Knowns and Unknowns: U.S.-Cuba Relations Under President Trump

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.

This week in Cuba news…


U.S.-Cuba Relations

A Souvenir Smuggled Home From Cuba: A Cancer Vaccine, Sally H. Jacobs, The New York Times

Lung cancer patients in the U.S. are turning to Cuba for treatments they are still unable to get at home, due to the U.S. embargo on Cuba. As we have previously reported, Cimavax, is an innovative immunotherapy vaccine that stimulates the body’s own immune system to make antibodies that bind to cancer-forming proteins and help prevent the cancer’s further growth and recurrence. Cuba’s biotechnology industry began developing the treatment in the 1990s and Cimavax became available to patients in Cuba in 2011. Since then, it has been given to 4,000 patients worldwide.

Last month, New York’s Roswell Park Cancer Research Institute received FDA approval to begin clinical trials of Cimavax in the U.S., under the latest round of Cuba policy-related regulatory changes announced by the Treasury Department. Roswell Park will be able to develop a joint venture with Cuban researchers, the first such collaboration since 1959. But clinical trials could take years before Cimavax is approved for the U.S. market, and American cancer patients are not waiting.

Mick Phillips, 69, made his first trip to Cuba via Canada in 2012 to begin Cimavax treatment after his lung cancer recurred following chemotherapy and radiation. For Phillips, the treatment has been effective: “There’s no doubt that without this medicine, I would be dead,” he said. He returns each year to restock his supply of Cimavax at an annual cost of about $9,000. American patients like Phillips import Cimavax in their luggage. Under the new Treasury rules, the importation of certain Cuban medicines for which there are no alternatives available in the U.S. can be allowed, however patients are concerned that the new presidential administration may roll back policies that have facilitated travel and trade and make it more difficult for them to get their treatment in Cuba.

The number of U.S. trademark registrations in Cuba is multiplying — fast, Abel Fernandez, Miami Herald

U.S. businesses are applying for trademarks in Cuba in record numbers, sparked by the Obama administration’s rapprochement with Cuba. More than 1,000 applications have been filed so far this year by U.S. companies with the Cuban Office of Industrial Property (OCPI), compared to just 78 in 2014.

Some companies, like McDonald’s, have had registered brands for decades in Cuba to protect their intellectual property and to prevent potential complications in the future. The prospects opened by the Obama administration’s diplomatic and regulatory actions have excited companies about investment opportunities in Cuba, propelling the rush to register trademarks. In 2015, Netflix, Hershey’s, Twitter, and General Motors filed to register their brands in Cuba. This year, U.S. filers include Disney, Chevron, Bank of America, Apple, Microsoft, and many other well-known brands.

In September, Cuban and U.S. delegations met in Havana to discuss both countries’ intellectual property laws including trademark, patent, and copyright protections, as we reported.

More than a thousand from the U.S. to run the Havana Marathon

As reported by El Nuevo Herald (en español), more than a thousand American runners will run in the Havana Marathon on Sunday, November 20. The race, which costs $499 for U.S. participants and is free for the approximately 100 Cuban athletes who will compete, has been increasingly popular among U.S. athletes since 2014, when the U.S. government first sanctioned athletes from the U.S. to participate. Last year, there were 350 U.S. participants, as reported by the Sun Sentinel.

Tom Popper, head of the travel company Insight Cuba, pushed for Americans to be able to participate, as reported by WLRN Miami. Popper commented, “President Obama has often talked about how people-to-people travel has facilitated a greater understanding of Cuban society… The marathon is certainly one of those ways.”

The race is being produced by a U.S. company, MultiRace, which has partnered with Eventos Latinoamericanos, a Spanish firm. This arrangement does not violate the embargo because the sponsorship and registration revenue is earned outside Cuba.

In Cuba

Cuba pardons 787 prisoners after Pope Francis’s call for mercy, Nelson Acosta and Sarah Marsh, Reuters

In a gesture of clemency following a call by Pope Francis, Cuba pardoned 787 convicts, reported Reuters and Cuban state newspaper Granma on Tuesday. The prisoners do not include offenders convicted of murder, rape, child abuse, or drug trafficking, according to Cuban authorities. Gerardo Sanchez, spokesman of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, could not confirm whether or not any of those freed would viewed by the Commission as political prisoners. The Commission estimates that there are 100 such prisoners currently incarcerated in Cuba.

As reported by Reuters, in January 2015 Cuba completed the release of 53 prisoners, including persons recognized by international human rights organizations as prisoners of conscience, as part of the agreement reached with the United States to normalize relations. More recently, Cuba released 3,522 “common prisoners” in a humanitarian gesture in advance of Pope Francis’s visit to the island in September 2015, as reported by the Washington Post.

Cuba tourism revenue jumps 15 percent in first-half of 2016, Nelson Acosta, Reuters

On Friday, Cuba’s National Statistics Office released official data showing $1.2 billion in tourism revenue in the first half of 2016, a 15 percent increase compared to the same period in 2015, as reported by Reuters. The number of travelers from the United States increased 80 percent while the total number of visitors was up almost 12 percent.

The tourism revenue played a role in sustaining the Cuban economy, which has struggled with low global prices for its commodities like nickel, refined oil products and sugar, as well as a crisis in Venezuela, a key ally and supplier of oil to Cuba. As reported by Reuters last week, Cuba’s trade surplus fell $1.6 billion, more than 40 percent, in 2015. Total exports and imports dropped by $4.2 billion. Service exports dropped by $1.3 billion in revenues from tourism, telecommunications, and professional workers serving overseas, despite the uptick in tourism revenues. The government of Cuba expects the economy to grow by about 1 percent in 2016, compared to 4 percent the previous year. Some economists in Cuba believe there will be no growth in 2016.

Cuba’s Foreign Relations

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visits Cuba, emphasizes continued warm relations and economic ties

Justin Trudeau made his first official visit to Cuba as Prime Minister of Canada this week, following in his father Pierre’s footsteps when he made the trip as the first Western head of state to officially visit Cuba in 1976, as reported by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Trudeau spent two days in Havana, during which he met with President Raúl Castro and participated in a discussion at the University of Havana, which was broadcast live on Cuban state television, as reported by the Toronto Star. The Prime Minister emphasized that the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States would not affect Cuba-Canada relations, stating, “Canada has always been a steadfast and unflinching friend to Cuba, and we’ve never found any contradiction for us between being strong friends to Cuba and good friends and partners with the United States.” Trudeau went on to express disagreement with historical U.S. policy toward Cuba, saying, “it’s no surprise we disagree with the approach that the United States has taken with Cuba. We think our approach is much better, of partnership, of collaboration, of engagement, but it’s not our job to tell our friends and allies what they should do and shouldn’t do.”

Canada is one of Cuba’s most important economic partners. Canadian mineral extraction and oil company Sherritt International is Cuba’s largest foreign investor, owning a 50 percent share in a nickel and cobalt mining venture and producing about two-thirds of Cuba’s oil. This week Sherritt CEO David Pathe projected the nickel venture to return to profitability in 2017, citing rising nickel prices and an expected drop in global supplies, reported Reuters. Canada also sends the most tourists to Cuba; 1.3 million Canadians visited in 2015 and about a third of the 2.1 million visitors to Cuba in the first half of 2016 were from Canada, reported the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Colombia Reaches New Peace Deal With Rebels, Nicholas Casey, New York Times

On Saturday in Havana, negotiators from the government of Colombia and that country’s main rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) announced a “new final accord” to bring a peaceful end to the longest-running armed conflict in the Americas. The original agreement reached in September was narrowly rejected by Colombian voters in a referendum in early October, as we previously reported.

The new agreement addresses some of the concerns of voters who thought the original agreement was too lenient by withdrawing a promise of seats in parliament for rebels in the Colombian Congress and setting forth different procedures for confinement of rebels following disarmament and court treatment of drug trafficking offenses. Former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe led the “No” campaign against the peace deal, which also gained support from evangelical and conservative Christian voters opposed to the government’s liberal social policies. Uribe said he wishes to review the new deal.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the day after the original agreement was signed, as we reported. This week, he emphasized the urgency of ratifying the new peace deal, saying, “The cease-fire is fragile. The uncertainty generates fears and increases the risks to throw this immense effort overboard.”

Recommended Reading

Pro-engagement group toasts with Cuban rum, prepares for uphill battle on future policy, Norma Gámez Torres, Miami Herald (available en Español via El Nuevo Herald)

Profile of the work of the Center for Democracy in the Americas and prospects for U.S.-Cuba relations in the new administration, on the occasion of CDA’s 10th anniversary celebration.

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