The McMaster of Cuba Policy Destiny

We’ve been reading an analysis about how a new approach to foreign policy went horribly wrong.

The President, we are told, came to office and dismantled essential elements of the National Security Council. He preferred to rely on task forces and an “inner club” of trusted advisors in national security and foreign affairs. His structural changes weakened access by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the president, whom the new administration viewed with suspicion. The old guard in the Pentagon was relegated to a “position of little influence.”

President John F. Kennedy’s ad hoc decision-making style, his freezing out of top military advisors, and diminishment of the National Security Council’s role backfired in the early months of his presidency. Without a formal systematic review, he went forward with the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. The invasion not only collapsed in failure, but also resulted in the President distancing himself from his senior military advisors and trusting them even less.

This practice of “consulting frankly only with his closest advisors, and his use of larger forums to validate decisions already made would transcend [Kennedy’s] administration,” the author writes, with its consequences spilling into President Johnson’s decisions and leading us deeper into Vietnam.

The responsibility for what he calls “one of the greatest American foreign policy disasters of the 20th century” lies with President Kennedy and the arrogance of the New Frontier, as well as with President Lyndon Johnson, who allowed domestic political considerations to dictate military strategy in the conduct of the war. But, echoing the title of his book, “Dereliction of Duty,” H.R. McMaster also calls out the Joint Chiefs of Staff for failing to confront President Johnson with their objections to his strategy for conducting the war, and deceiving the Congress by appearing to support it.

On Monday, as the author, Lt. General H.R. McMaster, became National Security Advisor, we could only imagine how he processed what occurred in the first month of the Trump Administration, and what that, in turn, could mean for the conduct of U.S. foreign policy going forward – including U.S. policy toward Cuba.

If Lt. General McMaster has priors on Cuba, we haven’t seen them. His passages on the Bay of Pigs and the Missile Crisis in “Dereliction of Duty” contained no bugle-blowing or hand-waving about “finishing the job” in Cuba. He may harbor such feelings, but we did not see them in his book or in this week’s coverage about his appointment to lead the National Security Council.

Once the administration’s review of Cuba policy concludes, and before the rollout of a new policy begins, Lt. General McMaster will have a chance to lead as he wishes members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had done some 50 years ago.

He knows what happens to U.S. foreign policy when the decision-making process is broken, when too much deference is given to domestic politics, and when the voices of reason, including our nation’s military, rest on the sidelines or fail to be heard: Foreign policy goes off the rails. That hurt us in Vietnam before; it can hurt us in making U.S. policy toward Cuba again.

The Washington Post called Lt. General McMaster a “soldier who can say, ‘no, sir.’” If he finds himself standing between the President and a plan to roll the last two years’ Cuba reforms back, we hope he makes his voice heard.

This week, in Cuba news…

U.S.-Cuba Relations

Lawmakers say Raúl Castro wants U.S. relations to progress; Mississippi ports sign cooperation accords with Cuba

Cuba’s President Raúl Castro told a bipartisan delegation from the U.S. Congress that he is committed to continuing progress in U.S.-Cuba relations, reportedly giving the lawmakers “signed copies of a recent speech expressing his willingness to negotiate with President Trump,” the Associated Press reports. Senators Patrick Leahy (VT), Thad Cochran (MS), Michael Bennet (CO), and Tom Udall (NM) conducted a three-day official visit to the island this week, speaking with President Castro and with Cuba’s foreign minister, minister of foreign trade, and minister of agriculture, Reuters reports. During a press conference at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Sen. Leahy told reporters that President Castro “wants reform to continue, he wants the movement forwards to continue.” Sen. Leahy, who has visited Cuba multiple times over the years, told reporters: “It may not be the smoothest of paths but it will continue. … I would not be here today on one more trip if I didn’t think that continuation of that progress is inevitable.”

The Senators were joined in their meeting with President Castro by Rep. Jim McGovern (MA-2), who was leading a trade mission with Rep. Seth Moulton (MA-6) and Massachusetts biotechnology researchers as well as the Washington Office on Latin America.

The AP notes that Sen. Cochran “spoke favorably of U.S. relations with Cuba.” Two Mississippi ports, Pascagoula and Gulfport, signed cooperation agreements with Cuba this week, reports Reuters. Sen. Cochran attended the ceremony. As we’ve previously reported, U.S. ports in Alabama, Virginia, and Louisiana signed cooperation accords with Cuba’s National Port Authority in recent weeks, while funding threats from Florida Governor Rick Scott scuttled planned agreements for several Florida ports.

U.S. visitors to Cuba in January 2017, more than double 2016 totals; travel prices set to come down

According to a report published in CubaDebate, Cuba received 43,200 U.S. visitors last month, in addition to 31,000 Cuban Americans, marking a 125 percent increase in U.S. visitors and a 78 percent increase in Cuban American visitors, compared to January 2016. (Cuba tallies Cuban Americans and U.S. visitors separately.) Last year, a total 284, 937 U.S. visitors went to Cuba, in addition to 330,000 Cuban Americans, notes the Miami Herald. Seventy-four percent more U.S. visitors (not counting Cuban Americans) went to Cuba last year than the year before.

Recent reports have focused on U.S. airlines downsizing their service to Cuba, but the Herald points out that between last September 1 and February 21, 2017, “total passengers coming or going to Cuba through [Miami International Airport] increased from 466,213 during the previous year to 620,592” during the same period this year. Michael Weissenstein, the Associated Press News Director for the Caribbean, who’s based in Havana, tweeted: “No one should mistake the noise of airlines downsizing flights…The smaller planes are flying routes that didn’t exist a year ago and are bringing hundreds of thousands of new visitors.”

The Miami Herald spoke with Cuba travel operators who said that “since the Obama administration’s opening to Cuba allowed more Americans to travel to the island most travel-related costs have jumped 100 to 400 percent,” but prices are set to start leveling off again as state travel agencies and hotels are set to drop their prices for the spring and summer season.

Earlier this month, Cuba’s government capped prices for some private fixed-route taxis in Havana, as many had sharply increased their prices as the number of foreign visitors increased, although far fewer tourists than Cubans who live in Havana take route taxis; in response, reports the Miami Herald, some taxi drivers “have refused to pick up passengers unless they want to travel entire routes,” while others have stopped driving saying that as Cuba is experiencing a fuel shortage, they can no longer afford the more costly black-market gas if they are charging customers less.

Cuba’s Foreign Relations

Cuba denies visa to OAS Secretary General for trip to receive award from dissident group

After Cuban dissidents on the island announced last week that they would give a human rights advocacy award to Luis Almagro, Secretary-General of the Organization of American States, Cuba’s government denied him a visa to attend the ceremony. It issued similar denials to other invitees Felipe Calderón, former president of Mexico, and María Aylwin, Chile’s former minister of education, the Associated Press reports. Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Relations released a statement Wednesday condemning what it called a “plan…to launch a grave, open provocation against the Cuban government, generate internal instability, hurt the image of the country and, at the same time, damage the progress of diplomatic relations between Cuba and other countries.”

Mr. Almagro has been a vocal critic of Cuba as well as Venezuela. The Cuba-based part of the regional Latin America Youth Network for Democracy held the ceremony without Mr. Almagro Wednesday; the Oswaldo Payá Prize is named for the Cuban democracy advocate Oswaldo Payá who died in a car accident in 2012. The group is led by the late human rights activist’s daughter, Rosa María Payá.

Recommended Viewing

Faces of Change: Havana, Cuba, Engage Cuba

In this recently released video, entrepreneurs in Cuba discuss their experience of working in the country’s nascent private sector, and offer their opinions about Cuba’s new, closer relationship with the U.S. Yamina Vicente, founder of the party planning and decorations business Decorazón says: “The relations between the U.S. and Cuba greatly affect the private sector. There are many businesses that are direct beneficiaries, but the rest of our industries are stimulated by those same businesses.”

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