By Chris Moldes
Normalization of relations with other countries is a basic tenet of any left foreign policy for the United States. So too is the idea that climate change poses one of the greatest risks to the planet and unconditional international cooperation will be required to mitigate the damage. The first is essential if the second is to succeed. Only by fully recognizing and entering into dialogue on equal footing can any further, more transformational policies be open to discussion. Though there are many policy prescriptions regarding these two points, the United States does not have to look far to find a prime example of putting both into practice: Cuba. After the brief honeymoon period following Barack Obama’s 2015 resumption of official diplomatic ties, US-Cuban relations are once again souring. But the upcoming leadership transition means presidential power will soon pass from the Castro family for the first time since the Cuban Revolution. This is a unique opportunity for the United States to demonstrate not only its willingness to accept historical reality by completely normalizing relations, ending the embargo, and closing the base in Guantanamo, but also its commitment to fighting the effects of climate change.
New faces, new chances
By all accounts, the Cuban office of the presidency will soon pass to Miguel Díaz-Canel, who would be the first Cuban leader from the post-revolutionary generation. While some recalcitrant Cold Warriors argue that this is a time for the US to undo the Obama thaw, other more astute and grounded observers recognize this transition for what it is: a potentially positive step in US-Cuban relations. At this crucial juncture, the US Embassy staff in Cuba has been dramatically downsized in response to what have been called acoustic attacks against several staff members. Although the State Department has stopped just shy of blaming the Cuban government, this means that meaningful developments in US-Cuban relations are not likely to be on the horizon. However, as Marguerite Jiménez argues in Foreign Affairs, the US should be doing just the opposite:
re-staffing the embassy would serve the U.S. national interest, including by gathering on-the-ground information about Cuba’s changing dynamics and strengthening cooperation in law enforcement, counternarcotics, human trafficking, and environmental issues.
This last point is a potential area of further cooperation that is underappreciated. Since the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, Cuba has looked to tourism to bolster its ailing economy. As a Caribbean island nation, much of this tourism is dependent on the quality of its beaches and waters. The Cuban government recognizes that rising sea levels and ever more powerful and frequent storms threaten not just its coastlines, but also the low-lying communities that are bearing the brunt of climate change. To that end, the Cuban government has initiated an ambitious program calling for a variety of projects to help address the problems climate change brings. There are, however, some government initiatives that contradict this effort, and this is most evident with Cuba’s views on the oil industry.
The energy curse
Cuba sits on what could potentially be very large oil reserves just off its coast, with estimates varying from five to forty billion barrels. As a nation in the global south looking to improve its infrastructure, the possibilities oil represents are proving to be too tantalizing to ignore. Aside from their use as a moneymaker for the island, such massive reserves of oil under Cuban control could be a way out of its perennial energy problems. Energy production plummeted with the fall of the Soviet Union, once Cuba’s prime supplier of oil. Venezuela then played this role for a time, but with its internal issues, Russia is stepping up to fill this void once again. The Cuban government is not happy with these constantly shifting arrangements, and would prefer to be energy self-sufficient. If these massive oil reserves were to be properly extracted, then Cuba could be looking at a century of self-sufficiency if they were only used for internal energy needs.
This oil has been hard to get to, however, and in the few instances where extraction was successful, the quality of the oil has left much to be desired. Because of the US embargo, it is challenging for foreign oil companies to get the proper equipment to pursue deep-sea drilling efforts. This has put an additional damper on further development of the Cuban oil industry, which is a blessing from a climate perspective. The Deepwater Horizon disaster showed the amount of damage that can happen from just one oil rig accident. Any similar disaster brought about by Cuban pursuit of its oil reserves would ruin its oceanic and coastal environments, to say nothing of the emissions that would result from successfully using the oil.
Oil causes a resource curse that few can resist, leading to investment in this sector at the expense of others; it is especially attractive for nations in the global south who want to develop their infrastructure and industries to reap the rewards the global north has had for centuries. However, it is unrealistic and unjust to expect industrializing nations to forgo the advantages that fossil fuel exploitation brought to richer nations. It would also be nearly impossible to expect them to skip this step and transition to clean energy on their own. To this end, a global “Marshall Plan” for climate change is in order, one that calls for technology transfers and funding from richer nations to poorer ones to facilitate the greening of their energy grids. It would also mean rich countries have to immediately end their use of fossil fuels, as well as gear their economies towards producing equipment to facilitate the switch to a renewable energy system.
This isn’t just some pie-in-the-sky idea. The Solutions Project, using data from a Stanford University study, cleanly lays out what it would take for each of the 50 states to achieve 100% reliance on clean energy, and how many jobs would be created in massive construction projects and longer-term operational efforts. However, the left cannot limit itself to just “spreading the wealth” around the imperial center. Because of the long history of material exploitation, the United States and other wealthy nations must aid less wealthy nations if we are to meaningfully mitigate the effects of climate change. Thankfully, it seems that some lawmakers are finally realizing that the United States must come to terms with its underdeveloped imperial holdings: Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have introduced a bill to restore and improve Puerto Rican infrastructure that calls for some aspects of what a global Marshall Plan could look ultimately look like. The Solutions Project data is also a useful guide in this respect as it includes plans for other countries to make the transition by 2050.
These proposed changes concerning climate change mitigation are not unique to Cuba, as we just saw. True re-engagement with Cuba can happen under the purview of a broader policy aimed at averting climate change disaster throughout the world, something the United States and other countries are well-equipped to handle. This reassessment of the United States’ relations with Cuba also entails ending the embargo, what one could call “normalization” of relations. It is time to admit that the embargo is a failure. The Cuban government survived and maintained relations with most of the rest of the international community. To continue to uphold it (especially at a time of governmental transition) is just posturing to a Cuban-American population that is steadily transforming beyond being a reliably Republican bloc. Dismantling the embargo should not be seen as an opportunity to exploit the region, however. As is stands, Cuba works with countries like China, Canada, Russia, and Vietnam to gain the technical expertise required to successfully drill for the oil. Encouraging the abandonment of the oil reserves would not only keep their use from further aggravating climate destabilization: it would also help roll back the development of ties between oil magnates and developing nations, therefore countering their influence on the international stage. Only with the joint efforts of ending fossil fuel dependence domestically and encouraging the development of green energy abroad can climate change truly be combatted.
The embargo has become little more than a token political exercise. After the size of the Cuban oil reserves was assessed, Republicans in Congress demonstrated their commitment to these sanctions by flirting with the idea of exempting oil companies from embargo restrictions. To further illustrate the superficiality of the United States’ continued enforcement of what has been the status quo for decades, a look at another small socialist country is illuminating. If the arguments of the embargo’s proponents are engaged with seriously (if only for this brief moment), the example of Vietnam demonstrates that even within current foreign policy framework, normalization of relations is possible and evidently not-at-all anathema to whatever values are cited to keep the Cuban embargo in place. Vietnam had the additional hurdle of having a brutal conflict against invading American forces play out on its territory, and yet it and the United States have enjoyed “normal” relations for more than twenty years. Transitioning to clean energy is also a big area of cooperation between the two countries. The driving forces described above have made inroads in developing relations between Vietnam and the United States. Why is this not possible with Cuba?
The longevity of the US foreign policy establishment’s resentment towards Cuba stems from a sense of being jilted. The repeal of the Platt Amendment and the nationalization of US interests after the Revolution proved a bridge too far. This was over fifty years ago. It is high time to accept that the the sun has set on US expansionist ambitions.Only by working with all nations on the same level will it be possible to ensure that climate change does not get worse. Left foreign policy is often criticized as merely being an extension of domestic policy, but since climate change is a grave threat to our existence, only by simultaneously transitioning to clean energy and immediately foregoing fossil fuel use can we hope to avoid the worst.
Chris Moldes has an MA in Slavic and Eurasian Studies from Duke University and is a writer/translator living in the DC area.