The Contradictions of Trump’s Announced Cuba Policy: An interview with Arnold August

Shortly after visiting the repressive, sexist, homophobic and pro-Jihadi state of Saudi Arabia where he inked a $110 billion arms deal with the Saudis, Trump turned his attentions to the island nation of Cuba. Specifically, Trump announced a planned roll-back of Obama’s policies of rapprochement with Cuba – a country which is light years ahead of Saudi Arabia in terms of both its domestic and international relations, and which is indeed a great hope for the poor of 70 nations who benefit from its medical solidarity.

As explained to me by Arnold August — a Canadian journalist and author of 3 books on Cuba, including his latest work, Cuba-U.S. Relations: Obama and Beyond —Trump’s announced policy is so ridden with both internal contradictions, as well as contradictions with some very powerful political and economic interests in the U.S. that it may very well crumble under the weight of these contradictions before it is ever put into place. And that is good news for those of us who welcome an even more open relationship with Cuba and an end to the over 50-year blockade of that nation.

DK: Arnold, can you explain where we are at on Trump’s new Cuba policy?

AA: Trump’s policy is not yet set in stone. According to the June 16 White House Fact Sheet on Cuba Policy, the Treasury and Commerce Departments will begin the process of issuing new regulations only in 30 days. His policies cannot take effect until the new regulations are established, a process that, according to the Fact Sheet, “may take several months.” A lot can happen within this time frame.

In order to evaluate the current situation, we need to backtrack. Trump had a lot on his domestic and international agenda in the first 100 days and could not deal with Cuba. This country was and is very controversial. There are contradictions within his own party. A large number of Republican members of Congress, politicians at the state and municipal levels as well as Republican voters support the Obama policy and even want to go further in opening trade and travel. This has been and still is a formidable obstacle for Trump.

Thus, it was only last month, on May 3 (six months into his mandate), that he convened a special meeting on Cuba at the White House, including his top officials, Republican Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Mario Diaz-Balart whom initially favored breaking diplomatic relations with Cuba and shutting down the U.S. Embassy in Havana. In this meeting, it was clear that the upper-level civil servants at Homeland Security and the State Department wanted to continue the Obama policy. In fact, State Department Secretary Rex Tillerson, during his January 2017 Congressional confirmation hearing, was quite ambiguous with regard to any major change to the Obama policy. In another hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, just last June 13, Tillerson was likewise obscure regarding a major rollback in Cuba policy. According to some American press sources, Tillerson has privately expressed support for the Obama policy. . . .

Secretary of State Tillerson may not be the only one in the Trump Cabinet who seems to be in at least partial contradiction with the new policy. As recently as May 17, 2017, after the May 3 White House meeting, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue pledged his support for expanding agricultural trade with Cuba at a House Agricultural Committee hearing. Secretary Perdue has long been a supporter of expanding agricultural trade to Cuba, having expressed his support at his Senate confirmation hearing as well as during his time as Governor of Georgia following a trade delegation trip to Cuba. This is just part of a larger picture whereby Midwestern farm states that voted for Trump also want to seek out the Cuban market for their exports.

DK: Can you tell me about some of the economic contradictions of Trump’s about-face on Cuba policy?

AA: Rubio, in promoting the Trump policy, gave the example that they are trying to enforce the patronization of privately owned bed-and-breakfast establishments rather than state-run hotels. However, if, in a few months’ time, the Trump policy is allowed to complicate travel to Cuba, how will these potential B&B customers get there? In addition, the powerful accommodations-networking firm, Airbnb, is not expected to take this lying down, nor are the major U.S. airlines companies or the giant online travel company Expedia, which just concluded a deal with Cuban hotels.

With regard to the new Trump policy of outlawing stays at hotels owned by the Cuban Armed Forces Business Enterprises Group (GAESA, Spanish acronym), what will the drafters of the new rules do over the next several months? Hotel giant Starwood recently opened a Sheraton Four Points Hotel in Havana in collaboration with Gaviota, one of the Army’s main tourist companies. (The Four Points Hotel is 49% Hyatt-owned and 51% Gaviota-owned.) If the eventual new rules effectively annul this deal, Robert Muse, one of the most important American lawyers dealing with the blockade, contends they will be in contravention of the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It stipulates that no one can be deprived of property without compensation. Perhaps Trump is seeing the writing on the wall, as it seems that he is not going to interfere in this transaction. Even if the hotel is allowed to continue operating as it does now, Trump will be faced with the ridiculous spectacle of Americans being barred from staying at the only American hotel in Cuba!

DK: Is there a chance of derailing Trump’s attempt to roll back Obama’s opening of relations with Cuba?

AA: As soon as the Trump speech was over, Engage Cuba, the main coalition against the blockade with the backing of bipartisan political and business support across the nation, issued a statement. It concluded, “Today was the speech. Tomorrow we get back to work.” This is the main message of my words today, as a very initial reaction to Trump policy. The forces in the U.S. – from business to the travel industry, and from scholars/educators, community and politicians to the grass roots – still have several months to strive to influence the situation in favor of more open travel and trade with the goal to lift the blockade altogether. It can be carried out by taking advantage of the contradictions within the Trump Administration and his entire party, and be inspired by the across-the-board majority American opposition to the blockade. This is supported by peoples around the world who support Cuba’s right to self-determination and sovereignty. They strongly oppose the U.S. attempt to interfere in Cuba’s internal affairs to force it to “change” in conformity with U.S. desires.

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