Trump Has Set U.S.-Cuba Relations Back Decades

This isn’t a strong statement on human rights. It’s a political sop to voters in Miami.

HAVANA, CUBA - AUGUST 14:  Cubans look out their window across the street from the newly reopened U.S. Embassy in hopes of watching the flag-raising ceremony August 14, 2015 in Havana, Cuba. The first American secretary of state to visit Cuba since 1945, Secretary of State John Kerry visited the reopened embassy, a symbolic act after the the two former Cold War enemies reestablished diplomatic relations in July.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - AUGUST 14: Cubans look out their window across the street from the newly reopened U.S. Embassy in hopes of watching the flag-raising ceremony August 14, 2015 in Havana, Cuba. The first American secretary of state to visit Cuba since 1945, Secretary of State John Kerry visited the reopened embassy, a symbolic act after the the two former Cold War enemies reestablished diplomatic relations in July. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump’s new Cuba policy fulfills a campaign pledge he made to conservative Cuban-Americans during last year’s presidential campaign, but it is lousy foreign policy.

“America will expose the crimes of the Castro regime and stand with the Cuban people in their struggle for freedom,” Trump declared during a raucous event in Miami last week. “Effective immediately, I am canceling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba.”

The tone of Trump’s speech announcing the new policy was reminiscent of earlier presidents who sought regime change in Havana through economic coercion — a policy in place from 1961 until President Barack Obama’s normalization announcement in December 2014. For decades, the U.S. embargo imposed suffering on the Cuban people by damaging their economy but never came close to achieving its goal of reforming or toppling the Castro government.

Trump’s new policy won’t, either. For one thing, it is a half-measure — a compromise between Cuban-American hard-liners’ demands that he reverse every aspect of Obama’s opening, and the pleas of U.S. businesses that he not shut them out of the Cuban market. Trump is prohibiting individualized people-to-people travel, but leaving intact the general licenses for all other travel categories. He is prohibiting financial transactions with Cuban enterprises managed by the military, but exempting telecommunications, ports, and airports, thereby safeguarding most of the U.S. businesses that have already signed deals with Havana.

None of the other business opportunities opened up by Obama are being foreclosed; diplomatic relations remain intact, and Cuban-American family travel and remittances are untouched. Travelers can still bring back rum and cigars. Asked why the president wasn’t imposing even tougher sanctions, a senior administration official replied, “You can’t put the genie back in the bottle 100 percent.”

No doubt the new rules will reduce the number of non-diaspora U.S. visitors to the island, which totaled 284,937 in 2016 — accounting for just 7 percent of Cuba’s 4.1. million foreign visitors. Many of those U.S. visitors went on trips that would still be allowed under the new rules. This loss of business will not cripple of the Cuban economy or force concessions from the government.

However, by prohibiting individualized people-to-people travel, the new regulations strike an especially hard blow at Cuba’s emerging private sector, composed largely of private restaurants, tour guides, and bed-and-breakfast rentals (casas particulares) patronized by visiting Americans. By contrast, packaged tours operate through the state-run tourist agencies, lodging visitors in state-owned hotels. That is why some of Cuba’s most prominent private entrepreneurs urged Trump not to reverse Obama’s policy.

The stated goal of Trump’s new policy is to force the Cuban government to improve its human rights practices. To that end, the president set out benchmarks for changes that would trigger reduced U.S. sanctions: “We will not lift sanctions on the Cuban regime until all political prisoners are freed, freedoms of assembly and expression are respected, all political parties are legalized, and free and internationally supervised elections are scheduled.”

The Castro regime’s response is predictable because for more than half a century it has consistently taken the same position: Cuba will not bend in the face of U.S. demands and it will never surrender its sovereignty by negotiating about its internal political or economic arrangements.

Moreover, the invocation of human rights is more an excuse than the real reason for Trump’s policy change. The administration has shown no interest in human rights in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, or the Philippines. On the contrary, the president has gone out of his way to praise and encourage leaders whose human rights records are far worse than Cuba’s. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made clear that “America First” means human rights will take a back seat to U.S. national security and economic interests. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, both perennial critics of Cuba’s human rights record, both warned that rolling back Obama’s policy would hurt the cause of human rights, not help it. The real reason for Trump’s policy change lies elsewhere.

Trump Pays His Debts

 By making his announcement in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, flanked by Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart (R-Fla.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Trump signaled that domestic political calculations outweighed foreign-policy interests in his decision. The president has repeatedly insisted that Obama struck a bad deal, but that claim is hard to reconcile with the fast pace of diplomatic progress during the last two years of Obama’s presidency, when the United States and Cuba signed 23 bilateral agreements on issues of mutual interest.

The Trump administration’s own interagency policy review concluded that engagement was effectively advancing U.S. interests in areas from law enforcement to commerce to environmental protection. But in a meeting of the deputy secretaries of all the relevant executive branch agencies, the White House rejected their conclusion and then wrote its own hardline policy in close collaboration with Díaz-Balart and Rubio. “They worked with us hand-in-glove,” said a senior administration official.

Trump decided to tighten the U.S. embargo because he owed a political debt conservative Cuban Americans who supported him for president. At a time when the race in Florida looked close, the veterans’ organization of Bay of Pigs combatants endorsed Trump. In return, he promised to reverse Obama’s policy.

In fact, Cuban-Americans did not vote overwhelmingly for Trump. He won between 50 percent and 54 percent of the Cuban-American vote, slightly better than Mitt Romney in 2012 but still far below the 2-1 margins Republicans racked up before that.

White House officials privately acknowledged that the decision was also driven by Trump’s promises to Díaz-Balart and Rubio in exchange for their support on other issues. Díaz-Balart was reported to have extracted the promise of a tough Cuba policy in exchange for his vote to repeal Obamacare. And Rubio sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee investigating whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia’s covert attempt to swing the 2016 election. After having dinner with Trump on the eve of former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony before the committee, Rubio cross-examined Comey as if he were acting as Trump’s defense counsel. Rubio denied there was any connection.

The Downside

From climate change to NATO to NAFTA, Trump has shown his contempt for traditional diplomacy by following through on campaign pledges regardless of the damage to U.S. foreign relations. Trump’s political payoff to Miami’s Little Havana runs true to form. His return to insulting rhetoric and imperial demands will throw state-to-state relations with Cuba back into the deep freeze, impeding further progress on issues of mutual interest and stalling negotiations on property claims, human rights, and the return of fugitives. It will be harder, as Cuban officials warned in advance, to enlist Havana’s cooperation on issues ranging from cybercrime to Venezuela.

The new policy of hostility plays into the hands of hard-liners in Havana who share a curious common interest with hard-liners in Miami in opposing warmer U.S.-Cuban relations. Havana’s conservatives can credibly argue that Washington is still the revolution’s implacable enemy, so the risks of political and economic reform are too great to chance. If anything, the regime’s tolerance for dissidents is likely to diminish — just the opposite of Trump’s stated goal.

Faced with a renewed threat from Washington, Havana will do what it did in the 1960s — seek international partners as a counterweight. In recent years, Russia and China have both sought to enhance their influence in Cuba by providing economic assistance. Moscow has gone further, building a “strategic partnership” with Havana involving closer military ties and diplomatic coordination. Russia and China’s growing influence has been a concern of the Pentagon for almost a decade, and it led seven Republican congressmen, three Senate Republicans, and 16 retired senior military officers to implore Trump not to disengage from Cuba, lest he leave the field open to U.S. adversaries.

Finally, the United States will pay a heavy diplomatic price in Latin America, where relations are already strained because of Trump’s incendiary rhetoric about Latino immigrants, the Mexican border wall, and the North American Free Trade Agreement. Latin America was unanimous in its support for Obama’s policy of engagement. By reversing it, Trump has surrendered U.S. leadership in the Western Hemisphere and has put at risk Latin American cooperation on issues vital to the United States like migration, narcotics trafficking, and transnational crime.

Reversing the policy of engagement with Cuba is one more step in Donald Trump’s campaign to lay waste to Barack Obama’s legacy, regardless of the cost to U.S. foreign-policy interests. Trump can bask in the adulation of the Cuban-American right, but it comes at a high price for Cubans, Americans, and most Cuban-Americans who thought they had put the Cold War in the Caribbean behind them.

Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

William M. LeoGrande is professor of government at American University in Washington, D.C., and co-author with Peter Kornbluh of Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana.

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