On June 16, speaking from the heart of the Cuban exile community in Little Havana, President Donald Trump declared that he would be “cancelling” plans to ease relations with Cuba, a historic policy initiated by his predecessor Barack Obama in 2014 to end decades of Cold War-era hostilities between the two countries. It did not matter that Trump himself once explored (possibly illegal) commercial opportunities on the island, or that early in his presidential campaign he said normalization was “fine.” In an effort to appeal to the dwindling number of hardline supporters of the U.S. embargo in Miami who had thrown their support behind him in last year’s election, Trump forged ahead, denouncing Obama’s policies on Cuba as “terrible and misguided.” In doing so, he defied the wishes of roughly 63 percent of Cuban Americans who oppose the embargo, to say nothing of Cubans on the island.
Still, if a full rollback of Obama’s “Cuba deal” was what some in Miami hoped for, Trump’s announcement on Friday falls short in important ways. Commercial flights and cruise ship dockings will continue. Cuban Americans will still be able to travel and send money to the island without restrictions, unlike before 2009. The policy known as “wet foot, dry foot,” which granted Cuban migrants preferential access to U.S. territory until Obama ended it last year, has not been restored. Perhaps most symbolically, both the U.S. and Cuban embassies in Havana and Washington will remain open. Opponents of normalization once claimed that their mere presence “legitimized the Cuban regime.”
But make no mistake: Trump’s rollback will have a chilling effect. For starters, the president has eliminated the ability of Americans to travel to Cuba independently on self-guided people-to-people educational exchanges, which was designed to foster interaction and dialogue with Cuban citizens, but also served as a kind of carte blanche permit to travel to the island. Partly because of this measure, between January and May this year, 284,565 U.S. citizens (excluding