Renewed Cuban-American relations have limitless potential to enrich both countries. While the impact of rapprochement on business, tourism, and telecommunication investments has been thoroughly explored, the potential for collaboration in outer space has not.
Cuba does not have any independent, government sponsored space program to speak of. Cuban space programs during the Cold War came about through Soviet collaboration, including the 1967 Soviet tracking station and the InterSputnik Caribe communications station. In 1980, Russian support provided the opportunity for Cuba’s first cosmonaut to become a member of the exclusive club of Earth orbiters. (KISLYAKOV, 2008)
Russia has remained the wellspring for Cuban space programs. (Lee, 2016) In 2008, several news organizations cited a Tass report quoting Anatoly Perminov, chief of the Russian State Corporation for Space Activities, on the possibility of Russia helping Cuba establish “its own” space center. Effectively, Cuba could set up an independent space program. Russia and Cuba have signed several significant agreements on space issues: in 2013 on communication satellite cooperation and in 2014, for no first deployment of space weapons and later on peaceful space exploration. (Strengthening of Russia-Cuba relations to be priority of Putin’s visit to Cuba, 2014; Russia’s Federation Council Ratifies Space Cooperation Agreement With Cuba, 2014) These are on top of the shared Trade, Economic, Scientific and Technical Cooperation Programme for 2012-2020, which, in President Putin’s words, is Russia and Cuba “working on some major projects in industry and high technologies, energy, civil aviation, the peaceful use of outer space, medicine and biopharmaceuticals.” (Russkiy Mir Foundation Information Service, 2014) Further, Russia has asked Cuba to build GLONASS signal calibration systems on the island. Cuban participation in the project, aside from hosting, may be minimal, but the stations highlight some of the interesting conflicts between the nations involved: GLONASS is the US GPS system’s competitor. (Russia ready to hold talks on placing GLONASS signal calibration stations in Cuba, 2014)
Before the reestablishment of US-Cuba relations, President Putin paid a visit to the island to forgive its debts. 90% of Cuban debts were forgiven, with the remaining $3.5 billion returned in the form of investment in projects of Russia’s choosing. (‘Cooperation with Latin America is key to Russia’s foreign policy’ – Putin, 2014) In April 2016, RT.com reported on the possibility of Russia once again deploying missile systems on Cuba in response to perceived American antagonism to Russia’s west, objecting to HIMARS systems in Turkey. (Communists ask Putin to deploy missiles to Cuba in reply to Pentagon’s Turkey expansion, 2016)
There is more than one reason Cuba would be interested in building up their space program, even with the geostrategic risks. A developed space program, especially the ability to conduct manned missions or to put up satellites, is a mark of a developed nation. Less lauded projects, like weather monitoring, could prove tremendously valuable on a practical level.
However, all three potential Cuban partners in space, US, China, and Russia, are at odds. Their conflicts give Cuba an opportunity to bargain, pick a side and risk dependence, or get caught in the middle of a superpower conflict. While Cold War competitiveness did accelerate efforts to utilize space, the impact of a space race on Cuba now will depend at least partially on how the island goes about its relationship with the United States and alliances elsewhere.
Cuba is at the receiving end of restrictive American policy. Further liberalization will depend on the mindset of the American political elite, especially the new president. President Trump has threatened to reverse course on President Obama’s Cuban policy. Some scholars have suggested that Trump’s business past could lead him to see the economic benefits of exchange for both himself and the United States. (Dowling, 2016) Were Trump to try to walk back the budding policy, he may face international condemnation. While he has an interest in anti-missile technology, Trump may reasonably be reluctant to collaborate with other governments on homeland security issues. (Donnelly, 2016) But were he to try to repeal the embargo and allow collaborative scientific programs, a potentially $500 billion space-weapon pot could be shared with Cuban partners and strengthen US-Cuban academic and security ties. This would require the president’s business interests to supersede his nationalist intent and fear of Chinese or Russian weapon superiority, or Cuban leadership deciding to side with the United States. (Donnelly, 2016)
The creators of a new Cuban space program would likely want to build on collaborative projects to train their own scientists and establish their own institutions. Russian interest means American leadership should step forward if Cuba were to indicate a desire to collaborate. If Cuba shows an interest in space exploration, their program could get off the ground with or without the US. It is in the American interest to lend a hand and lessen Russia’s role.
Organizations like the American Association for the Advancement of Science see the massive scientific potential of renewed diplomatic ties. In a panel on “science diplomacy with Cuba,” Dr. Cristina Rabadán-Diehl highlighted the universality of science and its global beneficiaries. Space science is, and has always been, seen as part of the common progress of humanity. Environmental protection efforts and a partnership on a cancer vaccine are both promising signs of a budding scientific relationship. (Korte, 2015) Cuban medical diplomacy demonstrates how targeted, academic efforts play a role in Cuba’s foreign policy. Science and technology could be a new round of alternative diplomacy. Cuba’s history demonstrates the risks and benefits of cooperation with other countries. Going forward, Cuban leadership can use this experience to secure the benefits while planning for the risks.
‘Cooperation with Latin America is key to Russia’s foreign policy’ – Putin. (2014, July 14). Retrieved from RT: https://www.rt.com/politics/official-word/171900-putin-interview-latin-america/
Communists ask Putin to deploy missiles to Cuba in reply to Pentagon’s Turkey expansion. (2016, April 27). Retrieved from RT: https://www.rt.com/politics/341118-communists-ask-putin-to-deploy/
Donnelly, J. M. (2016, November 21). Under Trump, GOP to Give Space Weapons Close Look. Retrieved from CQ Roll Call: http://www.rollcall.com/news/politics/trump-gop-give-space-weapons-close-look
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Russia ready to hold talks on placing GLONASS signal calibration stations in Cuba. (2014, April 22). Retrieved from Tass: http://tass.com/russia/791086
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Strengthening of Russia-Cuba relations to be priority of Putin’s visit to Cuba. (2014, July 10). Retrieved from Itar-Tass: http://tass.com/russia/739861
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Note: picture is of locks on a bridge in Paris, France.