Trumping Cuba: Back to the Future

It comes as no surprise to those who attempt to follow the tracks laid down by Donald Trump in matters of foreign policy and national security policy that he has decided to reverse most, although not all, of the normalization efforts of the Obama administration and restore most, if not all, of the policy known as The Embargo. There were two broad hints of this change provided by Mr. Trump in the few months he has been in office. The first is that he cares not a fig for Latin America, so that the enormously positive impact in the rest of the hemisphere of Obama’s policy toward Cuba, and the powerful buttress to U.S. security in the region that such support represents, is of no moment to the current administration. In terms of national security, Latin America is little more than a bunch of countries that must be made to cooperate with U.S. efforts to uncover and contain international networks of criminal activity that might become linked to terrorist groups. In other words, national security policy in the hemisphere has become the handmaiden of the Department of Homeland Security.

The second reason Trump’s decision was foretold is the enormous influence the cabal of reactionary Cuban-American legislators has had in the transition and in the early months of the new government. 9 out of 10 advisers on Latin American affairs in the transition team across the entire range of cabinet offices were Cuban Americans, and all of these, without exception were acolytes of the Big Three in Congress – Diaz Balart, Ros Lehtinen, and Rubio. Trump had played up to this group during the campaign and has followed their advice since his inauguration. He announced the policy reversal in a speech in Miami on June 16.

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

In doing so, Trump appears to have bowed to the demands of his national security team and his economic advisers. With regard to the first, the opening to Cuba immediately increased communication between the two countries concerning drug trafficking and other threats to U.S security in the Caribbean. As a result of that improved cooperation, Cuba was a positive factor in the eyes of Homeland Security. On the economic side, a complete rollback of the opening would have cost more than US$8billion and 14,500 jobs. That was a powerful argument in the White House debate over how to change the Obama policy.

Finally, the politics of Cuban policy have changed. While it is true that 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% want to end the embargo. Curiously, that is not much different from the general population among which 65% support Obama’s opening, with those voting Republican actually a few points more favorable than those voting Democrat. Bills submitted for consideration this year in congress that deal with expanding travel and or trade with Cuba have broad bipartisan support, most notably the Flake-Leahy bill removing all travel restrictions to Cuba has 55 sponsors.

Given the way Trump deals with foreign policy issues, 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. 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 reverse is true. Over the past 25 years, Cuban state repression has spiked each time the U.S. government has ramped up its restrictions on Cuba, as if such repression were a demonstration by the Cuban government that U.S. pressure would not work. While the Cuban gerentocracy continues to restrict political freedom, there is no question that the period of opening, however brief, has brought a significant increase in entrepreneurial activity among Cubans and an increase in communication between Cuban citizens and counterparts overseas. 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 a change that must be credited to the Obama “deal” with Cuba.