Chaos in the Caribbean

It’s been an eventful few weeks for two of the United States’ Caribbean neighbors. On July 7, Haiti’s president was assassinated at his private home in Port-au-Prince, sending the country into a chaotic tailspin. Just days later, on July 11, protesters spilled into the streets of several Cuban cities, calling for the end of the communist regime. The United States has long and complicated histories and relationships with both Haiti and Cuba, marred in intervention and domination as well as “distrust and antagonism.” Thus far in Mr. Biden’s tenure as president, he has done very little in defining his administration’s policies toward Either country. In reality, the recent turmoil in Haiti and Cuba highlights the fact that the Biden administration lacks an overarching policy toward Cuba and has no defined strategy toward Haiti, except for a few recent reactive measures.

Credit: Nick Kenrick

The Mysterious Murder

In the early hours of July 7, a group of assassins shot and killed Haiti’s president, Jovenel Moise, in his home in Port-au-Prince. Haitian officials claim that two Americans and nearly two dozen Colombian nationals were part of the assassination plot, an event that sent Haiti into a spiral of chaos and confusion. After the assassination, Prime Minister Claude Joseph took power. However, there was no clear transition of power as the late president had appointed Ariel Henry as the new prime minister just days before he died. Further compounding the issue is the fact that the country has two conflicting constitutions with varying instructions for this type of situation, and the head of Haiti’s highest court, who may have settled the confusion, died of COVID-19 in June; The position remains unfilled. Moreover, violent gangs are also competing for power. Haiti is indeed in dire straits.

A History of Intervention

The current situation in Haiti presents an interesting challenge for the Biden administration, likely one that was not anticipated. As the poorest country in the hemisphere, Haiti is not typically considered to be a geopolitically important country. However, Haiti has historically been of strategic interest to the United States. U.S. involvement in Haiti began in the late eighteenth century with the Americans supporting French colonists’ efforts to squash revolts perpetrated by groups of enslaved Haitians. In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson sent U.S. Marines into Haiti to restore stability after the Haitian president was assassinated. U.S. intervention in Haiti did not end there; nearly eight decades later, the U.S. under the Clinton administration again sent troops into Haiti in 1994 to restore the presidency of Jean-Bertrand Astride.

Today, Haiti is again erupting into the chaos and violence. Because of Haiti’s geographic proximity to the United States and the tendency for Haitian nationals fleeing the economically devastated and politically unstable country to head towards their wealthier and more stable neighbor to the north, the Biden administration is in desperate need of defined strategy toward Haiti. However, it has become increasingly clear that the United States under the Biden administration does not have a defined strategy for how to handle the instability erupting approximately 800 miles off its southern coast.

Cuba Not So Libre?

On July 11, Cubans took to the streets in a wave of unprecedented protests, frustrated by poor living conditions, rising COVID-19 infections, power outages, a strained health system, and a lack of basic goods and services. Above all, protesters are calling for an end to the communist regime that has been in power for more than 60 years. The communist regime, now led by President Miguel Diaz-Canal, moved to quickly quell the protests unlike any others seen in Cuban history, demonstrated in the government’s characteristic autocratic nature. Additionally, President Diaz-Cana quickly blamed America for Cuba’s suffering. Needless to say, all parties in Cuba are struggling in the country’s current situation.

And the Plot Thickens

The United States and Cuba continue to have a tense relationship, rooted in the Cold War. Beginning with the Kennedy administration, the United States has imposed harsh economic penalties against Cuba, escalating into a full-blown economic embargo with strict travel restrictions in the 1960s. In the following decades, Cuba only became more isolated and relations between the United States and Cuba further deteriorated.

Then, it looked like America’s approach to Cuba would finally change when Barack Obama took office in 2009. During his campaign, President Obama noted that “isolating Cuba had failed to advance U.S. interest”; the time had come for a diplomatic strategy. Under the Obama administration, the United States relaxed its policies and relations between the two adversaries normalized. However, when President Donald Trump took office, he reversed much of the progress the Obama administration accomplished.

During his campaign, now President Biden promised to reverse Trump’s antagonistic and detrimental approach to Cuba. However, the Biden administration has made it clear that Cuba is not among his highest priorities. This became increasingly apparent during the protests. The Biden administration made nothing but reactive statements, declaring the United States’ support for the Cuban people and taken noncommittal actions like considering initiatives to make the internet more accessible or allowing more remittances to the Cuban people. Yet, these actions fail to illustrate the administration’s overarching policy on Cuba. In fact, what is clear is that the Biden administration does not have an overarching policy toward Cuba and is in no hurry to design one.

Conclusion

Recent events in Cuba are unprecedented while the situation in Haiti is par for the course. Each country’s situation presents a unique challenge to U.S. foreign policy. However, the assassination of Haiti’s president and protests breaking out in Cuban cities have highlighted that the Biden administration has no overarching policy for Cuba or any defined strategy for handling the Haitian political crisis.

What Does It Mean To Be A U.S. Ally?

In recent months, the status and future of U.S. alliances has been a central focus of the Biden administration’s foreign policy. In several recent speeches and public addresses, President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. and his Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, have pledged to “reaffirm and reimage” the United States’ alliances.

After four years of angering and alienating America’s closest friends under the Trump administration’s America First mantra, the Biden administration now stresses the importance of redefining and recalibrating those relationships, noting that the United States’ alliances are “our greatest asset.”

The renewed focus on America’s closest friends and allies thus presents the question: what is an ally?

What is an ally?

The word “ally” is used often in U.S. foreign policy circles. Since the end of the Second World War, the United States has maintained a system of alliances that plays a key role in America’s ability to achieve its foreign policy objectives and safeguard its national security. The defining element of these alliances is the mutual defense treaties signed by the United States and its allies, cementing each country’s willingness and obligation to defend one another in the event of an attack.

The terms friend, partner, and ally are often used interchangeably. Yet there is a difference between an official ally and a partner or friend. While the United States maintains ties with several countries that play crucial roles in U.S. foreign policy, it has no treaty commitments to defend these countries, classifying them instead as friends and partners rather than official allies.

Who are the United States’ allies and closest friends?

My April 15 post explored how the United States designed an alliance system in Europe and Asia after the Second World War to combat communism. Largely though, the United States has maintained this system with some changes along the way. In 2017, an Economist/YouGov poll surveyed participants in the United States, asking respondents whether a country rated as an ally or enemy on a five point scale.

The poll’s results indicated that Americans typically agree on the United States’ closest friends, located primarily in Europe, North America, and Asia. Interestingly, the countries identified in 2017 as the United States’ closest pals tracks with the countries that the United States established defense treaties with after the Second World War. According to the poll, the United States’ top ten closest friends and allies listed by the respondents included Canada, Britain, Australia, France, Ireland, Italy, Germany, New Zealand, Sweden, and Norway.

Always the Friend, Never the Ally

Nevertheless, the United States has several close friendships that, while not official allies, are critical to its foreign policy. For example, in the Middle East the United States has close ties with Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt. In Europe, outside of its 30 North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies, the United States has long provided support to, and relied on, countries such as Finland, Sweden, and Ukraine.

In Latin America, Colombia, Bolivia, and Mexico are often considered close friends to the United States. Similarly, in Africa, the United States has worked closely with countries like South Africa, Ethiopia, and Nigeria. And, in Asia, aside from the countries included in its hub and spokes system, the United States is deeply committed to its friendships with countries with which it does not have defense treaties, including Taiwan and Singapore.

While the relationships between the United States and these countries may not constitute an official alliance, they are still crucial to the United States’ foreign policy.

Conclusion

In foreign policy, friends and partners are often confused with allies. There is a difference, however, in referring to countries that maintain friendly and cooperative ties and the countries that maintain defense treaties, obligating the signatories to defend the other country in the case of an attack.

The United States has preserved a system of alliances for over seven decades, recognizing that those relationships would allow the United States to fend off threats to its national security. Today, a list of America’s closest friends looks strikingly like the alliance system it developed in 1945.  

Beyond those alliances, there are countries throughout the world with which the United States has close and cooperative ties, but that are not considered to be official allies. Those countries are still essential to U.S. foreign policy.