In United States vs. Cuba, Russia is the big winner

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The U.S. government pulled out of Cuba in self-defense. Yet by ramping up sanctions on the island, Americans are forfeiting their shot at retribution.

National Security Adviser John Bolton recently pledged retaliation for sonic attacks on U.S. diplomats in Havana. The White House is considering dramatic new measures against the Cuban government, including allowing Cuban Americans to sue for properties confiscated more than 50 years ago. Sen. Marco Rubio has convinced the Trump administration that if we only tighten Cuba restrictions, the exile community will feel avenged, and Americans will feel safer.

The White House is right to seek justice. But isolating Cuba only undermines exile interests and endangers Americans: It emboldens Cuba’s hardliners, driving the government toward America’s enemies and reviving the island’s Cold War past. By easing travel to the island, the White House has an opportunity to humanize America in the eyes of Cuban rivals. The best payback for strikes that drove Americans out of Havana is promoting their return.

Bolton’s announcement comes on the heels of Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel’s first international tour since replacing Raul Castro, a timely visit to communist allies, including Russia, China and North Korea. What started as a game of domestic American politics quickly escalated.

In June 2017, President Trump tightened restrictions on Cuba. The new policy created massive confusion over whether travel to Cuba remained legal and severely curtailed Americans’ trips to Havana. Shortly after, news of mysterious sonic attacks on American diplomats led administration officials to cut the State Department’s embassy presence, shielding its personnel. American travelers who might have persisted in the face of Trump’s policy announcement now faced a State Department warning against nonessential travel to the island.

This summer, an American official remaining in Havana recounted changes that followed the sonic evacuation. Several embassies competed in a recreational soccer league, and the American team lost most of its players. Now vastly outnumbered, the U.S. team suffered its first defeat to the embassy that showed up in force — Russia.

Russia is a prime suspect in the attacks. But in the hearts and minds of the Cuban people, Americans were, yet again, a scapegoat for their demise.

I asked a Cuban friend why locals were so angered by American steps to protect their citizens. “One day you were overbooking our paladares. The next you left, and blamed us. Why would Cubans push away their best customers?” The rollback hit Cuba’s economy hard — and the U.S.-Cuba relationship harder. While Americans lost an attractive winter travel destination, Cuban entrepreneurs — restaurant hosts, Airbnb renters, shop owners — saw their pocketbooks empty out.

As more American travelers chose the Mexican city of Tulum over Havana, Russia satisfied a strategic interest: Diminish the United States’ sway overseas. For the Kremlin, America’s reestablishment of ties with a historic Cold War foe threatened Russia’s clout over its staunchest ally in the Western Hemisphere.

For a Diaz-Canel government that has categorically denied involvement in the incidents, the United States’ travel setback rearms Cuban skeptics with the message: Americans are flaky; we need a partner that can be trusted.

For Cuban-American advocates of isolation and engagement alike, the scariest effect of an emboldened communist alliance is regression to a Cold War climate they sacrificed everything to escape. Increasing Cuba sanctions not only plays squarely into Russian objectives, but it empowers the contingent of Cuba’s government that drove Miami’s Cubans into exile. America’s declining tourism alienates Cuban promoters of entrepreneurship, U.S. investment and domestic reform. It gives hardliners a voice at the expense of Cuban people whom Trump’s new policies claim to support.

While the United States closed a diplomatic door, it opened a strategic void for its adversaries. Though China remains Cuba’s largest trading partner, Russian exports to Cuba nearly doubled in 2017 — the year of Americans’ withdrawal. In his meeting with Diaz-Canel last month, Putin did not hesitate to paint the United States as the aggressor. The countries vowed to block American influence abroad. Russia sealed the deal with a $43 million loan to modernize Cuba’s military. That’s more than one-third of Cuba’s total military spending in 2016.

As the Trump administration pulls back from Cuban hospitality, Russia is gifting its communist friend weapons 90 miles off Florida’s coast. The aid Diaz-Canel secured from its allies on tour was far from sufficient to heal Cuba’s ailing economy. That means it’s not too late for America to get back in the game. The United States can’t dictate Cuba’s future. It can, however, make an anti-American agenda less attractive.

When Americans stay in Cuban homes, dine in local restaurants and bolster private businesses, they delegitimize efforts to degrade Cuba’s neighbor. They make Vladimir Putin’s Soviet-style antagonism propaganda, not reality. If the United States wants to sanction its attacker, it should hold off until confirming the offender. Otherwise, it allows attacks to fulfill Moscow’s aims, not its own.

The possibility that some Cuban officials — threatened by Raul Castro’s cozying up to Obama — knew about the Havana Syndrome makes sweeping retaliation tempting. Such reactive measures will produce one winner and two losers: reward America’s adversaries, hurt the Cuban people, and belittle Cuban American efforts to avenge their past.

Sara Egozi is a dual degree MPA and MBA student at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and the Stanford Graduate School of Business. She is a second-generation Cuban American from Miami.