs in January 1962 when the US had applied pressure to the organisation to suspend Cuba from the OAS. To improve its relationship with Latin America, Washington had little choice but to change its Cuba policy.

The power dynamic that emerged challenges assumed thinking regarding asymmetric relationships, particularly so since Cuban-U.S. relations also had a considerable effect on the island’s relationship with Moscow. The nature of Cuban-U.S. relations, and the two countries’ shared histories, has catalysed Moscow’s interest in Cuba since the time of the Russian Revolution in 1917. The outcome is that the distance between Cuba and the United States, rather than between Havana and Moscow, has been the most important factor for Cuban-Soviet relations, and subsequently Cuban-Russian relations, as well. Cuba’s story contests the notion that the intensity of an asymmetric relationship decreases as the distance between the two countries increases.

Cuban-Russian relations remain important for both countries, evidenced by the Russian spy-ship Viktor Leonov docking in Havana the day before the start of the first bilateral talks between Havana and Washington in 2014. Put simply, Cuban foreign policy is not going to fundamentally change in the aftermath of this announcement, but it will remain symbolic as areas of contestation remain in Cuban-U.S. relations, most noticeably the U.S. embargo, payment for nationalised property and the Guantanamo Naval Base. The Cold War may be over, but Havana’s tropical climate has not yet fully thawed U.S–Cuban relations.


Dr. Mervyn Bain is Head of Department for Politics and International Relations at the University of Aberdeen and has published various articles on Cuban foreign policy in journals including the Cuban Studies, Journal of Latin American Studies, Communist and Post Communist Studies, and The Latin Americanist, amongst others. He is also the author of the two books Soviet-Cuban Relations 1985 to 1991. His article “Moscow, Havana and asymmetry in international relations,” will appear in print in Volume 29, Issue 3 of CRIA in October 2016. It can be found online as a Free to Access article here.

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