The president’s Miami announcement is a window into a chaotic foreign-policy process that sidelines the secretary of state.
- By Robbie GramerRobbie Gramer is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. He writes for The Cable, FP’s real-time take on all things, well, foreign policy. Before he joined FP in 2016, he used to think in a tank, managing the NATO portfolio at the Atlantic Council for three years. He’s a graduate of American University’s School of International Service, where he studied international relations and European affairs. He has lived in both Washington and Brussels, though he grew up in Idaho and Oregon, so he’s a West Coaster at heart. When he’s not busy reporting, he’s probably busy starting three new books before he has finished the last one or planning a trip to a national park he hasn’t visited yet.
President Donald Trump is expected to announce a new Cuba policy during his visit to Miami on Friday, rolling back much of his predecessor’s progress toward rapprochement with Havana, despite an interagency review that recommended keeping the current approach in place.
Senior officials insist the policy will only target the repressive Cuban regime and not Cuban citizens themselves, but critics say it will have a blowback effect on the entire island, threatening to scuttle nascent commercial ties and business ventures on the island under communist rule for nearly 60 years.
The new policy, expected to be announced during Trump’s speech in Miami, “does not target the people, but it does target the oppressive members of the Cuban military government,” said a senior White House official. It will offer a path forward for the easing of restrictions and sanctions if Cuban ruler Raúl Castro makes democratic and human rights reforms.
It’s part optics. Trump is expected to market the policy shift as a complete 180-degree shift from the easeback as he works to dismantle former President Barack Obama’s hallmark foreign-policy achievements.
But he won’t be severing diplomatic ties with Cuba, ending commercial flights to the country, or closing down the U.S. Embassy in Havana that reopened in 2015. He also won’t bring back the so-called “wet foot, dry foot” policy that allowed Cuban refugees who make it to American soil to become permanent residents. Obama ended that policy in his final days in office.
Trump’s Cuba policy offers a glimpse into the chaotic policymaking process inside the administration, where standard interagency processes are often cast aside and Trump and his close coterie of White House advisors run major foreign-policy decisions out of the White House with little input from the State Department.
Multiple sources tell FP the administration conducted an intensive interagency review process on a new Cuba policy that Trump ultimately spurned. In early May, the review was sent to Trump recommending he keep in place Obama’s drive to normalize relations with Cuba. He nixed that idea after promising on the campaign trail to cater a new policy to Cuban-American hardliners.
From there, two lawmakers — and not the State Department — got in the driver’s seat with Trump, sources tell Foreign Policy. Cuba hardliners Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart (R-Fla.) were the dominating force behind administration’s new changes, overriding Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Trump’s new policy boils down to directing federal agencies, including the Departments of Treasury, Commerce, and State to come up with new regulations. No tangible changes will go into effect until the agencies create those regulations.
The new policy is expected to impose limits on commercial transactions involving the Cuban military. The Trump administration is also expected to ban Americans from traveling to Cuba for their own “people-to-people” purposes.
A senior White House official said the new policy “will empower” Cubans while clamping down on the “oppressive elements of the Cuban regime” under current ruler Raul Castro.
But others disagree. It’s “almost impossible to do business without” benefiting the sprawling tentacles of the Cuban military, a former senior State Department official told FP. Under its Armed Forces Business Enterprises Group, the Cuban military has its hands in many parts of Cuba’s economy, including trade, ports, and the tourism industry. Thus, if the Trump administration targets that group, Cuban citizens, the fledgling private sector, and foreign investors of the type Washington wants to encourage will be caught in the crossfire.
“Rolling back the policy of engagement will hurt the very people it aims to support,” said Alana Tummino of the Americas Society and Council of the Americas. “These personal, cultural, and commercial relationships 90 miles off our shore are our best bet for creating a more open society.”
The concern is that American and other foreign businesses won’t want to dive into Cuba until the Trump administration fully hashes out its new regulations. The policies “won’t have a nuclear impact to Obama’s policies,” one former senior State Department official said. “But it will add a lot of uncertainty to an already uncertain environment.”
“Any time you make a change to a sanctions program, it’s going to take time for the commercial relationships and business relationships to be established,” said Sean Kane, a sanctions expert at Hughes Hubbard law firm and formerly the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. Kane said Trump’s changing existing policies could “restart the clock at zero for many banks and companies who were considering entering Cuba and establishing new business relationships.
Trump’s new policy, while it’s only a partial rollback of Obama’s rapprochement, represents a major political victory for the Florida lawmakers, the Miami Herald reports. This will stand as a major foreign-policy victory for Rubio, the son of poor Cuban immigrants, who made bids for the Republican presidential ticket in the past and could be eyeing greater political ambitions in the future.
Rubio hopes the new changes will force the Castro regime to implement human rights and democratic reforms. “It is my hope that in five to 10 years — or less — Cuba will look very different,” he said said, “and people will point to this as the moment that kind of triggered those changes.”
But human rights experts warned rolling back Obama’s policies won’t work. Reversing Obama’s policy changes are “not going to improve human rights on the island,” said Human Rights Watch’s Juan Miguel Vivanco, speaking at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank. He called Washington’s strict embargo on Cuba, first put in place nearly 60 years ago, “a total failure.”
“To expect different results from a policy that’s not had any impact in terms of serious, significant improvements in … human rights or democracy in Cuba is highly unrealistic,” Vivanco said.
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