The Cable

Cuba Rollback Could Cost Trump on Jobs Front

Companies, farmers, and even many Cuban-Americans don’t want to see restrictions reimposed.

Tourists walk near the Manzana Kempinski Hotel, the first luxury five star plus tourist facility in Cuba, on May 22, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / YAMIL LAGE        (Photo credit should read YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty Images)
Tourists walk near the Manzana Kempinski Hotel, the first luxury five star plus tourist facility in Cuba, on May 22, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / YAMIL LAGE (Photo credit should read YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty Images)

U.S. President Donald Trump may find it hard to walk back his predecessor’s historic rapprochement with Cuba, now that various businesses are invested in revived relations with Havana.

Cruise ship operators, commercial airlines, hotel chains, telecommunications companies and farmers have moved to take advantage of President Barack Obama’s easing of trade and travel restrictions with the island nation.

Trump isn’t likely to go too far in reversing those restrictions because it would undercut his campaign pledges to create jobs, Jason Marczak, director of the Latin America Economic Growth Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, argued.

“There’s a cost to that reversal, and that cost is U.S. jobs,” he said.

The White House may soon move to tighten some of the trade and travel restrictions that Obama eased as part of a broad review of U.S. Cuba policy, Reuters reported Tuesday, though it isn’t likely to sever the diplomatic ties that Obama restored. The White House didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. 

In a Twitter post last November, president-elect Trump vowed to “terminate” President Barack Obama’s “deal” with Cuba if the government in Havana is “unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole.”

But even tinkering with the relaxation of rules on travel and trade could prove unpopular.

Obama’s restoration of diplomatic ties with Cuba in December 2014 enjoyed broad support. A Pew Research poll in January 2015 found that 63% of Americans supported the decision, while 66% thought the United States should go even further and lift the trade embargo.

Many older Cuban-Americans remain viscerally opposed to any engagement with the Castro government or liberalized trade with Cuba, which they argue will help the regime, not ordinary Cubans. Obama’s decision invited sharp criticism from some members of Congress, including two key lawmakers, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.).

But Cuban-Americans have taken advantage of the eased restrictions to visit relatives and send them money — and they aren’t likely to look kindly on any moves to revoke them, Cynthia Arnson, the director of the Latin American program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, argued. 

“A rollback of those provisions is likely to spark opposition from within the Cuban-American community,” she said.

The American agriculture sector, too, is resisting changes that would walk back the opening to Cuba, and they have a strong advocate in Trump’s agriculture secretary, Sonny Perdue.

As governor of Georgia in 2010, Perdue led an agriculture delegation to Cuba. At his March confirmation hearing, he expressed support for moves to increase access for U.S. farmers to the Cuban market, including a House measure to allow private lenders to finance farm exports to Cuba.

“If our folks grow it, I want to sell it. They eat in Cuba as well,” Perdue said.

For Trump, who boasts of his deal-making prowess, the challenge may be putting his own thumbprint on the Cuba relationship without harming business opportunities. “Part of this for him is putting his stake in the ground and saying he’s going to get a better deal,” Marczak argued.

Any more than that would run counter to his campaign message, he said. “This is not a president who came to office to promote human rights.”

Photo credit: YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty Images

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