To a large extent, the rapprochement between the United States and Cuba stems from a U.S. desire to re-establish its presence in Latin America, and it is likely that the coming revitalization of the Cuban economy will bring with it intensifying competition between the two nations in the region.
In recent weeks, the reopening of U.S.-Cuba relations has been a focal point among the international community. While the move was certainly a historic achievement for the Obama administration and a decisive step on Cuba’s journey to reform and openness, buried amid onlookers’ approbation exist several deep-seated points of conflict that have perhaps not received as much attention as they might warrant.
The first issue is how to wipe the slate clean from decades of pent-up animosity. Attitudes of Cuban expatriates toward Cuba are rather distinct from those of overseas Chinese toward China. In the early stages of Chinese reform, change was made possible primarily by investments originating from Chinese living in Southeast Asia. Although certain political differences existed between Southeast Asian-based Chinese and those in mainland China, there was no direct conflict of interest, much less a historical grudge to overcome. The long-endured political slights of being a second-class citizen for those living in Southeast Asia also helped to a certain degree in turning their thoughts toward their motherland. Cuba’s present situation stands in stark contrast to the Chinese experience, as Cuban expatriates are, by and large, U.S.-based political refugees and their descendants. They have unresolved property disputes with and a historical hatred of the Cuban government, and moreover enjoy the backing of the United States. Accordingly, it will be considerably difficult for the Cuban government to successfully manage affairs with its expatriate community. On one hand, it wishes to entice them to invest in their homeland, while on the other the government must remain wary against the possibility of counterrevolution.
The second point of conflict is the [in]compatibility of the U.S. and Cuban economic frameworks. Cuba boasts the finest education system and best medical care in Latin America. Despite being isolated for decades by the United States, the island nation has already basically formed a modernized industrial base. Once it draws in foreign investment through reforms and openness, conditions both within and without the country will be primed for Cuba to become the Singapore of Latin America. It will more likely come to achieve breakthroughs in the high-tech industry than turn into a manual labor-intensive manufacturing base, and more likely become a competitor to the United States in those fields in the medium and long term than a simple downstream processing area.
The third point of conflict is between U.S. strategic designs and lofty Cuban ambitions. Cuba has always striven to become a leader in Latin America, and indeed, even were today’s Cuba less economically robust, it occupies a unique position within Latin America that cannot be overlooked. Apart from Colombia, Mexico, and a minority of other nations that favor the United States, most states in the region are currently more or less of a far more leftward bend. Cuban reform and openness is a measure that the Cuban government has undertaken in order to realize its ambition of becoming a leading state in Latin America. And as the rapprochement between the United States and Cuba to a large extent stems from a U.S. desire to reestablish its presence in Latin America, with its endgame being to bring Cuba into the fold and reshape U.S. influence within the region, it is likely that the coming revitalization of the Cuban economy will bring with it intensifying competition between the two nations.
Some worry that the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba will see China’s investments in Cuba come to naught. This is actually an undue concern, as the deep-seated conflicts between the two nations not only will not be resolved anytime soon, but on the contrary will become increasingly apparent as Cuba progresses toward reform and openness. This will make Cuba value its singular relationship with China even more. And from a long-term perspective, warming U.S.-Cuba trade relations will make for a convenient springboard for Chinese exports into the United States. So long as the Cuban government is able to draw sufficient experience from the Chinese model, it, the United States, and China will be set to build a peaceful state of coexistence in Latin America.
Chu Yin is an associate professor at the University of International Relations in Beijing and research fellow at the Center for China and Globalization