If you admitted that you know little to nothing about the geopolitics of the Caribbean you wouldn’t be alone. Most Americans don’t. The same might be said about the United States government. For over 200 years, successive American administrations have intervened in this region, and their track record indicates they, too, find the geopolitics of the Caribbean mystifying.
Undaunted by past forays, the United States is back at it again, this time in dramatic fashion.
After a half-century of open hostilities and Cold War propaganda, in December 2014, President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro announced their intentions to renew diplomatic relations between their respective countries. Dubbed “The Cuban Thaw” by the media, the once-secret talks quickly heated up. Over the past month, diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba were formally re-established, and their long-shuttered embassies were reopened.
It is a historic time, filled with good will and optimism. Soon the Cold War glacier separating the two nations will recede into the ocean, and the fortunes of many (especially American business interests) are certain to follow the rising tide. For some, the rising waters will be a baptism, unifying them back into the international community they have longed to rejoin. For others, a tsunami of intended and unintended consequences is racing toward their shores.
To fully appreciate the trajectory of this reunion, historical facts regarding their relations must be considered. A good place to start is in the 1930s, when the United States had a great friend and willing partner in Cuba’s Fulgencio Batista. First as a general and de facto leader, then as president of Cuba for two terms, Batista understood the power of the U.S. government. He had witnessed America’s past influence over Cuba and other neighboring countries. Consequently, his regime acquiesced at every turn, ensuring the absolute domination of Cuba’s economy and political sector by the United States.
While the United States was reaping the benefits of its relationship with Batista, to the south on the island of Hispaniola, U.S. fortunes were more mixed. On the Dominican Republic side of the island, the United States enjoyed a relationship with dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina. Similar to Cuba’s Batista, Trujillo led his country through intimidation, patronage and murder, traits the U.S. government seemingly accepted as unavoidable.
The Republic of Haiti was another story. After enduring a U.S. Marine-led occupation of its sovereign borders starting in 1915, Haitians united in resistance of the American occupation and forced the troops to exit in 1934. It was a humiliating defeat and, as a result, over the next 23 years Haiti was of little interest to the United States.
By the early 1950s, all was not well in Cuba. In the summer of 1953, an armed conflict broke out between rebels led by Fidel Castro and the Batista government. For the next five years, Batista maintained his cozy relationship with the West until it recognized his grip on power was slipping away. Resigned that a change in Cuban leadership was inevitable, the United States decided to cut off supply of arms to the Batista regime, at the request of their hand-picked president-in-waiting, Manuel Urrutia Lleó. This was a curious decision, as it expedited the fall of Batista and led to the coronation of Fidel Castro.
Though the Eisenhower administration originally recognized the Urrutia/Castro regime, it wasn’t long before the States realized it had backed the wrong man. After serving as Cuba’s president for only six months, Urrutia resigned his position due to escalating disputes with Castro and immigrated to America. Urrutia’s departure was a blow to the United States, but the worst was yet to come.
In 1961, after Castro continued to nationalize American-owned businesses, the United States severed diplomatic ties with Cuba and began pursuing covert operations to topple the communist regime. The United States would fail in its pursuit to oust Castro, and the loss of Cuba to communism would send shock waves throughout the greater Caribbean.
Nowhere were these shock waves felt more deeply than on the island of Hispaniola. Because of Hispaniola’s proximity to Cuba, the Republic of Haiti and the Dominican Republic were viewed primarily through the geopolitical lens of security, as both had the potential to impact the stability of the Caribbean and Latin America. Like a version of Sophie’s choice, tough decisions needed to be made. With its northwestern border being less than 50 miles from Cuba, Haiti seemed rightly suited as the new counterbalance to Communist Cuba. Enter Francois Duvalier.
From 1957 to 1971, Duvalier governed Haiti under a brutal and repressive dictatorship. Though the early years of his rule were largely ignored, Duvalier keenly understood the geopolitics of his region, and he seized upon the U.S. obsession with communist Cuba. He became a master at utilizing a strategy of “diplomatic blackmail” by evoking the specter of communism’s spread throughout the Caribbean, including into his own country. It was a successful strategy. He extorted tens of millions of dollars in aid. And though a case can be made as to who benefited the most from this relationship, no one can argue that the United States provided significant financial support to the Duvalier regime and seemingly turned a blind eye to his acts of impunity.
When François Duvalier died, his son, Jean-Claude, assumed power and continued many of his father’s policies, mostly unchecked, until the Reagan administration pressured him into exile in 1986. During the Duvaliers’ three decades in power, the lives of millions of Haitians would suffer due to their role as a buffer nation for communism and as a source of cheap labor. Since then, Haiti has had 18 administrations, compared to five in the United States. It also endured multiple coup d’états and embargoes — all of which have occurred with the United States acting as Haiti’s main benefactor.
On the other side of Hispaniola, the Dominican Republic was fit for its new role as business partner for American-owned companies. Unfortunately, the process of transforming itself into a regional power proved more difficult than originally anticipated by Dominican politicians and their U.S. benefactors.
In the wake of Trujillo’s 1961 assassination, a democratically elected government under leftist Juan Bosch was established but was quickly overthrown by a military coup supported by the United States. In April 1965, after 19 months of military rule, a pro-Bosch revolt broke out. President Lyndon Johnson sent 42,000 U.S. soldiers to restore order and ensure that socialism would not take root in the DR.
In 1966, Joaquín Balaguer, a onetime puppet-president of Trujillo’s and close friend to the States, was seated in power in the Dominican Republic. Over the course of 36 years, Balaquer would be president three times, each with the support of the U.S. government. Though the human rights record of the country would be checkered, the fortunes of those well connected and the general population alike rose to unprecedented heights. Today, with a gross domestic product of $63.9 billion compared to Haiti’s $8.7 billion, few can dispute the cause-and-effect of U.S. policy and patronage.
Which leads us back to Cuba.
There are a number of key indicators when it comes to the health of a country’s economy. One such indicator is the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) index. Essentially, the FDI index calculates the amount of foreign ownership in businesses operating in a given country but based in another country. Throughout the 1990s, when Cuba was open to all but those restricted by the U.S. embargo, Cuba only brought in about $4.5 billion in total. Even less foreign investment flowed into Cuba during the 2000s. Cuba is now aiming to attract $2.5 billion in FDI per year. This figure is on par with what the Dominican Republic attracts, mostly from U.S. sources, and it represents a serious challenge to the economic equilibrium of the Caribbean.
Starting around 2008, the GDP of the DR began to wane, and its unemployment rate began to rise. A recession was clearly on the horizon until Haiti’s catastrophic 2010 earthquake gave its faltering economy a boost.
With Cuba flipping from adversary to ally and re-emerging as an economic force, and with work in Haiti grinding to a halt, the DR finds itself at a crossroads. Tourism will suffer, unemployment will spike sharply, commercial and residential property values will fall, tax collection will shrink, inflation will rise, foreign investment will go elsewhere, and its GDP will plummet.
Is it any wonder the country has been militarizing its border with Haiti and instituted a forced expulsion of undocumented workers, most of whom are Haitian?
For all of the change occurring in and around Hispaniola, the government of Haiti has been remarkably quiet these days. Whether it’s Haiti’s failure to formally respond to the refugee crisis at its border, or to address the DR’s rapid move into a period of protectionism, the government of Haiti seems paralyzed by events and the pace of geopolitical change.
Equally remarkable is the odd confluence of events regarding Haiti’s in-country security measures. At a time of unprecedented change and potential unrest in the country, the United Nations continues moving forward with its plans to significantly draw down the number of peacekeepers in the country. Simultaneously, President Martelly appears to be making good on his campaign promise to reconstitute the Haitian military, even though its treasury can ill-afford such action.
With its role as a security buffer from Cuba and communism dashed away by the stroke of a pen, Haiti also finds itself at a crossroad. Will it be able to find common ground with its neighbor to the east, and team up to weather the impending economic storm? Or will it go back to the future, where stopping the spread of communism is replaced by the mantra of “zero migration,” rendering Haitians to a life trapped within their own borders? Unfortunately, the last time containment was the main focus of the U.S. government, Haiti was ruled with an iron fist, acts of impunity were overlooked and its people suffered terribly.
The acceptance of Cuba back into the global community was long overdue and a sign that diplomacy works.
Only time will tell if “Hello Cuba” also means “Goodbye Hispaniola.”
To most observers, the key to a successful transition appears to lie with Haiti and the Dominican Republic striking their own historic accord and joining forces to confront an uncertain future.
Unfortunately, a review of history doesn’t bring about much hope.
J. Kelly Lange is a Tampa writer and business consultant who has traveled extensively to the Caribbean.