James Stavridis

Cuba and How Biden Can Avoid Another Mariel Boatlift

The last two weeks witnessed widespread protests against the authoritarian Cuban regime, with thousands taking to the streets in Havana to express dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis and — above all — the torpid economy.

Hit by the collapse of tourism, a mainstay of the economy, the government has struggled to maintain even the very low standard of living the Cuban people have endured for decades. With former US President Donald Trump’s sanctions still in place, Raul Castro — brother of the regime’s revolutionary founder, Fidel Castro — shifted to a symbolic leadership role, and a wave of Covid’s delta variant roiling the island, unrest has bubbled over.

What should the US be doing to capitalize on the chaos, weaken the Communist government, and help the people of Cuba?

When I was commander of US Southern Command, headquartered in Miami, I spent a great deal of time traveling throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. I visited almost every country and territory in that vast world to the south that was my responsibility for military-to-military operations.

People would ask me which country I visited the most in the three years of the four-star assignment. Most would guess Colombia (it was the height of the insurgency there), Brazil (the superpower of the south), or Honduras (we had important aviation units assigned in that troubled nation at Soto Cano Air Base). The answer may surprise you: Cuba.

That is because the US military maintains an important base at the eastern end of the 800-mile-long island, Guantanamo Bay. It has, of course, been infamous since the Sept. 11 attacks as the detention center for hundreds of captured enemy fighters in the global war on terrorism. But for far longer it has been a vital strategic location for military logistics, communications nodes, disaster-relief supplies, and as a possible location for thousands of migrants if either Cuba or Haiti were to have another boatlift.

Naturally, I spent significant amounts of time poring over the intelligence concerning the regime in Havana. It was harsh, corrupt and unyielding in its dominance over the Cuban people. The Castro brothers, Fidel and Raul, were also interested in exporting communism, and — with the financial support of Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez’s petrodollars — sought to undermine other democracies in the region.

Each time I traveled to Guantanamo Bay, I studied the problems of the nation, speaking with defectors and coordinating with the State Department (which had a significant diplomatic presence in Havana even though there was no US embassy).

Even more than a decade ago, it was clear that the regime would one day face a reckoning with the increasingly dissatisfied populace. While it is tempting to say that day has come, my assessment is that the regime still has firm control and will be able to weather the current storm.

Following the demonstrations, the government was able to orchestrate counter-protests. It arrested, detained and charged many of the protest leaders. The current regime, led by President Miguel Diaz-Canel, still holds all the levers of power.

The Cuban-American community in Miami, as always, strongly supports an activist US policy to help the people of Cuba topple the regime. With a million and a half highly educated and politically active Cuban-Americans in South Florida, their representatives in Washington are pushing President Joe Biden’s administration to help the cause of freedom on the island.

Senator Marco Rubio, a son of Cuban immigrants, has called for significant support to the protesters, warned that the Cuban regime may force mass emigration on the scale of the 1980 Mariel boatlift, and insisted that the US must not “cave to blackmail.” Most in the Republican Party want to continue the travel sanctions and other punitive policies of the Trump administration; some have urged the White House to find a way of restoring the protesters’ internet access. Governor Rick DeSantis and Senator Rick Scott, both Republicans of Florida, have called on the Cuban military to rise up against the government.

The dilemma for the Biden administration is that there is at best tepid support among Democrats for aggressive intervention. There’s little doubt that concerns over the Democrats’ commitment to toppling the regime were responsible for Trump’s winning the votes of a majority of Florida Cuban-Americans in the 2020 election.

On the left, there is even advocacy for lifting the sanctions, on the theory that it would allow engagement and eventual changes in the regime. That was the approach of President Barack Obama’s administration before the Trump team reversed course. Biden initially signaled he would return to the Obama approach, but before the changes could be put in place, the protests have kicked off a significant internal debate about the right approach. On Thursday, Biden announced some targeted sanctions on a few regime officials in response to the crackdown on protestors.

The best way to move forward may be to split the difference in the parties’ positions. This would mean maintaining the current sanctions to keep pressure on the regime; increasing the political pressure by partnering with other nations in the region to shame the regime for the harsh crackdown on demonstrators; focusing US intelligence-gathering on the island; imposing more individual sanctions on Cuban leaders directly involved in crushing protests; and using the Organization of American States as a forum to criticize the government in Havana.

But it would also make sense to appoint a high-level, well-respected Latin America expert to go to Havana and open a serious channel of communication. (Roberta Jacobson, a former ambassador to Mexico, comes to mind — she has deep experience in dealing with the Cuban regime.) A stick-and-carrot approach might ultimately reduce the regime’s grip on power. This would be somewhat similar to the two-pronged approach that ultimately resulted in ending the insurgency in Colombia.

The administration should also re-emphasize the importance of the naval station at Guantanamo Bay, but not for holding the remaining handful of terrorism detainees, who could be relocated to supermax US prisons. The naval base has an abiding strategic value given its crucial location in the heart of the Caribbean and its symbolic role as a foothold for freedom there.

However, the administration decides to respond to the protests, they are a significant crack in the wall of the regime, even if it doesn’t topple soon. Over time, as we have seen in nonviolent protests in Ukraine, Georgia and elsewhere, the people’s voice can change history.