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Putin in Havana, America at the Movies

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When Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Havana this week to build closer ties with Cuba's senior leadership, it begged the question, "Haven't we seen this movie before?"

Our narrative starts at the height of the Cold War. Cuba's revolutionary government established formal diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union on May 8, 1960. Washington, in turn, severed ties with Havana on January 3, 1961. By the time Vladimir Putin was a 10-year-old and Barack Obama was an infant, we had already lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, the establishment of the Lourdes signals intelligence center near Havana, and more, which brought the heat of the Cold War within a hundred miles of our shores.

Back then, the Eisenhower and Kennedy Administrations decided it simply would not do to have what was called a "Soviet puppet" in what some still call our "backyard." President Kennedy, as Cuba scholar Daniel Erikson wrote, reinterpreted the Monroe Doctrine "to support American efforts to contain the expansion of Soviet influence into the hemisphere."

From the Bay of Pigs invasion to diplomatic isolation to the tightest economic sanctions we could impose, driving the Soviets out and punishing the Cubans for inviting them in was what U.S. policy was all about. This was matched, year after year, by Cuba's resolute resistance to whatever wallops Washington delivered, sustained for a decade by Soviet subsidies.

The fall of the Berlin Wall led, however, to the collapse of Cuba's economy. When the Soviet Union broke-up in 1991, Cuba lost annual assistance estimated at approximately $4.5 billion. Its economy contracted by 35 percent more or less overnight. Public transport essentially ground to a halt. Calorie consumption in the average Cuban's diet fell by 30 percent. Export earnings fell 80 percent. When the Soviets cut off all military and economic assistance to Cuba, the allies went through a nasty break-up.

This was Washington's moment to declare victory. With Russia dislodged from Cuba, the objectives of our policy having been met, the U.S. should have reinvigorated diplomacy and reached a modus vivendi with Cuba.

Instead, U.S. policymakers decided to try and finish the job. They passed the Cuba Democracy Act, which tightened the embargo screws even further, with the expectation that Cuba's economic travails would do Cuba's government in. It might have been called "The Never Miss an Opportunity to Miss an Opportunity Act of 1992."

What happened? Well, Cuba's government didn't fall under the weight of the U.S. embargo. Our insistence on shutting Cuba out of regional forums like the OAS continues to backfire on us to this day. Raúl and Fidel Castro organized a peaceful transition of power. Now, a little more than two decades later, Russia is back.

Without apparent irony, Yuri Ushakov, a presidential aide, told a reporter that the Kremlin considers Cuba to be "one of Russia's ancient partners in Latin America." To advance that partnership, even before President Putin landed on Cuban soil, Russia agreed to write off about $32 billion in debt Cuba owed to the Soviet Union.

In addition to writing off its debt, Russia has been written into Cuba's strategy for recovering oil from the vast offshore reserves it has sought to exploit since the 1990s. As Russian oil producers signed agreements with the Cubans to carry out joint explorations in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, Putin pledged "We will provide support to our Cuban friends to overcome the illegal blockade of Cuba."

On Putin's last trip to Cuba 14 years ago, he pulled the plug on the Lourdes signal intelligence center as his personal affirmation that the Cold War was over and, as Progreso Weekly reported, he also reviewed the status of Cuba's backlogged debt payments for previously acquired Soviet loans.

We have seen this movie before. It's called "Groundhog Day." In that film, as the events of February 2 repeat themselves day after day, our love-smitten TV weatherman learns to set aside his self-destructive behavior and end the tragic time loop by doing right in the world. The cold of winter gives way, finally, to spring.

"Keep in mind that when Castro came to power," President Obama said last year in Miami, "I was just born. So the notion that the same policies that we put in place in 1961 would somehow still be as effective as they are today in the age of the Internet and Google and world travel doesn't make sense."

Whether it's inviting Cuba to join the Summit of the Americas, engaging with Cuba directly to protect the coast of Florida from the risk posed by a Russo-Cuban drilling accident, or using his ample executive authority to increase legally travel and trade, surely President Obama can summon the imagination and courage, not to drive Russia out, but to get our country back in the game.