President Obama’s policy of rapprochement with Cuba managed to align the interests of the United States government with those of the government of Cuba, entrepreneurs and dissidents living on the island, supporters and critics of the Castro regime, large portions of the US business sector and the military/security community, most Democrats and a large number of Republicans, all Latin American leaders (right and left alike), Europeans, Canadians, the Chinese and the Russians, and even the Pope.
Two and half years of pro-engagement policies respectful of Cuban sovereignty have done more to improve US-Cuba relations than over 50 years of sanctions and hostilities. They have also done wonders for the advancement of American interests vis à vis business growth, academic and scientific exchanges, military and security coordination, artistic collaborations and tourism development. On the ground in Cuba, hope is palpable, houses are being painted, food is being grown in fields that were covered in marabu, debit cards are available, cars are being refurbished.
Even a new political class is on the rise. Entrepreneurs are not completely dependent on the state for their livelihood; they don't have to be part of the Communist party to work; and they don't have to depend on state banks to finance their enterprises. Some are even ‘transnational Cubans’ as comfortable in Havana as they are in Miami.
Granted, like Obamacare, ObamaCuba was simply a start. But it was a start with tangible results and pathway for increased collaboration.
Why then would President Trump and a minority within the Cuban-American community, many of whom have never been to Cuba or have not visited the island in decades, choose to go against the wishes and informed opinion of all of the above?
For President Trump, the rollback of Obama’s Cuba policy provided an opportunity to fulfill a campaign promise that was certainly much easier to accomplish than the rollback of other Obama policies such as Obamacare. Thus, it offered a much-needed feel-good moment for him and for his administration. The adulation of the Little Havana community was apparently a temporary thrill worth more to the administration than the informed opinion of everyone else.
For many Cuban-Americans, even pro-engagement ones, President Obama’s policies were regarded as giving too much in terms of easing the embargo without getting back sufficient gains on human rights, democratic protections and market reforms. For them, Trump’s policy review offered the possibility of renegotiating the Obama ‘bad deal’ and the hope of signing of a ‘better deal’. In exchange for their regained lobby power within US top policy circles, hard-line Cuban-Americans once again pledged their loyal support to the Republican party.
The prize for the best deal maker, however, goes to Marco Rubio. His membership on the Senate Intelligence Committee investigating the Russia affair gives him a fair amount of power over Mr. Trump. We can imagine that the unmentionable political horse-trading went something like this: ‘Mr. President, if you get tough on Cuba…perhaps I won’t get too tough on you over Russia’. And as bonus Rubio locked in the electoral loyalty of hard-line Cuban-Americans.
The consolation prize for those who support the continuation of Obama’s policy initiatives is that the Trump package didn't roll back everything that had been accomplished between 2014 and 2016. Their fingers remain crossed that the general paralysis and confusion in Washington may make the rollback difficult to implement. The devil remains in the details.
For the Cuban state, the new policy package and the choreography of the June 16, 2017 event (the US national anthem being played by the son of a regional chief of police of Batista government?), must have looked more like a ‘deal breaker’ than an invitation to the negotiating table. Despite the incendiary rhetoric of President Trump and the overt taunts in the semiotics of the event, the Cuban government’s reaction, so far, has been to remain uncharacteristically cool, calm and collected. It has defended itself and repudiated the measure, but It has restated its willingness to engage with the Trump government in ‘respectful dialogue’. Poker faces go a long way in games of chance, strategy and skill.
Does Trump’s new policy provide a road map for a better deal for Americans? As it stands today, it certainly does not for American travelers, business people, scholars, scientists or military/security concerns. Trump’s policy is another example of US government interference with the right of Americans to travel abroad, to conduct business, to engage with foreign institutions, and to have secure coasts.
Will the Trump policy bring change to Cuba? Yes, unfortunately, in the opposite direction from the policy’s stated goals of promoting human rights, prosperity and freedom.
As for the promotion of economic prosperity, the Trump policy is guaranteed to result in a contraction of the emerging private sector. Here is why: the non-state sector depends primarily on tourism. With individual people-to-people travel being restricted in favor of group tours, the owners of casa particulares (private homes) are basically being left out of the American tourist market. And if remittances are curtailed, emerging businesses will also lose their primary source of investment.
According to Cuban estimates, 60% of the economy is in the hands of enterprises belonging to the Cuban military. Since in Cuba wealth does in deed trickle down, barring American individuals and companies from engaging with military enterprises, many of these linked to the tourist sector, will have the effect of dampening the prospects for private taxis, paladares (private restaurants), musical groups, artists, tour guides and food growers.
As for the promotion of democracy, poll after poll in Cuba and the United States has demonstrated that the majority of citizens in both countries (not to mention everywhere else in the world) believe that engagement is the best policy for all stakeholders. Why, then, in the name of democracy, do Trump and Cuban-American hardliners choose to ignore the closest thing we have to the free expression of Cuban sentiments: the jury of public opinion gathered on the island by non-partisan pollsters?
As far as the promotion of human rights, the President’s claim that he can act as a champion in Cuba or anywhere else is simply not credible given his admiration for the likes of Presidents Putin, Erdogan, El-Sisi, and Duterte as well as of the Saudi Princes.
In this regard, what Trump’s à la carte rollback and continuation of specific aspects of the Obama policy WILL do is to set up a political time bomb that is likely to increase repression. How? On the one hand, it deprives not just the state coffers but enterprising Cubans of much-needed sources of finance and income. On the other, it keeps the immigration escape valve down to a trickle by not reversing Obama’s elimination of the Wet-foot/Dry-foot policy. Cubans unhappy with their economic and political lot can no longer simply get to the US border and claim asylum as political refugees. They can now only hope to be among the lucky ones who get a visa to the US or to anywhere else. Diminished economic prosperity combined with the sense of entrapment makes for a volatile dynamic that is usually met with state repression. It is going to be a long, hot summer.
Given the above analysis, we must conclude that the Trump policy is neither conducive to a better deal for Americans nor able to improve the lives Cuban citizens. How then, can a better deal be negotiated?
First of all, we must realize that ObamaCuba was designed to dismantle the embargo measures that we, the US, imposed. On their side, the Cubans did not have the same number of embargo measures to dismantle. Normalization of relations was the objective, not the establishment of a revised sanctions policy where I give you this and you give me that, or else. Conditionality and extra-territorial meddling in Cuba is a non-starter. It is still-born policy-making. Deadlock is ahead.
Second, our ability to negotiate a better deal with the Cubans will rest primarily on our capacity to intuit what is possible and what is not. And this will, in turn, require that we come to terms, once and for all, with the fact that US policy will NOT determine who rules Cuba and how. Neither engagement nor isolation will achieve this aim. Regime change in Cuba is just an illusion, an obsession, catnip, a vice.
Lastly, a better deal must be judged by what is good for American citizens, businesses and government agencies (jobs, travel, security) rather than by what we think is good for the citizens of any other country. The President and his administration refused to consider in his decision what top security and military advisers, a considerable number of bi-partisan commissions, hundreds of American businesses, and thousands of tourists had to say about the opportunities and advantages for America that ObamaCuba presented.
Granted, the United States does have a moral responsibility for the promotion of global freedom and democracy. However, it is immoral to develop policies that are ineffective simply for the sake of domestic electoral gains.
This time around, Putting America First will require that we get over our blinding and harmful addiction to conditionality, regime change and self-interested political machinations. We must kick our Miami Vice.