The Race to Consolidate Power and Stave Off Disaster
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 Cuban Americans who are counted separately) travelled to the island by simply booking a plane or cruise ticket online—more than all of last year.
For Americans who will still be permitted to visit Cuba, the new rules will make their travels more cumbersome. Trump’s policy bars commercial engagement by American companies or individuals with Cuban entities linked to the island’s military, including many of Cuba’s hotels. But all told, military-run conglomerates like GAESA control 50–60 percent of the island’s economy. Thus, when Starwood, an American hotel company, struck a deal in 2016 to jointly administer three Cuban properties, their counterpart, Gaviota, came from the Cuban military’s economic arm. Exceptions to the new rules will permit existing agreements to remain in place, but will make it illegal for these companies to book American guests. Airlines and cruise ship companies will also be allowed to continue paying landing fees to relevant Cuban authorities. But once in Cuba, legal U.S. travelers may not technically be allowed to buy a bottle of water because military-linked Cuban companies also control most retail stores. How a White House so concerned about unnecessary regulations intends to enforce this rule is anybody’s guess.
Finally, Trump’s move may cool the possibility of U.S. investments in the few areas of the Cuban economy where the Obama administration had carved enough holes in the embargo to allow American companies to explore opportunities—namely, agriculture, infrastructure, and technology. Admittedly, the deals made so far have been limited to wireless roaming agreements and a few other pilot projects. Whether ongoing negotiations with companies like Google and General Electric can continue depends on what new regulations the Departments of Treasury and Commerce introduce in response to the president’s order. With Trump now vowing to fight any lifting of the broader embargo until Cuba transforms its political system into a multi-party democracy, it is unclear whether Cuban entities will still be willing to play ball.
But the biggest losers in all of this are everyday Cubans, not inconvenienced Americans. The White House claims that the new measures are meant to “channel funds toward the Cuban people” and away from the Cuban government, specifically its military. (Nevermind that the administration seems perfectly willing to trade with repressive militaries elsewhere.) In reality, the effect—particularly that of the new travel restrictions—will be exactly the opposite. By eliminating individual people-to-people travel, far fewer U.S. citizens are likely to visit the island and patronize Cubans’ private homestays, restaurants, and other small businesses. Instead, the new policy will force travelers into a more limited market of organized people-to-people tours, which will continue to be allowed, but are run by U.S. organizations in collaboration with Cuban government-sponsored tour agencies. There is some uncertainty as to whether a large number of Americans will still be able to travel independently under another nebulous but previously little-used legal category: “support for the Cuban people.” If so, this might mute the effect of Trump’s rollback on private Cuban entrepreneurs and their employees. Nonetheless, the White House’s threat to audit itineraries will probably be enough to scare many off.
More intangibly for Cubans, a return to tense and hostile bilateral relations brings an end to an era of cautious hope for a better life on the island. Of course, expectations for normalization’s short-term results were overly optimistic. The presumption, in the United States and for some in Cuba, that U.S. investment dollars would immediately rush in or galvanize further Cuban economic and political reforms, proved misplaced. Throughout the Obama years, Cuban authorities remained wary of the White House’s framing of diplomatic and economic engagement as a way to “open” Cuban society. The expansion of commercial ties, aside from in the tourism sector, remained quite slow. Still, with all its limitations, normalization pointed many on the island toward a brighter future in the long term. U.S. consumers significantly buoyed the growth of the island’s incipient small business sector. And open channels of communication brought a number of perks—a Rolling Stones concert, Google servers, Airbnb, and a shoot for the American movie Fast and Furious 8.
Trump, on the other hand, displayed his customary preference for blunt theatrics over substance in his announcement last week. From his canned denunciation of communism as a “depraved ideology,” to his disingenuous preoccupation with human rights—to say nothing of his demeaning pronunciation of “Little Havana” in a gross caricature of a Cuban accent—his remarks and mannerisms alienated many Cubans on the island who have reformist inclinations.
Perhaps the saddest reality of Trump’s half-measures, is that they are not about Cuba at all. All of the agencies in the executive branch had advised the president to continue Obama’s approach. They probably concluded, as did the Obama team, that a policy of expanding economic, diplomatic, and cultural ties served U.S. interests in multiple ways. Nonetheless, by playing to Trump’s whims and reportedly trading favors, Florida’s Cuban–American Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Mario Díaz-Balart, who were against the détente, got their wish. Rubio, one of the architects of Trump’s new regulations on Cuba, even tweeted an image and caption of himself and Díaz-Balart “hammer[ing] out the new Cuba policy” in a back room.
Trump’s Cuba move comes at a delicate time for the island. President Raúl Castro is slated to retire in February 2018, but he has not yet satisfied his pledge to put Cuba’s economy on a more sustainable, if still socialist, path. The reforms he initiated eight years ago to slowly decrease the size of the bloated Cuban state, court foreign investment, and allow more forms of private economic activity have produced disappointing results. Cuba’s economy actually shrankslightly last year, despite an unprecedented tourist boom, due in significant part to decreasing oil supplies from its crisis-ridden ally, Venezuela. In response to these difficulties, demands from centrist activists for a greater say in future economic decisions and in the coming leadership transition are on the rise.
Perhaps because the reach of the president’s measures isn’t as bad as some predicted, Trump’s announcement generated a defiant but fairly muted response from the Cuban government. But for Cuba’s internal politics, a return to U.S. hostility, even if largely rhetorical, plays well for defenders of the status quo. Already on guard in the wake of former leader Fidel Castro’s death last November, Cuba’s leaders will remain vigilant against any efforts from abroad to rock the boat.
Meanwhile, the parts of Obama’s Cuba policy that Trump’s national security team may hope to salvage—such as bilateral talks on counternarcotics, migration, and counterterrorism—could suffer. Cubans, in turn, are once again stuck waiting for their long Cold War to permanently end. If after 50 years of isolating Cuba a narrow group of opponents gave Obama’s policies only three years to “work,” Trump’s middling approach should be held to a similar metric.