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Just before publication time, we learned that President Trump is set to visit Miami a week from today to reveal his administration’s new policy toward Cuba.
If the President reverses the last 30 months’ worth of progress produced by engagement with Cuba, the people of the United States and Cuba will deserve an explanation.
What’s the strategic vision for a policy that steps backward? If the administration shifts course, it must explain the drivers behind the decision, and how it promotes U.S. interests. In sum, it must explain the rationale for reversal.
We deserve to know.
President Obama’s policy of engagement certainly had its detractors – some felt it went too far, others not far enough. But President Obama had a theory of the case, a strategic vision, for why restoring diplomatic relations, easing restrictions on trade and travel, and promoting personal contact between citizens of both countries were all in the U.S. national interest – and, critically, more likely to create conditions to the ability of Cubans to determine their own future than the tired, failed policies of isolating and imposing sanctions on Cuba.
The policy, as the saying goes, “played in Peoria.” In fact, just this week, in an editorial titled “Cuba Craziness,” the Peoria Illinois Journal Star urged the President to keep, rather than scuttle, the policy he inherited from his predecessor because of its underlying logic:
“First, far better to have a non-enemy 90 miles off America’s coast than the alternative, with Cuba more likely to fall into hostile arms if this goes through. Second, this would hurt U.S. business interests, with rural areas dependent on agriculture and manufacturing – as in central Illinois – likely taking the brunt of it. Third, arguably this would only punish the long-suffering Cuban people. Fourth, suppose you must know some history in the first place to learn anything from it, but we’d remind the White House that more than a half century of a big-stick approach to the Castros failed to bring them to their knees.”
If the administration is conducting its review of Cuba policy with a seriousness of purpose, these are legitimately high bars for a new policy to clear.
Let’s start with security. The idea that engagement with Cuba is good security policy is not new.
Eight years ago, when the previous administration was thinking through its Cuba policy, 12 former senior military officials wrote the White House: “The current policy of isolating Cuba has failed, patently, to achieve our ends. Cuba ceased to be a military threat decades ago. At the same time, Cuba has intensified its global diplomatic and economic relations with nations as diverse as China, Russia, Venezuela, Brazil, and members of the European Union. It is hard to characterize such global engagement as isolation.”
Indeed, based on reporting by Quartz, what may have prolonged the current administration’s internal debate on Cuba is that senior officials from the departments of government most responsible for implementing the policy “favored maintaining Obama’s more open policy.”
On this point, Professor Bill LeoGrande published an article this week in which he argued engagement gives “Havana less incentive to expand its economic relationships with Russia and China into politico-military ones.”
That is what concerns the seven Republican Members of Congress who wrote President Trump today and said, “Reversing course would incentivize Cuba to once again become dependent on countries like Russia and China. Allowing this to happen could have disastrous results for the security of the United States.”
Cubans are already reengaging with Russia. Incidentally, this is about more than Russia’s reemergence as a critical source of energy for the Cuban economy. As the Wall Street Journal reported this week, increasing numbers of Cuban shoppers with means are hopping aboard one of the daily 13-hour flights from Havana to Moscow to visit markets that cater to their needs. Wooed by shouts of “hola, amigo,” Cuban customers are bringing back “bags of jeans, haberdashery, and car parts to a Communist island starved of consumer goods.” Moscow is shrewdly winning back hearts and minds with an open trade and travel policy – more open, even, than the one the administration is threatening to close.
The question of how best to realize U.S. economic interests has also extended the internal debate. As Fabiola Santiago, a columnist for the Miami Herald, wrote on Thursday, “Although [President Trump] made a campaign pledge to Bay of Pigs veterans in Miami that he would restore a hard-line approach to dealing with its government, his administration includes executives who eagerly embraced engagement and traveled to Cuba to explore business ventures.”
The decision to intensify trade and travel relations was about dollars and cents as well as a common-sense attitude about how engagement serves our diplomatic goals.
A decision to cut back travel and trade with Cuba would be consequential for U.S. economic interests. As Engage Cuba, the Center for Democracy in the Americas, and other allies reported on June 1, a reversal of the current engagement policies would cost our economy as much as $6.6 billion and put more than 12,000 U.S. jobs at risk.
Reuters reported that ending critical policies like people-to-people travel “would make moot millions of recent investments” by the airlines, and, as the Director General of the International Air Transport Association said, more broadly, “Restricting the network of aviation and access to Cuba would be bad news for aviation.”
It would also be bad news for Cubans working in their nation’s private economy. Consider the case of Airbnb, which now has 22,000 listings in 70 different Cuban cities and towns. The company’s relationships with Cubans across the island, enabled by the regulatory changes that took place due to engagement, mean that “Cubans have netted $40 million the past two years by using the online service to rent their homes and rooms to short-term visitors,” as Tim Padgett reported this week.
That’s a practical consequence of allowing upwards of 70,000 guests per month to check into Cuban homes.
We can’t have such good economic outcomes without diplomatic support. As Rex Tillerson’s State Department rhapsodized this week, “Our work directly supports the global travel and tourism industry by creating more opportunities for growth, travel, and trade.”
That is exactly what is happening as a result of two-way travel policies with Cuba.
Undoubtedly, the window dressing the administration will use for cutting engagement back will be “human rights for the Cuban people.”
It just isn’t true. As the paper in Peoria put it, this is instead a rationale for “punishing the long-suffering Cuban people.”
Serious advocates for human rights almost always conclude that sanctions on Cuba injures their interests. As the Quartz article we reference above says, “human-rights activists who work with Cubans believe that while closer relations with the US may have benefited Cuba’s regime, they have also begun to make life better for its citizens, and that reversing course would not help.”
Isolating and sanctioning Cuba violates international law and norms, and violates Cuba’s sovereignty.
It is fair to ask, as Robert Coon did in Talk Business & Politics Arkansas, “why would we want to take a step backward and start down the failed path of isolation once again?”
Or as our friends at the Peoria Illinois Journal Star put it, “This opening of relations/easing of tensions deserves a chance to succeed. There’s no rhyme or reason to undoing it.”
While the President’s Cabinet has argued in support of maintaining the opening to Cuba, Quartz reports, “The only objecting voices were from inside the White House, particularly the legislative affairs office. That’s because, these sources say, the White House needs the support of two key Florida Republicans: Representative Mario Díaz-Balart and Senator Marco Rubio, Cuban-Americans who oppose normalized relations with Havana’s politically repressive government.”
Is this really where we are? Just like in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and the first dozen years of the new century, is the dog (us) still being wagged by the tail (politicians in Florida)?
This makes no sense. As the Houston Chronicle said in an editorial this week, “We understand that Trump has political debts to the hard-core anti-Castro Cuban-Americans, but his notion of getting a ‘better deal’ from Cuba envisions Havana committing to such things as democracy, free speech and a free press, which is the kind of pipe dream Miami has perpetuated for almost 60 years while supporting a policy that guaranteed it wouldn’t happen.”
So we’re asking the administration: Why undo it? What’s the expected value of a policy change?
This week, Reuters interviewed a woman named Meleny, a Cuban state employee, who works as a tour guide. She told the news agency that she worries about President Trump every night.
“We will see what he does,” she said, “but it would be a shame if he drops a bomb on all this. This job isn’t great, but the Americans are good tippers and that is how I feed my kids and buy them shoes.”
“Where there is no vision,” as it says in Proverbs, “the people perish.”
Where do your representatives in Congress stand on Cuba policy? Make your voice heard before President Trump’s trip to Miami next Friday! CDA’s advocacy work continues – Click HERE to support our work!
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