You Can Never Go Back: Update on the Cuba Policy Review

It is altogether fitting that Little Havana, the community in Miami which has long been a stronghold of support for the embargo against Cuba, is getting its own museum.

The community has no doubt catalogued, and oftentimes shaped, U.S. policy toward Cuba in all its complexities. Perhaps the museum’s first exhibit will be designed in the months to come as President Trump announces the results of the ongoing Cuba policy review.

What we’re reading

As we mark time waiting for the administration’s Cuba policy review to end, this is what we learned this week.

As USA Today and the Miami Herald both reported, the administration had planned to announce changes on May 20, the 115th anniversary of the founding of the Cuban Republic, but the policy review wasn’t finished and, besides, the President would be overseas.

We are now hearing that day will come and go without a word from the White House on Cuba policy.

What we’re remembering

Although the May 20 event has been set aside, it’s worth reflecting on that for a moment. Proponents of harsh sanctions on Cuba have long observed May 20th for its symbolism as a “day of independence” for the Cuban Republic that preceded the Castro revolution. But history is more complicated than that.

In 1898, the U.S. intervened on Cuba’s side in its war for independence from Spain. Upon the defeat of Spain, the U.S. claimed Cuba as a conquered territory, thus preventing “the transfer of Cuba to Cubans,” as historian Louis A. Pérez puts it. Spain’s loss represented a half-step toward sovereignty for Cuba.

The U.S. intervention also represented a setback for race relations on both sides of the Florida Strait. For 30 years, according to a Newsweek history of the period, a “truly integrated” Cuban army with black and white officers leading its ranks had fought the war against Spain on the island’s soil.

U.S. forces fighting in Cuba were integrated as well, but our black fighters hardly received the recognition or credit they deserved. In one battle, according to the account in Race and Empire, “If it had not been for the Negro Cavalry the Rough Riders [with whom Teddy Roosevelt rode] would have been exterminated.” For too many years, their gallantry could have been a state secret.

Once the war ended, U.S. occupying forces, under the command of Major General Leonard Wood, made certain to purge black officers and leaders from Cuba’s army, whom they called “uneducated and uncultured” and worse.

As Cuba moved toward its new status as a Republic, the United States imposed the Platt Amendment on the Cuban Constitution, granting “the U.S. the right to intervene in the island whenever they pleased, to control all Cuban international treaties, and to possess naval stations on Cuban territory,” as one Cuban intellectual told us.

Thus, after May 20th, 1902, and the start of the Cuban Republic, the country was still subject to the neocolonial authority of the U.S., and the U.S. intervention may have resulted in a step-back for racial equality in Cuba as well. Why anyone would want to choose this date to announce Cuba policy reforms deserves further reflection.

What we’re hearing

The specifics of what President Trump will announce are still subject to conjecture. But the consequences of rolling the policy back to its pre-December 17th state are pretty clear.

Repealing President Obama’s Presidential Policy Directive would take back the recognition of Cuba’s sovereignty as the fundamental basis of U.S.-Cuba policy. It would also discard key U.S. commitments to prosperity for the Cuban people and the expansion of U.S. commerce with the island, and would threaten to end law enforcement information sharing, which senior retired military leaders agree protects U.S. security against terrorism.

A rollback of U.S. engagement with Cuba would create a void into which nations like Russia – which is now selling Cuba subsidized oil, building infrastructure projects on the island, working to modernize the Cuban military, and even restoring the Cuban Capitol’s dome – will surely fill.

Ending post-December 17th reforms could cut the legs out from U.S. airlines, hoteliers, cruise ships, telecom firms, and other industry sectors that have made financial commitments to doing business in Cuba that would not have been possible in the prior half-century.

While some people-to-people travel categories may ultimately remain in place, taking back any of the people-to-people travel reforms would cut deeply into Americans’ travel rights and the profits enjoyed by the new private-sector Cuban businesses – the restaurants, the beds-and-breakfasts, the tour guides, and other small firms – businesses that create jobs and put money into the pockets of Cubans willing to work for an employer other than the state.

And, any diminution of economic activity in Cuba caused by cutbacks in U.S. travel and trade policies could adversely affect Afro-Cubans, who have the least access to remittances from family members living abroad, and whose living circumstances are often the most fragile.

Even more sadly, the administration and policy hardliners are likely to cast any reversal of current policy as being in the service of human rights. “The president has committed to addressing U.S. policy towards Cuba in a way that supports our national security, democracy and human rights,” as Senator Rubio was quoted by USA Today. Yet it was only as a result of the December 17th diplomatic breakthrough that diplomats from Cuba and the U.S. have been able to embark on a process for addressing our differences on this and many other important issues. Going backward gets us nothing.

What we believe

The existing policy of engagement is good for the U.S. national interest, good for the interests of the Cuban people, and a solid foundation for respectful and cooperative relations between the U.S. and Cuban governments. The new policy has done everything from slowing illegal seaborne migration down to near zero to reconnecting Cuban families by phone, email and snail mail, to providing all Cubans the relief that could only come from reduced tensions with their government’s nearest adversary. We think this policy should be expanded, not diminished, and we believe any cutbacks will represent, at best, a missed opportunity for continuing the normalization process; at worst, the needless rehashing of a historical wrong.

The pity of it is grounded in politics. As USA Today writes, “Cuba experts don’t expect Trump to make the kind of wholesale changes to Cuba policy that he hinted at during his presidential campaign.” The paper quotes Frank Mora, director of the Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University in Miami, who “said Trump has never been adamant about shutting down Obama’s Cuba opening, but feels he must do something to satisfy Cuban-American voters, and members of Congress, who supported him in Florida.”

Going further, it cites Frank Calzon, executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba, who “opposed Obama’s decision to open up relations with the island.”

But even he “doesn’t expect — or want — Trump to change some of the core aspects of the opening.” Why? Because, Calzon said, “You can never go back.”

This week, in Cuba news…

U.S.-Cuba Relations

White House sources: no Cuba policy announcement yet

A White House spokeswoman stated that the Trump administration’s review of Cuba policy is ongoing, and potential changes to U.S. policy toward Cuba will not be announced in the immediate future, reports the Miami Herald. Earlier speculation in Washington suggested that the administration would time its expected Cuba policy announcement for May 20 to coincide with the 115th anniversary of the founding of the Cuban Republic.

Last week, Francisco Palmieri, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, stated that the Trump administration’s Cuba policy will likely contain “important differences” from that of the Obama administration, including a heightened focus on human rights concerns.

Agriculture Secretary Perdue reiterates support for Cuba trade

Speaking before a House Committee on Agriculture hearing on the “State of the Rural Economy,” Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue reaffirmed his support for U.S.-Cuba trade, stating, “If our folks grow it I want to sell it, and they eat in Cuba as well.” As seen in a video from the hearing published by Rep. Rick Crawford (AR-1), Perdue also declared his support for Rep. Crawford’s Cuba Agricultural Exports Act, a bipartisan bill with 38 cosponsors which would allow for the sale of agricultural products to Cuba on private credit, stating, “If folks around the world need private credit to buy our products, I’m all for that.”

The Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000 permits food exports to Cuba on a cash-in-advance basis, financing terms which limit Cuba’s ability to purchase U.S. products.

There is a market for U.S. producers in Cuba. Despite the limitations on financing, U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba reached $25 million in March, representing a 142 percent increase over the $10.3 million in agricultural goods sent in March 2016, according to data published in a U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council report.

During his confirmation hearing, Secretary Perdue stated that he “would love to have Cuba as a customer,” remarks that initially caused his confirmation to be delayed by Sen. Robert Menéndez (NJ) and Sen. Marco Rubio (FL).

U.S. companies sponsor Latin America tourism, hotel investment conference in Cuba

U.S.-based hotel groups Marriott International, Inc., Hilton, Inc., Hyatt Hotels Corporation, Choice Hotels International, Inc., and Wyndham Worldwide Corporation were among the sponsors of the 2017 annual Latin American Hotel and Tourism Investment Conferences meeting, held May 15-16 in Havana, Reuters reports. David Tarr, Hyatt’s senior vice president for real estate and development, said, “Certainly we hope relations will be normalized. Our guests want to visit, which is why we are here.”

Between 2015 and 2016, the number of U.S. visitors to Cuba increased by 74 percent. A report released last week by the Boston Consulting Group stated the annual number of U.S. visitors could reach 2 million by 2025, even with current travel restrictions, as Reuters reported.

Connecticut-based Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, Inc., which opened a Four Points Sheraton in Havana in June 2016, is currently the only U.S. hotel company with a license from the U.S. Treasury Department to operate on the island. Starwood was acquired by Marriott in September 2016. In June, the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana will open as Cuba’s first 5-star hotel. Spanish company Meliá Hotels International, which has operated on the island for 27 years, announced last week that it will add eight new hotels in Cuba.

In Cuba

Number of confirmed Zika cases in Cuba nears 2,000

A total 1,847 residents of Cuba have contracted the Zika virus, after the country largely avoided outbreaks of the virus in 2016, according to Lieutenant Colonel Gloria Gely, head of Cuba’s Civil Defense’s Department of Disaster Reduction, reports Reuters. Lt. Col. Gely offered few other details, not specifying whether cases had been contracted locally or abroad, but said that the virus currently affects the provinces of Guantánamo, Cienfuegos, Camagüey, and Havana, especially in the Havana neighborhoods of Regla and Arroyo Naranjo, as Juventud Rebelde reports. As of September 2016, Cuba reported just 33 cases of Zika among its population of 11.2 million people, just three of which were reported to have been contracted locally.

In June 2016, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and Cuba’s Ministry of Public Health signed a Memorandum of Understanding to cooperate on public health issues and infectious diseases, including combating Zika.

Cuba celebrates International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia

Cuba celebrated the May 17 International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia with marches across the country, reports the Washington Blade. The marches were part of a month-long series of festivities marking the tenth anniversary of Cuba recognizing the holiday. Mariela Castro, director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education, led a march through Santa Clara Wednesday and organized a march through Havana on Saturday. The month’s activities, which have a different theme each year, center this year on preventing bullying in schools, as CubaDebate previously reported. The U.S. Embassy in Havana flew a rainbow flag in commemoration of the day.

Earlier in May, a Matanzas branch of the international Metropolitan Community Church hosted Cuba’s first mass by transgender pastors. In March, Ms. Castro stated her intention to present to Cuba’s National Assembly a “legislative package” to provide legal recognition of LGBT rights during the country’s next round of constitutional reforms, expected to take place in 2018, as the Washington Blade reported at the time.

Recommended Reading

Trump’s reckless Cuba policy, Major General Paul D. Eaton and Brigadier General David L. McGinnis, Politico

Two retired military leaders urge President Trump to keep U.S. policy on a path of engagement rather than return to isolation of Cuba, noting the advances and potential future gains in U.S. national security stemming from the December 17, 2014 announcement of the intent to normalize relations. “The Cold War might not be back, but Cuba has returned as a national security battleground as Russia and China increasingly engage with Havana and seek influence on an island less than 100 miles from the U.S. mainland,” write Maj. Gen. Paul D. Eaton and Brig. Gen. David L. McGinnis. “Former President Barack Obama’s historic opening to Cuba didn’t just create an attractive market to American companies. It also enhanced America’s national security, reshuffling regional geopolitics in our favor, increasing border security and expanding access to counterterrorism intelligence.”

Maj. Gen. Eaton and Brig. Gen McGinnis were among the 16 signatories to an April letter by retired flag officers to National Security Advisor Lt. General H.R. McMaster urging continued engagement and the normalization of relations with Cuba, and both traveled to Cuba in March on a delegation of retired military leaders.

Recommended Viewing

Ending The Cuban Embargo Will Help American Agriculture, Rep. Rick Crawford

In a video released by U.S. Representative Rick Crawford (AR-1), Reps. Crawford, James Comer (KY-1), Roger Marshall (KS-1), and Ralph Abraham (LA-5) discuss the potential benefits of lifting the embargo, including advances in U.S. national security and a new export market for farmers. Reps. Comer and Marshall traveled to Cuba earlier this year as part of a Congressional delegation led by the Center for Democracy in the Americas and Rep. Tom Emmer (MN-6).

Editor’s note:

CDA is seeking interns for the Fall 2017 semester! Applications are due by July 15. Please visit our website for more information about how to apply.

Support CDA: 

Click here to support CDA’s work to promote a U.S. policy toward Cuba based on engagement and recognition of Cuba’s sovereignty.

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