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Trump’s Cuba Policy and the Return of the American Boogeyman
The president is a master of political theater.
No question, President Donald Trump is a master of political theater. Last Friday’s rollout of the Cuba policy changes in Miami had it all: months of suspense; intrigue between versions proposed by Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart; a build-up of controlled leaks; and the signing ceremony that has become the moniker of this president. But beyond the spectacle, the administration’s new posture is a simple return to Florida politics at the expense of change in Cuba and U.S. leadership abroad.
The only substantive change in U.S. policy toward Cuba in Trump’s speech was to require that educational travel take place in organized groups. Otherwise, the big reveal was to emphasize enforcement and initiate a process intended to channel economic activities away from the Armed Forces Enterprise Group (known by its acronym GAESA) and related entities within Cuba’s military, intelligence, and security services. Speculation abounds on the implications for companies like Starwood Hotels and Resorts that have existing arrangements with GAESA, but there is no clarity or timeline on what the final product will entail, which is probably by design.
Think about it: a vague announcement dressed in universally supported themes, like defending human rights and preventing the Cuban regime from profiting. It’s a ready-made campaign platform for Republicans in Florida without the inconvenience of having to defend a concrete policy. There should be no rush for the administration to finalize the regulations, since maintaining an open-ended review process and the simple threat of heavy enforcement will produce the intended chilling effect on business and purposeful travel. The president was not subtle about the plan when he publicly goaded Gov. Rick Scott to run for Senate. And it might actually work for Scott if he can maintain the support of the 54 percent of Cuban-American voters who backed Trump in 2016, according to Pew Research, and successfully court the 71 percent of non-Cuban Latinos who voted for Hillary Clinton.
Unfortunately for the Cuban people, the paradox of U.S. policy is that pandering to the Cuban-American hardline in Florida also benefits the hardline in Cuba, which will quietly embrace Trump as the foil to slow the pace of change.
The Obama doctrine in Cuba could be summarized as a policy of subversion by engagement. Early in 2009, President Barack Obama began testing the assumptions of U.S. policy by lifting restrictions on the ability of Cuban Americans to visit and send remittances to family members back home. He allowed telecommunications companies to pursue licensing agreements with Cuba and expand access to communication. In December 2014, he opened the aperture further by loosening travel restrictions for all Americans, establishing direct flights, and increasing commerce — all with the understanding that promoting ties between the American and Cuban people was a necessary ingredient for change. The decision to reestablish embassies was based on the notion of diplomatic relations as the basis for any relationship, good or bad, that would facilitate a candid conversation on all matters from human rights to counterterrorism. At the same time, the Obama administration continued to support human rights and democracy programs in Cuba, which is something this president’s budget proposes to cut entirely.
Was Obama’s policy perfect? No, but it helped catalyze the dramatic transformation currently underway and that not everyone in the Cuban government supports. The information blockade is all but gone — laptops and thumb drives are everywhere, and there are Cubans congregating around Wi-Fi spots all over Havana. Privately-owned restaurants (called “paladares” in Spanish) rival some of Miami’s best, Airbnb has put $40 million into the pockets of Cuban entrepreneurs since April 2015, and the influx of tourists has helped taxi drivers, souvenir vendors, and other private citizens catering to the masses. The inflow of remittances from the United States is fueling the growth of a middle class that is demanding more from the government. Even art is becoming more critical. Back in 2008, cellphones were contraband, private enterprise was nonexistent, and the jails were packed with political dissidents.
No one is arguing that Cuba is a utopia. To the contrary, today many Cuban professionals work 70-hour weeks to close multi-million dollar deals on behalf of the government but still struggle to put food on their tables. Political prisoners languish without recourse or the benefit of due process, just for exercising their universal human rights. So much still needs to change, but there is now an important yet fragile conversation in motion about the country’s future, and the government has been overwhelmed and forced to accept a certain loss of control thanks to the sheer volume and pace of engagement. All of this is likely to be undermined by the Trump administration’s new approach.
The United States will also run into diplomatic headwinds in the region. Shortly after Obama’s announcement, I accompanied Vice President Joe Biden to the Jan. 1, 2015, inauguration of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. The change in atmosphere was palpable as he was swarmed by leaders from all over the world wanting to convey their appreciation for doing away with our vestige Cold War policy. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro became isolated, the Caribbean countries began voting more with us at the Organization of American States and the United Nations, and our efforts to advance human rights suddenly gained more traction. Most importantly, the specter of the American boogeyman punishing the people of an island was gone, and the tired narrative of U.S. imperialism landed flat.
Expect last week’s return to the with-us-or-against-us Manichaeism of the past to weaken U.S. efforts to galvanize hemispheric collaboration, and to continue ceding the space to Russia, China, and other third-countries in a region so close to home. The new Cuba policy may also take Gov. Rick Scott to the U.S. Senate. Do not, however, expect this new approach to help or empower the people of Cuba.
Photo credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images