Castro, Obama and the Prisoner’s Dilemma

Cuba, the non-cooperative betraying criminal, received the favorable treatment of being rewarded with U.S. diplomatic relations. And, the accommodatingly silent Obama administration ought to be harshly sentenced in the court of public opinion for its failure to act in the best interest of the United States to get its Hellfire Missile back. It is hard to conceive a more graphic example of a failure to protect U.S. national security interests. Just as troubling, the administration kept this information from Congress and withheld it from any public discussion of the new U.S. – Cuba policy.

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By José Azel l November 30, 2016

prisoners-dilemma

The prisoner’s dilemma is the best known strategic theorem in social science. It helps us understand what influences cooperation and competition with the paradoxical outcome that, under certain conditions, individuals will not cooperate, even when it is in their best interest to do so.

Let’s use the prisoner’s dilemma game theory insight to examine the latest example of non-cooperation by Cuba in its relationship with the United States and the U.S. response or lack of it. General Castro and President Obama are partners in negotiation analogous to the partners in crime of the prisoner’s dilemma. Public opinion is our prosecutor.

The prisoner’s dilemma was developed by scientists at the RAND Corporation and later formalized by a Princeton mathematician. Its applications in economics, business, politics, and social science are extremely sophisticated including the modeling of behavior between nuclear powers and national rivalries.

The prisoner’s dilemma entered popular culture with the film “A Beautiful Mind” based on the life of John Nash, who won a Nobel in Economics for his work on game theory.

In the simplest version of the dilemma, two criminals are interrogated in separate rooms and offered a choice of testifying against the other or remaining silent. Testifying means a lighter sentence for the testifying criminal, if the other one refuses to testify and remains silent. The testifying criminal will receive the favorable treatment of a state’s witness. The non testifying criminal will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

However, if they both decide to testify against each other, the prosecutor will be able to ask for the harshest sentence for both of them. The best outcome for both is when they cooperate with each other by staying silent, thus denying the prosecutor the ability to convict them.

And yet, because each prisoner is unable to know what the other will do, each can improve his personal situation by testifying against the other. In this simple prisoner’s dilemma, testifying- that is, betraying the other- is the dominant strategy for each. Paradoxically, when each prisoner follows a purely logical thought process and seeks to improve his own situation, both prisoners find themselves in a worse situation.

cubaIt was recently reported that an unarmed U.S. Hellfire missile was somehow mistakenly shipped to Cuba from Europe in 2014. This happened just as the Obama administration and Cuba were negotiating what ended up being the current rapprochement between the countries.

At a minimum, the administration should have conditioned negotiations concerned that Cuba would share the missile’s advance targeting technology with potential U.S. adversaries such as Russia, China, and North Korea. Quite likely, Cuba’s espionage capabilities were involved in this mysterious “mis-shipment.”

The Castro regime refused to return the missile and incredibly the administration did not make its return a non-negotiable condition for the reestablishment of diplomatic relations, which took place 13 months after it was known the missile was in Cuba.

It is hard to conceive a more graphic example of a failure to protect U.S. national security interests. Just as troubling, the administration kept this information from Congress and withheld it from any public discussion of the new U.S. – Cuba policy.

If General Castro had any interest in cooperating with the United States to maximize the possibilities of a good relationship between the countries, he would have immediately returned the missile to a friendly administration committed to accommodating his demands.

Instead, the General, as modeled by the prisoner’s dilemma, betrayed his negotiating partner-in-crime and pursued his own self-interest. What is irrational is that the administration broke faith with the national security interest of the United States by failing to vigorously condemn the unlawful behavior of the Cuban regime.

In this example, Cuba, the non-cooperative betraying criminal, received the favorable treatment of being rewarded with diplomatic relations. And, the accommodatingly silent Obama administration ought to be harshly sentenced in the court of public opinion for its failure to act in the best interest of the United States to get the missile back.

History will witness how the prisoner’s dilemma works out in this instance.


José Azel arrived in the U.S. in 1961 from communist Cuba as a 13 year-old political exile with Operation Pedro Pan, the largest unaccompanied child refugee movement in the history of the Western Hemisphere. He is currently a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies (ICCAS) at the University of Miami. Dr. Azel earned a Masters Degree in Business Administration and a Ph.D. in International Affairs from the University of Miami, and is author of Mañana in Cuba: The Legacy of Castroism and Transitional Challenges for Cuba. He is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.