Trumping Cuba: back to the future

President Trump signs new Cuba policy in Miami
June 16, 2017: President Donald Trump shows his new Cuba policy to a packed theater in Miami, Florida. Flanking him are two members of the Cuban-American “Big Three” – U.S. Representative Mario Diaz-Balart (2L) and Senator Marco Rubio (3R) (source: dpa)

It comes as no surprise to those who attempt to follow the tracks laid down by President Donald Trump in foreign policy and national security that he has decided to reverse most, but not all, of the Obama administration’s normalization efforts toward Cuba, while restoring most, if not all, of the policy known as The Embargo.

Mr. Trump dropped two broad hints of this change in his initial months in office. The first is that he cares not a fig for Latin America, which means that the enormously positive impact of Mr. Obama’s policy in the rest of the hemisphere, and the powerful buttress that gives to United States security in the region, is of no moment to the current administration.

As for national security, Latin America is regarded as little more than a bunch of countries that must be made to cooperate with U.S. efforts to uncover and contain international criminal networks that might become linked to terrorist groups. In other words, American security policy in the hemisphere has become the handmaiden of the Department of Homeland Security.

The second reason Mr. Trump’s decision was foretold is the enormous influence wielded by a cabal of Cuban-American legislators on the transition and the early months of the new government. Nine out of 10 advisers on Latin American affairs in Mr. Trump’s transition team were Cuban Americans, and all 10, without exception, were acolytes of the Big Three – members of Congress Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), and Florida’s junior Republican senator, Marco Rubio.

The U.S. regards Latin America as little more than a bunch of countries that must be made to cooperate

Trump had played up to this group during the campaign and has closely followed their advice since his inauguration. The reversal of Mr. Obama’s normalization was announced by President Trump in a speech in Miami on June 16.

Incomplete reversal

What might be considered a bit surprising is that despite his harsh rhetoric, Mr. Trump left in place many of the key elements of his predecessor’s policy.

In doing so, the president appears to have bowed to the demands of his national security team and his economic advisers. The former appeared anxious to preserve the increased communications with Cuba on drug trafficking and other threats to the U.S. in the Caribbean. This improved cooperation made Homeland Security regard Cuba in a more favorable light. On the economic front, a complete rollback of the opening would have cost the U.S. economy 14,500 jobs and more than $8 billion in lost business. That was a powerful argument in the White House debate.

Finally, the politics of Cuban policy have changed. While it is true that President Trump values the loyalty of the Cuban-American members of Congress, the political clout of that small cohort is not what it once was, and is diminishing each year. Even among Cuban-Americans, more than 60 percent want to end the embargo.

Curiously, that differs little from the general population, 65 percent of whom support Obama’s opening. Republican voters are actually a few percentage points more favorable than Democrats. Bills submitted for consideration this year in Congress that deal with expanding travel and/or trade with Cuba have received broad bipartisan support. Most notably, the Flake-Leahy bill to lift all restrictions on travel to Cuba has 55 sponsors in the Senate.

Cuban state repression has spiked each time Washington ramps up its trade restrictions on Cuba

Given the way President Trump deals with foreign policy, it may be irrelevant to point out that the embargo, which he now claims to have restored, has failed completely and utterly over a 50-year period.

Mr. Trump and supporters of the embargo claim that the Obama opening led to increased violations of human rights and a diminution of the space for public discussion in Cuba. In fact, the opposite is true. Over the past 25 years, Cuban state repression spiked each time Washington ramped up its restrictions on Cuba, as if such repression were a demonstration by Havana that external pressure would not work.

While Cuba’s gerontocracy continues to restrict political freedom, there is no question that the period of opening, however brief, has brought a surge in entrepreneurial activity among Cubans and eased communication with their compatriots overseas. On the island, all attention is focused on February 2018, when Raul Castro will step down as president. It remains unclear how the Cuban armed forces, which control three quarters of the economy, will retain their influence in the transition to a new generation of leaders.

What is most interesting is that pressure on the Cuban government to ease restrictions on its citizens is now coming from democratic governments in Latin America. Now, that is a major change, and one that must be credited to the Obama “deal” with Cuba.

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