Castro's Passing: Time for Engagement, Continued Confrontation, or Punitive Action?

By Colonel John C. McKay, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired)

The peaceful transition from authoritarian rule to some form of democratic government, supported and assisted by the United States, and undertaken in the interest of U.S. national security policy, is not without precedent in the post-World War II era (See sidebar, p. 30). Concurrently, signs of dysfunction, if not internal decay, within the FARC warrant exploration and exploitation. 4 In turn the information so gleaned can be used to constructively engage the rest of Latin America in a bona fide manner with the aim of recruiting regional countries as partners in democracy and long-term allies.

There is also this: The shift of global geo-strategic economic centers of gravity in the post-colonial, post-Cold War era, to the United States, the European Union, China, and India persuasively argues that we reinforce our global economic and strategic preeminence, while simultaneously enhancing our capabilities and efforts against Islamic radicalism. 5 The latter can be done through closer strategic ties with friendly regional neighbors. Our current relationship with Colombia, though controversial with some, provides a starting template from which to work. 6

Ongoing events in Cuba compel the United States to begin the process of more closely aligning our neighbors' interests with our own and to focus on mutually agreed upon goals. This will facilitate strengthening our southern flank against inroads from radical fundamentalism, and countering the regionally debilitating effects of left-leaning populist movements-dubbed "21st century socialism" or the Bolivarian revolution by Venezuela's Chavez—personified by Chavez himself, Ecuador's Correa, and fellow traveler Evo Morales of Bolivia. To achieve this, U.S. policy must demonstrate to Cuba, starting now, receptivity to engagement rather than continued confrontation, or worse, punitive action.

No Excuse for Inaction

Now ailing and 81 years old, Castro is unlikely to be seen again in his former roles as president or commander-in-chief of the military. 7 The singular unknown at present is: what happens between now and Castro's actual demise, or incapacitation? It is incumbent on U.S. policy-makers to capitalize on Castro's enervation to immediately start re-assessing and realistically re-structuring a long-standing, albeit moribund, Cuban policy. Reiteration of timeworn but politically expedient mantras employed in slightly varying semblances by ten U.S. administrations up to and including the present one will not suffice. This is an election year, but that is no excuse for inaction. An editorial in the 20 March New York Times stated: "A policy that made little sense in the Cold War makes still less in today's age of globalization?when America does not hesitate to trade with and invest in other repressive countries (China, for example), recognizing that commerce is more likely than isolation to nurture a positive political change." 8

U.S. policymakers should initiate the process of reconciliation by lifting the trade embargo while insisting on the release of all political prisoners in Cuba. Simultaneously, they should devise a compelling and practicable plan, ideally in coordination with our hemispheric neighbors, to usher Cuba into the family of democratic nations. A sincere political, economic, and strategic engagement of this nature-not some capricious "Johnny-come-lately" spur-of-the moment "we have to do something" reaction?serves as a marker to our neighbors of a political maturity befitting our status as a global leader. 9 One must keep in mind an alternative: allowing Hugo Chavez to wreak havoc in the Caribbean and the rest of Latin America as he is currently doing with his all but open support of the FARC. 10 Combine the latter with Chavez' open—and much publicized—adoration of Fidel Castro, and his cozying up to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, and the alternative quickly becomes unappealing. 11

The Next Step

The next step would be to start the process of correction, both of perception and of reality, of past indifferences toward and neglect of Latin America. The first order of business is to formulate a new national policy toward Cuba, sans Fidel, using his withdrawal—and eventual death—as the foundation on which to build a more realistic and mutually advantageous policy toward the whole of Latin America. Just as Spain's engagement in the immediate post-World War II era was important, if not critical to control of the eastern approaches to the Mediterranean, thus overriding past displeasure with the Franco regime, Cuba's engagement by the United States is essential as the cornerstone to a re-orientation of our national policy toward Latin America. 12

A realistic reorientation is required in a rapidly changing international environment: a world characterized by international terrorism; globalization; increasing environmental degradation; technological integration; increasing interlinking of military capabilities and missions, e.g., counter-narcotics, counter-terrorism, and natural disasters. Social and racial integration, as well as a growing desire for a more just distribution of the hemisphere's wealth and natural resources, are very much in line with an increasing focus on pan-regional education, cultural reconciliation, and more equitable development and growth. In short, a new U.S. hemisphere policy must direct itself to influencing western hemisphere countries into being willing partners to the overarching national security strategy of the United States.

Using the current transition phase in Cuba as the springboard for a policy of being more attuned to the aspirations of our southern neighbors has inherent advantages. Primary among these is the formulation of a national security strategy that accords more acutely with changing global realities, fundamentalist radicalism certainly being one. To not include Latin America in any such formulation is not just an oversight, it imbues any such formulation with an inherent weakness: incompleteness. To be sure, there are risks as well, not the least of which is the requirement to think originally and provocatively. Additionally, the U.S. government must return to an effective and functioning policy development process, which has been severely taxed during the past seven and a half years. 13

Castro's deteriorating physical condition coincides with indications of serious problems within the ranks of the FARC. Not just the death of Raul Reyes, and the war-scare imbroglio that ensued, 14 and the apparent assassination of Ivan Rios' by one of his own, but the overall sclerosis of the organization, are but indicators that the time for aggressive exploitation is now. 15

Cuban Military the Key?

The start-point mechanism in dealing with Cuba is already in place. All that is required is to upgrade the status of the monthly meetings currently being held between U.S. and Cuban military representatives (at the colonel level) at the northeast gate of the U.S. Naval Base, Guantanamo Bay. 16 There are two reasons for this approach. First, the Cuban military is the one element of the Cuban body politic whose efficiency and cohesion are not entirely depleted by the anachronistic dogma of communism with its ensuant human demoralization and corruption, and it is the institution most likely to hold itself together even in a less than ideal governmental transition. Second, the author has officially negotiated with the Cuban military—at the general officer level—and offers the personal observation that it is through that institution that the Cuban government can most effectively be approached. 17 Raul Castro was charged by his brother to forge a new army immediately after the successful 1959 revolution. Since then he has been, until his recent election as the country's new president, the Minister of Defense.

Again, returning to the initially posed question: what happens between now and Fidel Castro's complete incapacitation or death? There have been small signals since Raul Castro's appointment as president on 24 February. "In his first state reception as Cuba's president Raul Castro met . . . with the secretary of state of the Vatican, a traditional enemy of Communism and a critic of Cuba's record on human rights," The New York Times reported. The article goes on to say that "Mr. Castro's decision to begin his tenure by meeting with the Vatican's top diplomat, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, a possible go-between with the United States and Europe, reflects his practical, no-nonsense style as well as his greater willingness to put ideology aside to achieve his goals than his brother often showed." 18 On 28 March, the Washington Post wrote, "Cuban President Raul Castro lifted the much-loathed restrictions on personal cellphone ownership." The article went on to list several other items that are being made available to common Cubans who heretofore had no such access, noting that "Raul Castro, 76, is beginning to reshape day-to-day life in the Western Hemisphere's last communist outpost after decades in the shadow of his older brother, Fidel." 19

These are indicators. My argument is that they are significant.


1. "Colombian Rebel Commander Killed," Washington Post (2 March 2009): A14.

2. Vivian Sequera, "Colombia: Rebel killed by his security," (7 March 2008): http// See also "Peace in our time, on the box," The Economist, (15-21 March 2008): p. 47.

3. "Peace in our time, on the box," p. 47

4. Juan Forero, "Colombian Rebels Face Possibility of Implosion," Washington Post , (March 22, 2008): A1.

5. James Webb, "Heading for Trouble: Do we really want to occupy Iraq for the next 30 years?" Washington Post (4 September 2002).

6. "Free Colombia," editorial, Washington Post , (31 March 2008): A18.

7. "Cuba: The Comandante's last move," The Economist (23-29 February 2008): p. 49. Although Fidel Castro is retiring as President, he remains First Secretary of the Communist Party. See also: Ileana Marrero, "A Future Beyond Fidel," Washington Post (23 February 2008): A15.

8. "Twilight of the Dictators: And a Chance for Cuba—and the U. S.," The New York Times , (20 March 2008): A22.

9. "Free Colombia," Washington Post .

10. Douglas Farah, "Chavez's Favorite Pariahs," Washington Post (26 January 2008): A17. Jackson Diehl, "The FARC's Guardian Angel," Washington Post (10 March 2008): A15. Simon Romero, "Chavez Employs Colombia Feud As Flashpoint for Feud With U.S.," The New York Times (5 March 2008): A1. Interestingly, the government of Cuba did not officially weigh in on the "crisis in the Andes" though Fidel Castro did publish a piece on the supposed incursion of Colombian troops into Ecuador during which Raul Reyes was allegedly killed. Though the recent vote by both the Senate and the House to extend preferential trade benefits to Columbia, Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia, are laudable in concept, their short duration—ten months—and the fact that this is the third extension since 2006, creates nothing less than uncertainty. This essentially nullifies whatever benefits would devolve, such as creating jobs for individuals who would otherwise drift into the illicit drug-production sector, or opt for something like the FARC or ELN in Colombia. See "Game of Chicken in the Andes," The New York Times (Week in Review) (2 March 2008): p. 10.

11. It is interesting to note that apparently the young Fidel Castro was attracted to Franco. See Brian Latell, After Fidel: The Inside Story of Castro's Regime and Cuba's Next Leader , (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005): p. 68.

12. Diplomatic History, Vol. 30, No. 3 (The Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR), Blackwell Publishing, Inc., Malden, MA and Oxford, UK, 2006): p. 374.

13. Fred Kaplan, Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power (Wiley, 2008).

14."The war behind the insults," The Economist (6 March 2008). . Also see: "Settling of Crisis Makes Winners of Andes Nations, While Rebels Lose Ground," The New York Times (International) (9 March 2008): p. 10.

15. See footnote 4 above.

16. Personal knowledge of the author.

17. The author, in his capacity as Commanding Officer, JTF-160 in 1995-96, and with appropriate authority, represented the United States in military-to-military contact talks with his Cuban counterpart, a brigadier general. Even on touchy topics, such as violation of Cuban airspace, the general was courteous, gracious, and ever the professional.

18. James C. McKinley, "Hints of Change Met by Cautious Eyes in Cuba," The New York Times , (27 February 2008): A1.

19. Manuel Roig-Franzia, "Cuba Lifts Restrictions On Personal Cellphones," Washington Post , (29 March 2008): A8.


Colonel McKay, a combat veteran of Vietnam, is a 1968 U.S. Naval Academy graduate and holds a master's degree from Georgetown University. Reared in Latin America, he was an Olmsted Scholar in Spain, naval attaché in El Salvador during the civil war there, and commanding officer of JTF-160, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, 1995-96.

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