Chasing shadows in Cuba

Jun 23, 2023
Cuba travel, Contemporary art collage, zine and comics culture style poster.

Why does Washington believe they have the right to conduct joint military exercises off the Chinese Pacific coast, but will not tolerate even the barest hint of those activities by China and Cuba in ‘their’ maritime neighbourhood?

American suspicions that China is militarising Cuba has been met with the Chinese response that ‘they are jumping at shadows’. If so, they are the wrong shadows. The Chinese presence in Cuba, and indeed in the rest of Latin America, is more subtle and widespread than crude militarisation.

On 9 June 2023, The Wall Street Journal reported that China had done a secret deal with Cuba to establish a spy base in Havana to allow Beijing to gather electronic communications from US military bases in south eastern United States. This caused almost as much excitement as the stray Chinese meteorological balloon shot down by USAF fighters in February 2023, until US Defence Department spokesman Brigadier General Patrick Ryder said the spy base story wasn’t true. He added nevertheless that the United States had ‘real concerns’ about Sino-Cuban relations and was monitoring them closely.

Fears that Washington has taken its eyes off the Sino-Cuban ball have been regularly expressed by Washington luminaries, such as US SOUTHCOM Commander General Laura J Richardson, who said in March 2022 that Chinese diplomats and officials from state-owned enterprises regularly target, recruit and bribe Latin American officials in order to expand China’s influence in the hemisphere.

Official United States paranoia about foreign influence in Cuba fuelled the Bay of Pigs fiasco in April 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. US involvement in both events was given moral suasion by invoking the Monroe Doctrine, which as enunciated by President James Monroe in December 1823, had a moral centre – to prevent European powers from further colonising Latin America and establishing puppet monarchies from exploiting the continent’s resources.

The Doctrine has now become the moral justification for American officials to influence and coerce Latin American governments in order to exploit the same resources. US military interference has been and remains justified to achieve similar ends: to destroy governments inimical to US capital, for example in Guatemala in 1954, Chile in 1973 and El Salvador in 1979. And where necessary to invade a country to achieve similar results, as in ‘Operation Just Cause’ in Panama in 1989.

More recently, the Monroe Doctrine has been invoked to give Washington moral authority to shape events. President Trump threatening military action against Venezuela in August 2017; Secretary of State Rex Tillerson more generally opposed ‘Imperial Chinese trade ambitions’ in February 2018; Trump invoking the Doctrine again at the 73 UNGA in 2019; and National Security Adviser John Bolton did so in March 2019, when he declared that the objective of the Doctrine was ‘to have a completely democratic hemisphere’.

Could Washington’s fears about China’s rising profile in the hemisphere lead to military confrontation, even conflict? The most dramatic scenario posits American military action against a joint exercise between Cuban or Venezuelan and Chinese naval vessels in the Caribbean or along the American western seaboard. In the minds of progressive western observers, such a response would betray double standards by Washington – ‘we have the right to conduct joint exercises with Japan, the ROK, and/or Australia off the Chinese Pacific coast, but will not tolerate such activities by China in our maritime neighbourhood.’

Certainly, China has supplied military assistance to Cuba, as it has to several other countries in the hemisphere. In Cuba, it has provided equipment to block signals from Radio Marti, run by Cuban expats in Miamias well as military transport equipment and training for Cuban soldiers. But unlike the former Soviet Union’s interest in using agitprop to foment revolution in the region, China is overwhelmingly focused on trade and investment. It buys iron ore and soy beans from Brazil, wheat and meat from Argentina, and oil from Venezuela. Its investments range from a space base In Patagonian Argentina to factories on the Mexican border with Texas. It sells to the region an increasingly sophisticated range of equipment. To Cuba it exports rolling stock, locomotives, buses, and trucks to revitalise the country’s transport system. It has replaced 30,000 Cuban refrigerators with more energy efficient models, and invested in oil technology and biotechnology.

China has also benefitted from widespread Latin American resentment at Washington’s 60-year economic blockade of Cuba. It began when John F Kennedy ordered 3,000 Cuban cigars to replenish his humidor and imposed his economic blockade as soon as they were delivered.

What is Australia’s perspective? In November 2022 Australia joined 185 other members of the UN General Assembly in condemning Washington’s blockade of Cuba, but seems not to have benefited before or since. I will remember in 1996, seeing the demise of a Queensland sugar milling equipment factory which had been doing good business with Cuba going out of business when its controlling American bosses suddenly prohibited it from further trading with Cuba. I also recall witnessing a European trade mission arriving in Havana vigorously negotiating trade deals while Canberra nervously remained on the sidelines fearing American disapproval.

I also recall assisting Hugh Morgan of Western Mining negotiate a deal to mine nickel from Fidel Castro’s home province. For reasons unknown to me at the time, the deal did not proceed. Contrast that with China’s decision in 2004 to invest US$500 million in a nickel mine in Las Camariocas, an unfinished processing facility from the Soviet era. The deal was financed by China’s Development Bank.

In November 2004, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party visited Cuba. His successor, Xi Jinping, visited Cuba in July 2014. The relationship remains constructive and continues to grow. Despite concerns among less progressive elements in Washington, China’s relations with Cuba and the countries of Central and Latin America will continue to expand. There is really very little Washingon can do about it. The hemisphere is no longer dominated and controlled by the United States. A straw in the wind is the switch of recognition from Taiwan to China among central American Republics. After Chiang Kai-shek retreated to Taiwan in 1949, most of these republics recognised him and China’s leader and Taiwan as the legitimate home of China’s government. Panama, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and Costa Rica now recognise Beijing. Only Belize and Guatemala now recognise Taiwan, an increasingly untenable situation.

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