No one knows to a provable certainty what President-elect Trump plans to do about U.S.-Cuba relations. We are neither wild-eyed optimists, believing that he will take relations in the same direction as President Obama, nor are we ready to concede “game over,” despite considerable evidence that the winds of diplomacy based on engagement may soon shift.
In The Age of Reason, Thomas Paine wrote of “deducing or proving a truth that would be otherwise unknown, from truths already known.” In these times, following the facts could make that reasoning dubious, but using evidence to answer the question, “What happens next?” is the only reasonable thing to do.
It may be cold comfort, but those of us who support engagement with Cuba are not the only ones with doubts about the new president’s intentions. Consider the Japanese: after a long campaign in which candidate Trump promised to scuttle the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, accused our European and Asian allies for not paying enough for their defenses, and suggested Japan and South Korea get nuclear weapons to defend themselves, Japanese Prime Minister Abe flew 6,700 miles from Tokyo to New York to meet with the president-elect himself. Why? Because, as a respected analyst told the New York Times, “the question the Japanese side still cannot understand is what a Trump administration will actually do on Asia.”
In other words, they know what he said, they just didn’t know if he meant it. Is there also room for doubt about Trump’s “real” position on Cuba?
As we and others have reported, Mr. Trump was against the embargo twice (in 1996 and 2015-2016) before he was for it – twice (in 1999 and 2016). While that history is important, let’s focus on how he closed his campaign.
“We will cancel Obama’s one-sided Cuban deal, made by executive order,” he said in Miami, days before the election, unless Cuba’s government capitulates to demands that it change its system. His Vice Presidential nominee, Governor Mike Pence, went even further, saying, “When Donald Trump and I take to the White House, we will reverse Barack Obama’s executive orders on Cuba,” Politico reported. This reversal would apparently be undertaken unconditionally.
Personnel is policy, the saying goes, and today the names of Mr. Trump’s national security advisor and his nominee to lead the Central Intelligence Agency were released. Retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, who will lead the White House National Security Council, has called Cuba an ally of Radical Islamists that shares their hatred of the West. If confirmed, Congressman Mike Pompeo of Kansas, will serve as CIA Director. He condemned President Obama’s opening to Cuba on the day it was announced as appeasement of one of America’s enemies. Even if these two men didn’t advise Trump the candidate to reverse his position on Cuba, they will likely be advising him to adhere to his campaign promises as president.
Running the legislative machinery in Congress, Senate Majority Leader McConnell and Speaker Paul Ryan are both foes of engagement with Cuba (although Ryan hasn’t always been that way). In March, McConnell denounced President Obama’s visit to Cuba as “embarrassing,” after the President used his appearance on live Cuban television to address themes like human rights and respect for the island’s Afro-Cuban population. Last month, Speaker Ryan released a statement which said, “I fully intend to maintain our embargo on Cuba.”
It is not a stretch to expect that the Republican leadership in Congress will be standing by to ensure the President keeps his campaign promise; as it has been for years, support for the embargo and regime change in Cuba was written into their party’s 2016 platform. Looking over the leadership’s shoulders, the hard edge of the diaspora’s embargo supporters – from Senator Rubio to “Pepe” Hernandez, a founder of the Cuban American National Foundation, to Brigade 2506 – will be standing right behind them to ensure that they work on President Trump so he keeps candidate Trump’s word.
Together, they are taking aim at President Obama’s Cuba policy executive orders on which the regulatory openings of travel and trade rest. What Obama wrought by the stroke his pen, Trump can strike with his. As Politico observed, his legislative priorities – the tax package, infrastructure development, repeal of Obamacare, etc. – will take time. So will the confirmation of his Cabinet. Why wouldn’t the president want to establish momentum by issuing a raft of executive orders reversing as much of President Obama’s domestic and foreign policy legacy on day one? This he apparently plans to do, but will his barrage also be aimed at Barack’s Cuba policy?
Lists of likely targets have been printed by the New York Times and The Miami Herald, and proposed by Capitol Hill Cubans. President Trump could close or downgrade the U.S. embassy; eliminate people-to-people to travel; end the regularly scheduled commercial flights to Cuba; change the rules that allow Airbnb and Marriott to operate in Cuba; scrap the new policy allowing imports of rum and cigars, and more. Anything he leaves out, Congress can put on his desk once it actually starts legislating. With the White House and Congress under common party control, we don’t see any vetoes looming on the horizon. Arguably, nothing is safe from the chopping block.
But we can’t and won’t stop or shrink from the challenge of building on the progress that has been made between the U.S. and Cuba. There are powerful facts on our side, too.
Although the embargo and travel bans remain in place by statute, President Obama’s opening to Cuba is very good policy. For the first time since the Cuban Revolution, an American president stated publicly that a prosperous and stable Cuba was in our country’s national interest, and that the policy of starving Cuba’s economy and people to foment popular resistance and regime change would finally be ended.
In addition to restoring diplomatic relations, the administration signed a dozen bilateral agreements in areas where the U.S. and Cuban national interests converged, like environmental protection and counter-narcotics cooperation. These agreements demonstrated, in deeds and words, that our government respected the sovereignty of the Cuban government.
By easing restrictions on travel and trade, normalization accrued benefits to big business in the U.S. – starting with travel, tourism, and telecommunications – which now has vested interests in keeping the door to Cuba open. With a cruise line sailing into Cuban ports, roaming agreements that enable U.S. travelers to use their cell phones on the island, the commercial airline agreement that is boosting tourism with dozens of flights into Cuba every day, the joint venture agreement bringing Marriott into the Cuban market, and more – all of this ties Cuba and the U.S. closer together in a mutually beneficial relationship that provides profits and jobs to companies and workers on both sides of the Florida Strait.
The reforms were designed, as Reuters wrote it, to make it “difficult, if not impossible for any Republican president to reverse the opening to Cuba.” Public opinion polls – among Cuban Americans and the U.S. public at large – tell us the reforms have strong, deep, and bipartisan support. If his plan is to pull them down, this decision could be costly. Bob Muse, a lawyer who specializes in U.S.-Cuba trade law, told the New York Times that if Trump were to cancel these agreements, the U.S. government could be financially liable for pulling the rug out from companies who relied on the new rules to do deals.
The critics like to say that the new policy isn’t working, but the facts suggest otherwise. It is working for hundreds of thousands of Americans who have reclaimed most – but not all – of our rights to travel to Cuba. As Americans travel to Cuba, we are building bridges that policy reversals will be hard-pressed to take down, and money spent as travelers lands in the pockets of Cubans engaged in private enterprise.
From the moment President Obama reinstated travel for Cuban American families, he was giving entrepreneurial Cubans fuel to fire their enthusiasm for working in Cuba’s private economy, and a reason to remain on the island and build Cuba’s future.
It is working for Americans once doomed by lung cancer, as we report below, who are now getting access to life-extending vaccines created by Cuba’s biotechnology and pharma companies.
It is even working in Miami, in the precincts and places most associated with anti-Castro resistance, among exiles who now believe that “one of President Obama’s best decisions,” was changing U.S. policy toward Cuba.
In a letter he sent to President-elect Trump, Adolfo Garcia, who voted for the New York businessman-turned-politician, invoked his past in an appeal not to upend the policy:
“No matter how horrible the Castro Regime was to my parents and many others, including me, this is late 2016 and life must go on,” Garcia wrote. “It is time from the US side to open fully with Cuba and change US law and end the Embargo.”
These are powerful words. But will they be heard in Trump Tower?
Charles Lane, in a Washington Post opinion column, advises us to take Trump seriously and literally. Trump, he says, has core beliefs, citing his opposition to global trade and his support for law and order. We should take him at his word. Question is: which one?
What embargo supporters want most is to beef up the embargo to dry up revenues to the Cuban state. That’s a tall order – telling JetBlue and American Airlines and other carriers who have restored commercial service to ground their planes, and telling Marriott to come home and let the Cuban hotels they are managing mind themselves.
Will he? Maybe. But as Bob Muse says, “Rescinding enhanced travel that Obama has introduced would be the most tragic thing Trump might do, but I don’t think he will. He has invested a lifetime in travel, resorts and hotel accommodations, and it’s a global enterprise. It seems counterintuitive.”
Trump, after all, has been focused on Cuba for twenty years. In 1998, as Newsweek reported, his company spent $68,000, probably in violation of the mbargo, looking at potential investments in Cuba. The opening to Cuba is probably pretty close to his core beliefs. It is – and will remain – central to ours.
At the end of the day, like you, like the Japanese Prime Minister, we can’t be sure what the president-elect will do; although, after the election, the uphill climb toward normalization did get steeper.
That said, we will leave you with this:
Trump’s “extraordinary mixture of braggadocio and brash populism,” Will Grant of the BBC wrote this week, has led some in the region to compare him to the late Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez. Isn’t that ironic? The Obama opening being saved by Trump’s greatest core beliefs – his belief in himself and his abiding faith that he can always get a better deal.
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