Wikistrat’s Facebook and Twitter followers recently engaged in a 24-hour exclusive Q&A session with one of Wikistrat’s Senior Analysts, Dr. Chip Beck. Questions and Dr. Beck’ answers are transcribed below.
After serving as a “soldier, sailor, spy and artist” for many years, Dr. Chip Beck retired from the CIA, U.S. Navy and U.S. State Department in 1993, 1996 and 2010, respectively. Today, he works as a writer, editor, freelance contractor and continues with his art. He has degrees in International Relations, Middle Eastern Studies, Organizational Leadership and Conflict Resolution.
Carlos A. Puentes: Given the confluence of events such as U.S. policies on immigration and pressure to reform on Cuban trade, wouldn’t a first step to both be the liberalization of trade policies and update the Cuban immigration status as defined by the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966? Reduction/normalization on barriers implies a change in relationship vis-à-vis nations and suggests fewer belligerences and as such implies a less hostile environment in Cuba toward its own citizens and a lack of need to open U.S. borders, thus a convergence with stricter immigration controls or entry opportunity in the US.
Answer: If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you already have — the status quo.
In the case of U.S. relations with Cuba, the status quo is not working for either side; it is an unnecessary relic of the Cold War that should (in this writer’s opinion and direct experience with the island) be scrapped.
Fifty-five years of a unilateral trade and travel embargo has kept U.S. influence off the island more than it has isolated Cuba. It should be clear to all but the most obstinate that America’s outdated means and methods did not and will not achieve America’s goals and objectives of a freer or more democratic Cuba.
The U.S. does not need to change its goals and objectives, but the means and methods employed for five decades are counterproductive and need to be jettisoned for positive engagement that works.
During the Cold War, this writer worked against or confronted Cuban Expeditionary Forces or operatives on three continents (Indochina, Africa, Central America). Some of those situations resulted in direct contact under less than diplomatic circumstances.
Subsequently, between 1998-2001, I made five (legal) trips to Cuba to seek information on Americans missing in various geographic areas during the Cold War. Because I had once demonstrated my humanity to some beleaguered Cuban soldiers in a time of war, Havana was open to assisting me — and they did so by opening up old classified files, letting me read the original reports in Spanish, and giving me access to former covert operators for interviews that I was allowed to record on film.
Although I was by then retired (prior to September 11, 2001, after which time I came back into government) and entered Cuba as a freelance journalist, the Cubans knew my background as a U.S. Navy Commander and former intelligence officer. Obviously Cuban intelligence (DGI) was curious as to why I was asking to enter their country. I told them up front that I was (a) not defecting, (b) not spying on them, but (c) I wanted access to classified information that I believed Havana could share without harming Cuba’s own national interests.
When the Cubans asked “what is in it for us,” I answered that I had encountered them on three fronts of the Cold War’s battle lines but believed that the time was long past two for our two nations to resolve our differences by talking about them directly. I noted that I was writing articles about missing Americans from several wars and if Havana cooperated with my investigation, I would publish that cooperation in the accounts.
The Cubans, after deliberation at the highest levels, did provide considerable assistance — much more than I anticipated — and I kept my word by including the facts in my articles.
At several points, senior Cuban government officials told me that Cuba wanted “to change the dynamics of its relationship with the U.S.” They said the government was willing to assist the U.S. with counterterrorism and counternarcotics in ways that were simple but game-changing; help out with regional catastrophes through their medical teams teaming up with U.S. logistical assets; but more importantly they wanted to sit down and officially discuss all bilateral issues “with no pre-conditions” — except U.S. recognition that Cuba is a sovereign nation.
When I asked if President Castro was “on board” with this path, I was informed by a senior official that “I could not tell you this if he was not open to it.”
One of the more interesting aspects of my five trips to Cuba was hearing history and stories told from the “other side of the coin.” Many accounts, which I will not relate here, were quite funny, while others were thought provoking and illuminating. I was able to listen to their points of view with my own background knowledge of Cold War operations and realities, so I could discern facts from fiction.
To their credit, the Cubans did not harangue me within the framework of Cold War polemics, but were very practical, even admitting their own political mistakes and over-the-top revolutionary fervor of the time.
“We depended too much on America before the revolution and too much on the Soviets after it. Now we know we need to depend on ourselves,” they said. An important part of their independent frame of mind, however, is to mend the relationship with the U.S. I heard this stated goal repeatedly from senior members of the military, intelligence service, foreign ministry, parliament and their executive branch.
Toward that end, the Cuban officials were (and still are) open to sitting down with the U.S., as they reminded this analyst they have “done with Canada and Europe.” They offered to work out all bilateral differences, including nationalized property, open trade and human rights. “But how can we resolve our differences if Washington will not sit down and talk to us?”
They have a point.
Why not open a public and transparent dialogue with Havana and about Cuba? America has diplomatic relations with the regimes in Moscow, Beijing and Hanoi, so why is Cuba the exception? Washington insiders would swoon if Pyongyang would only offer them the same openings that Havana suggested during my trips twelve-fourteen years ago.
From the Korean War through the Indochina Wars (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia), the descendent regimes of our enemies, with which we still do business and have diplomatic relations or negotiations, were responsible for wars that caused over 100,000 deaths of American military service personnel in direct conflict.
Putting aside Cuba’s defensive actions at the Bay of Pigs and a handful of out-of-sight Cold War dramas that might have accounted for three-seven American deaths, Havana’s actions were tantamount to a finger in the eye as opposed to bayonets in the heart.
Technically, an important part of war is to conclude conflict with a negotiated peace. America was never officially or constitutionally at war with Cuba from a congressionally declared standpoint, so why does the U.S. government insist on continuing a negative environment without a peaceful resolution today? To this analyst, whose credentials include fighting communists on the battlefield, the U.S. behavior speaks volumes about unproductive and irrational stubbornness.
As the more powerful nation, the U.S. should take the first steps at changing a contentious relationship that it has fostered for too long. Waiting until Fidel and Raul die is simply the wrong approach in terms of understanding the Cuban psyche. That is like telling someone you can’t be their friend until their mother and father dies. The time to mend fences is now, not some ill-defined “later.”
If the U.S. wants to have influence in Cuba, it needs to be present, not absent from the Cuban scene. America needs to demonstrate the positive nature of our society and the power of our friendship to the eleven million Cubans on the island. Washington needs to abandon the negative mindset entrenched by holdovers from the Cold War and a few resentful old men who lost a political battle half a century ago.
If the U.S. can settle its affairs with Hanoi, there is no reason why the same cannot be done with Havana.
Having traveled from one end of Cuba to the other, talking to whomever I wanted, I am convinced that the time for resumption of bilateral relations is long overdue. When people learned I was a Yanqui and not a Canadian or Brit, they were ecstatic and welcoming, regardless of their views of Fidel (positive and negative). As one maritime official overlooking the Havana harbor said to me, “What are you guys waiting for? Be friends and come back.”
One single mom (with a college degree) that I talked with one evening along Havana’s seaside Malecòn had some excellent advice for my readers. She said, “If you tell a Cuban what to do, he will do the opposite just to spite you. If you [Americans] stop telling us what to do, things will work out exactly like you want.” Read More →