EDITOR’S NOTE: The opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the authors and do not reflect the views of Latino USA.
From The Conversation: President Donald Trump announced on Friday a partial reversal of former President Barack Obama’s policy of engagement with Cuba. Trump restored travel restrictions and prohibited financial transactions with the Cuban military. Under the new policy, Americans visiting Cuba for specific, approved purposes will be forbidden from spending money in hotels or restaurants with ties to the military. Airlines and cruise ships, however, may continue to expand travel to the island, while the U.S. embargo will remain in place. We asked two experts on U.S.-Cuba relations to explain what these changes mean.
Politics Over Policy
William M. LeoGrande, American University
Cuba “is a domestic issue for the United States and not a foreign policy issue,” Brent Scowcroft, President George H. W. Bush’s national security adviser, observed in 1998. “It focuses more on votes in Florida.” From the end of the Cold War in 1991 until 2014, when Obama decided normalizing relations would better serve U.S. interests abroad, U.S. presidential candidates feared that any opening to Cuba would cost them Cuban-American votes in the battleground state of Florida.
Now, Trump has turned back the clock and announced a new Cuba policy at the Manuel Artime Theater in Miami’s Little Havana—named after the leader of the Cuban exile brigade that stormed ashore at the Bay of Pigs. According to senior administration officials, Trump decided to tighten the U.S. embargo because he owed a political debt to the brigade’s veterans’ association, which endorsed him for president at a time when the race in Florida looked close. In return, he promised to reverse Obama’s policy. Promise made, promise kept.
In May, an interagency policy review of Obama’s Cuba policy found that it was working. Trump’s White House rejected the result and wrote its own hard-line policy with the help of Cuban-American legislators Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart and Sen. Marco Rubio. “They worked with us hand in glove,” explained a senior administration official.
But they didn’t get everything they wanted. Díaz-Balart’s original recommendation was to roll back everything Obama had done to foster trade and travel. Faced with a flood of appeals from U.S. businesses not to cut them out of the Cuban market, Trump relented, prohibiting only people-to-people travel by individuals and financial transactions with enterprises managed by the Cuban military. As the administration official explained, “You can’t put the genie back in the bottle 100 percent.”
As foreign policy, Trump’s new tough stance makes little sense, in my opinion. Many Latin American countries expressed support for Obama’s policy of engagement. By reversing it, Trump imperils their cooperation on issues like migration and narcotics trafficking. Disengaging also leaves the door open for China and Russia to continue expanding their influence on the island.
Finally, the United States needs Cuba’s cooperation on issues of mutual interest such as environmental protection, counter-narcotics cooperation, and migration—cooperation that will be harder to sustain now that Trump has restarted the Cold War in the Caribbean.