One day, the Castro regime will end, and the Cuban people may have the right to decide which elements of ‘socialism’ they will keep and which they will jettison. It will be their decision, of course, not the decision of any American official sitting in an office in Washington.
Yet the Trump administration’s decision last week to roll back some (importantly — not all) of the changes that characterized the Obama administration’s opening to Cuba makes that day more difficult to see on the horizon.
After just over five months in office, US president Donald Trump’s decision on Cuban policy almost perfectly crystallizes the way decisions are made in his administration. Trump was all over the place on Cuba in his improbable 2015-16 presidential campaign but by the time of the general election, Trump was promising Republicans — including older Cuban Americans in electoral vote-rich Florida — that he would roll back the Obama administration’s overtures.
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Dutifully, Trump went to Miami last Friday, flanked by Florida senator (and former presidential rival) Marco Rubio and others, to announce exactly that, denouncing the Obama administration’s ‘one-sided deal’ with Cuba:
Back from Miami where my Cuban/American friends are very happy with what I signed today. Another campaign promise that I did not forget!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 17, 2017
But the golden rule of the Trump era is quickly becoming: don’t worry about what he says or Tweets, look at what he does. And behind the bombast about defending human rights or the rhetoric trashing Barack Obama, Trump is leaving the guts of the Obama-era opening in
In reality, Trump’s policy rolls back very little. The hallmark of the Obama-era, Pore Francis-brokered deal — reestablished diplomatic relations and reopened embassies in Havana and Washington — is unchanged. The direct flights that many US carriers now operate from throughout the United States will continue. Trump will not restore Bush-era limits on Cuban Americans to travel back to the island or send money back. US tourists who continue to travel to Cuba under the new regulations will still be permitted to bring home some of Cuba’s famous cigars and rum. Nor does Trump’s new policy reinstate the ‘wet foot, dry foot’ policy that the Obama administration ended on January 13, which previously permitted all Cubans who reached US soil to remain in the United States (while repatriating Cubans intercepted at sea).
It’s classic Trump — make a promise based on short-term considerations, back down in the face of facts and real-world constraints, then keep just enough of your promise to declare victory.
Trump’s executive action will, however, make it more difficult for regular US citizens to travel to Cuba, forcing Americans back to the days when they had to choose one of 12 (still relatively broad) categories to qualify to travel. The policy underlying the new restrictions is to prohibit Americans from spending money in state-run and military-run hotels or restaurants. But travelers to Cuba already seem inclined to avoid the overpriced state-run hotels and resorts for private casas particulares and paladares. Moreover, foreign travelers much convert their own currency into special ‘convertible pesos,’ which invariably pools foreign reserves into the hands of the Cuban regime, no matter how those ‘CUCs’ wind up being spent on the island.
So Trump’s actions harm American tourists, who once again, will have to jump through bizarre legal hoops to visit a foreign country 90 miles from Florida. It will also hurt American businesses that have started the long-retarded process of engaging with Cubans — especially companies like AirBNB that are working to develop genuine private enterprise on the island. (Ironically, Trump’s businesses may have violated US regulations on dealings with Cuba in the 1990s). Most of all, Trump seems set to hurt those private entrepreneurs who were thriving from a growing tourism industry outside the clutches of the government’s airtight control.
Furthermore, just weeks after Trump danced alongside Saudi royals, it’s a stretch to believe his new Cuban policy has anything to do with democracy promotion or human rights. It’s about party politics — shoring up support from mostly older Cuban exiles and taking a symbolic swipe at Barack Obama’s legacy.
Obama never convinced the US Congress to end the longstanding Cuban embargo, which remains in place, fully 55 years after the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, so you have to wonder just how robust the Obama legacy ever was, regarding Cuba. In an rational-actor world, the embargo would have been lifted decades ago. The Castro regime survived the Cold War, in no small part, by painting the embargo as the unfair and unjust oppression of a stronger northern power that had treated Cuba as its vassal state since 1898. After the Cold War, the embargo only reinforced a deep and painful economic depression in the 1990s that put many Cubans at risk of hunger. Once again, it seems, Florida presidential politics is overruling humanitarian, diplomatic and economic considerations — and just plain common sense.
As I wrote in 2015 after traveling to Cuba, the Obama administration’s policies on Cuba weren’t entirely about Cuba. But Cuba’s treatment had become a touchy issue for US relations across Latin America, and the Obama administration’s opening to Cuba paved the way for cooperation on any number of issues, including the landmark peace deal between the Colombian government and the FARC (a deal brokered in Havana).
It’s not clear that Trump or any of his foreign policy advisers thought for a minute about the optics of their new Cuba policy vis-à-vis the rest of Latin America. Though Trump kept much of the Obama-era policy in place, his political posture may still offend Cuba’s neighbors. There are already signs that Colombian officials are irked by Trump’s move. Trump, meanwhile, is certainly not beloved in Mexico, given that he began his presidential campaign in June 2015 by calling Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists. Earlier this week, Trump attempted to take credit for the Panama Canal in an awkward meeting with Panamanian president Juan Carlos Varela, who acidly noted, ‘Yeah, 100 years ago.’
Meanwhile, Rex Tillerson, the US secretary of state, will run a task force on Internet access in Cuba (which is truly abysmal, and which the Cuban government hopes to roll out only after it has implemented significant China-style controls). But Tillerson has no experience himself, and the State Department has only had a deputy secretary of state, John Sullivan, since May 24. Whatever Tillerson’s task force comes up with, let’s hope it’s not another ZunZuneo-style failure.
Cuba’s president Raúl Castro may be stepping down next year (a decision he announced years ago — Trump has nothing to do with it), and Fidel Castro died last November shortly after Trump’s election. If the Obama-era Cuba policy’s goal was to nudge Cuba toward political liberalization through a deluge of economic liberalization, the Trump-era Cuba policy could force retrenchment. Alejandro Castro Espín, Raúl’s son, is already rising through the government ranks. Miguel Díaz-Canel, first vice president, is currently Castro’s heir apparent to take over in 2018, but there are plenty of would-be successors to the Castro family who never took power (and didn’t even outlive the Castro brothers). Few people know Díaz-Canel’s true feelings about either political or economic liberalization nor his ability to unite both the ruling Partido Comunista de Cuba and the formidable Cuban military. In many ways, the identity of Raúl’s successor matters less than the policy, and that policy will be influenced by the economic and diplomatic mood from the United States.
Obama administration officials knew that economic liberalization alone would not make Cuba more free politically, but they knew that it was a prerequisite for a more open Cuban state. Trump’s steps endanger the momentum of that liberalization and threaten to make relations with the rest of Latin America more difficult as a result — at a time when Trump’s mix of nationalism, uncertainty and inexperience are forcing even longtime US allies to reconsider long-established assumptions about American global leadership.