- By José R. CárdenasJose R. Cardenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.
Reports are coming in that this Friday, in a Miami speech, President Donald Trump will unveil his revisions to former President Barack Obama’s controversial policy to normalize U.S. relations with the Castro dictatorship in Cuba. While no specifics have as yet leaked, it is largely expected that Trump will tighten certain aspects of the myriad executive orders Obama issued to circumvent the U.S. embargo, primarily in the areas of liberalized tourist travel and other commercial exchanges with the island (the embargo was codified by Congress in 1996).
Trump is also expected to make the case for more reciprocity in the relationship — in that Obama’s deal was woefully one-sided, with the Castro regime accruing windfall economic benefits from increased U.S. trade and travel without conceding anything in terms of its one-party state, closed economy, and repression of human rights.
It is a point that President Trump has driven home previously. During the campaign last October, he called the Obama administration’s negotiations “a very weak agreement.” As president-elect in November, he tweeted, “If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate the deal.”
Media reports are suggesting the Trump administration may also specifically target commercial dealings with entities controlled by the Cuban military. That’s because under Obama policy, the military has been steadily expanding its reach into all facets of the tourist industry, among other sectors of the Cuban economy. Its holding company, GAESA (Enterprise Administration Group), owns the best hotels in Cuba and most retail outlets, rental car companies, and import entities. It is run by Raúl Castro’s son-in-law, Gen. Luis Alberto Rodríguez López-Callejas, one of the most powerful men on the island. Estimates are that GAESA companies account for more than half of the business revenue generated in Cuba — and that number is rising.
Blocking transactions that serve only to reinforce the regime’s control over the Cuban people would restore badly needed integrity to U.S. policy. (It should be noted, however, that even the supposed “private enterprises” in Cuba — such as home restaurants, rentable apartments, taxis, and so on — are known to be so thoroughly penetrated by the regime that the line between ordinary Cubans and regime is impossible to discern.)
In the past, I have written that in reassessing Obama’s policy towards Cuba, one need only to hold it to the standard his administration set for itself: namely, whether it works to “ improve the lives of the Cuban people.”
Thus, all executive orders issued by Obama and commercial deals struck under the Obama administration ought to be judged according to whether they help the Cuban people or whether they buttress the Castro regime. Any activity found to be sustaining the regime’s control rather than directly benefiting the Cuban people should be scrapped. That, and restoring common cause with Cuba’s beleaguered human rights and dissident communities, should be front and center of a reconfigured U.S. Cuba policy.
As far as broader commercial transactions with the Castro regime, the Trump administration should consider resurrecting the Arcos Principles for Foreign Investment in Cuba, named after the late revolutionary fighter-turned-dissident and inspired by the Sullivan Principles, which sought to govern commercial transactions with the apartheid regime in South Africa. Essentially, it would mean urging any commercial entity doing or looking to do business in Cuba to commit to promoting human rights and fair-labor hiring and employment practices.
For example, U.S. companies engaged in Cuba should demand that wages be paid directly to Cuban workers in convertible pesos known as CUCs. Current practice is that Cuban workers earn a few hundred dollars a week, paid to the regime, which then pays workers in worthless Cuban pesos, known as CUPs.
Defenders of Obama’s policy assert that it was not meant to produce change overnight, that the pre-Obama approach was an ignominious failure, and that changing policy now would only hurt the Cuban people — as if it is the responsibility of the United States and not the Castro regime to provide for the Cuban people’s welfare. (It is a particularly odious aspect of the Castro regime that it has always tried to leverage the suffering of the Cuban people for sympathy and concessions from abroad.)
Moreover, these advocates have no special claim to being frustrated over the lack of change in Cuba; everyone who cares about Cuba is frustrated. That doesn’t mean we all have to agree that the appropriate policy response is to open up trade and travel with the Castro dictatorship and then hope for the best.
Still, no one is expecting that President Trump’s reset of U.S.-Cuba policy is merely going to be a return to the status quo ante. As stated, a defensible U.S. Cuba policy is one that supports the Cuban people with as little support to the regime as possible. President Obama professed to want to help average Cubans have a better day; a more fitting U.S. policy is to stand with those Cubans who want a better future.
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