Last week, President Obama sought to solidify his legacy as a liberal icon by announcing the intent to reestablish diplomatic relations and re-open embassies with Havana. This decision to negotiate and engage with the Communist Castro regime has provided the U.S. with nothing substantial in return.
In fact, it may even put the American people at risk while actually worsening conditions for the Cuban people.
How could President Obama’s decision harm Americans? In a Congressional hearing I chaired in February, expert witnesses highlighted the sheer size of Cuba’s intelligence apparatus: reportedly 34 times the size of our own efforts. Why would a country 90 miles from Florida whose people are struggling to make basic ends meet want or need such a large intelligence force?
Cuba has a clear record as a foreign intelligence collector and trafficker of U.S. national secrets to other authoritarian regimes, such as China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia. Recall that Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lieutenant General Vincent Stewart stated in February that “Cuban intelligence services . . . remain the predominant counterintelligence threat to the U.S. emanating from Latin America.” Practically, this means that American tourists or business professionals who visit Cuba could easily find themselves subjected to Cuban surveillance, and potentially having personal information about them used as a tool of spy craft.
In January, Raul Castro demanded that we hand back U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (GTMO) before Cuba and the U.S. could normalize relations. Last week, the Communist Party of Cuba’s Central Committee reiterated that call, stating it was “indispensable” that the U.S. return GTMO to achieve normalized relations. This follows other calls for the U.S. to end the embargo, end our democracy promotion efforts and Radio Martí broadcasting, and pay compensation for “human and economic damages” to Cuba. While the Obama Administration has said that it has no intention to alter the existing lease agreement for GTMO, based on its feeble record of keeping its promises to allies or on stated red lines, Americans should be very skeptical of this promise.
Aside from further demonstrating weakness, relinquishing the base at GTMO would be a strategic misstep of epic proportions for the United States. It would have significant national security and military implications. GTMO is the oldest overseas U.S. naval base and only permanent U.S. defense base in the region. Its location enables U.S. forces to maintain full advantages across a wide spectrum of military operations. It plays a critical role in migrant operations assistance missions and is a logistics center for U.S. ships and aircraft, allowing these assets to maintain tactical advantages and freedom of movement in strategic waters in a region with limited U.S. military presence.
If Castro achieved control of GTMO, what would happen? The all-too-obvious answer is that it would allow him to extend an invitation to one of the close allies of Havana, such as the Putin regime in Moscow or the mullahs in Tehran. If any of the actors interested in taking over the lease of GTMO does move into the warm Cuban waters off Florida’s southern coast, this would provide a direct military threat to the U.S. homeland. Consider for a moment the depth of waters and potential ability for nuclear submarines to conduct intelligence operations or worse.
Two years ago, the Russian Defense Minister stated that Russia wants to build military bases in several countries in the Western hemisphere, including Cuba. Press reports of Russian intelligence ships operating in the waters around Cuba, most recently earlier this year on the eve of U.S. talks with Cuba in Havana, prove that Russia is deadly serious about making good on those intentions.
Remember what Russia is doing in its own neighborhood for a moment. Vladimir Putin brazenly acted to annex the Crimean Peninsula, ignoring the international outrage, and Ukraine is worried about a “full-scale” Russian invasion. If the U.S. gave way on GTMO, Putin would likely welcome the opportunity to have warm-water lodging for his navy only 90 miles from the United States. Similarly, Iran continues to test the patience of the international community with its nuclear operations and refusal to cooperate with international inspectors. If things go badly for Iran with any nuclear deal, having a deeper presence in Latin America through Cuba offers Iran options for retributive action should they want it.
The potential for the U.S. homeland could be devastating if we are not careful. We all know how close we came the last time there was a potential nuclear threat building in Cuba.
Abraham Lincoln once said that “those who deny freedoms to others deserve it not for themselves.” In Cuba, the Communist Castro regime denies liberty to its people every day. For over fifty years, the Cuban people have been living an authoritarian nightmare. However, this seems to make no difference to Time Magazine, which named Raul Castro as one of its top “100 Most Influential People” in April. In this case, influential can only reflect the real fact that he maintains nearly complete control over the daily lives of the Cuban people.
Obama’s decision last week gives Castro economic relief without requiring any change in behavior. In fact, it is easier to create a list of items that the U.S. has not gained from negotiations with Havana since Obama’s negotiators have yet to require any substantive demands. There has been no end to political violence and persecution; no progress on the protection and improvement of human rights; and no reparations for the billions of dollars of American and Cuban property stolen by the Castro regime even while Cuba continues making its own demands on us.
Swapping out the sign that reads “U.S. Interests Section” for one that says “Embassy” only further serves to validate the Castros’ leadership. It is also a repudiation of American principles. Thus far, the bilateral talks have provided no measurable changes or benefits for the U.S. or the Cuban people.
This is a bad deal for everyone involved, except the Castro brothers.
Rep. Jeff Duncan represents the Third District of South Carolina.