HAVANA, June 22th U.S. President Donald Trump finally moved to roll back his predecessor’s 2014 warming of official relations with revolutionary Cuba. In a speech in Miami’s Little Havana district, he remarked, in typical Trumpian fashion: “I am cancelling the previous administration’s completely one-sided deal.” Well, not exactly.
More specifically, Trump promised that his new presidential directive would put restrictions on Americans travelling to the tiny Caribbean country and on United States corporations conducting business with the Cuban Armed Forces — which has substantial commercial interests in many sectors of Cuba’s economy. As Trump himself emphasized: “We do not want U.S. dollars to prop up a military monopoly that exploits and abuses the citizens of Cuba.”
As for the notion of casual American tourists visiting Cuba — some 600,000-plus in 2016 alone — it will be much harder under this new directive. In fact, U.S. citizens will not be able to make their own private plans to visit the island. And for popular educational visits, they will now have to be part of a larger company tour and keep strict documentation of every transaction that they make in the country (and no trips to the beach or any stays at a military-managed hotel).
Not surprisingly, the Cubans responded negatively to Trump’s “hostile rhetoric,” “new measures toughening the embargo” and his “return to the coercive methods of the past.” The government of Raúl Castro went on to note: “Any strategy to change the political, economic and social system in Cuba, whether through pressure… or perhaps more subtle methods, will be doomed to failure.”
Left untouched by Trump, however, are many aspects of former U.S. president Barack Obama’s enlightened Cuba policy — namely, the restoration of diplomatic relations and the opening of fully fledged embassies in both Washington and Havana, approval of U.S. airlines and cruise ships to travel directly to the island and the removal of the controversial “wet foot, dry foot” rules for Cuban migrants seeking to enter the United States.
In addition, the sending of cash remittances by Cuban-Americans to relatives in Cuba, the selling of crops by American farmers to the Cuban government and support for expanding Cuba’s budding private sector will all continue for now.
What isn’t mentioned, moreover, is whether plans for expanded educational, cultural and athletic exchanges will be scrapped, if Cuba’s name will be once again included on the U.S. State Department’s list of sponsors of state terrorism and if existing bilateral agreements on protection of marine environments, drug co-operation and collaboration on cancer research will be cancelled.
Nor was there any reference to what will become of the U.S. naval base and prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba or anything on each country’s respective claims to billions of dollars of reparations for various confiscations and damages.
Of course, Trump’s Cuba policy could have been much worse. And if he had listened to everything that Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio and Congressman Mario Diaz Balart had told him, the president would have reversed all of Obama’s 2014-16 diplomatic breakthroughs.
A large part of the reason why Trump didn’t go as far as some anti-Cuba advocates wanted was because of strong pushback from more moderate Republicans in Congress and, more importantly, by key voices in the U.S. business community anxious to make money in Cuba.
The president’s “tweaking” of Obama’s Cuba policy, though, has very little upside — save for keeping onside those uncompromising Cuban-Americans who voted for Trump in 2016 in the battleground state of Florida.
But it will hurt U.S. commercial interests in Cuba, do precious little to further meaningful economic and political liberalization on the island and only embolden the Cuban hardliners in Havana opposed to U.S.-Cuba normalization. Additionally, it will set back U.S. relations with all of the countries of the Americas and put the Trump administration in a weaker position to deal hemispherically with troubled Venezuela.
As for Canada, Trump’s latest Cuba gambit will have very little impact. In fact, it may even work to our advantage. Indeed, any time that the U.S.-Cuba relationship sours, the Canada-Cuba relationship benefits economically, diplomatically and in terms of people-to-people linkages.
In the final analysis, then, these ill-considered changes to U.S.-Cuba policy make about as much sense as Trump’s angry tweet-storms against those investigating him for possible obstruction of justice. As last week’s editorial in the Los Angeles Times explained, “We gain by connecting with other nations, not by pushing them away.
Whether Trump likes it or not, we live in a globalized economy and in a world where discussion and diplomacy provide the best avenues for resolving differences.”
Peter McKenna is professor and chair of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown.