President Trump is right in that the Obama administration’s opening to Cuba failed to produce any human rights or democratic changes on the island, but I’m afraid that Trump’s announcement that he will partially reverse existing policies will backfire.
Trump’s partial reversal of Obama’s opening to Cuba, which he announced with great fanfare in Miami on Friday, includes prohibiting U.S. companies from doing business with companies affiliated with the Cuban military and partial restrictions on U.S. tourism to the island.
On the other hand, Trump did not close down the U.S. embassy in Havana, which Obama re-established in 2015, nor did he cancel U.S. flights and cruises to Cuba. He also maintained Obama's decision to cancel the wet-foot/dry-foot immigration policy that allowed Cuban refugees automatic asylum if they touched U.S. soil.
But the trouble with that hodge-podge of measures is that even if they don’t end up doing much economic damage to the Cuban dictatorship, they will give Cuba new ammunition to proclaim itself a victim of “U.S. aggression.” They will also give the Cuban regime a new excuse to postpone democratic changes even beyond the end of 86-year-old Cuban President Raúl Castro’s term in February 2018.
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Unfortunately, neither Obama’s December 2014 opening to Cuba nor Trump’s 2017 partial reversal of that policy were motivated by a desire to bring about democracy in Cuba. In both cases, the decisions were motivated by domestic politics.
In Obama’s case, he was approaching the end of his two terms in office without any major foreign policy victory. Despite his many domestic achievements, he had failed to bring peace to the Middle East and couldn’t stop the Russian invasion of Crimea nor the civil war in Syria. He needed a quick and easy foreign policy victory.
Polls showed that most Americans — even many Miami exiles — agreed that the U.S. embargo on Cuba was outdated. It was a win-win for the former president: Like Richard Nixon opened China, Obama opened Cuba.
Trump’s case is no different. Almost everything he has done proves that he doesn’t give a damn about democracy in Cuba or anywhere else.
Trump has broken an age-old tradition for Republican and Democratic U.S. presidents of speaking out for human rights wherever they go. He has praised the rulers of Russia, Egypt and Turkey, and visited Saudi Arabia without uttering a word of criticism of that country’s oppression of women or minorities.
On Cuba, Trump’s company actively pursued doing business on the island in 1998, according to a September 2016 Newsweek article. The effort took place “with Trump’s knowledge” through a U.S. consulting firm, the magazine said.
In September 2015, when he was asked about Obama’s opening to Cuba, Trump told The Daily Caller, “I think it’s fine,” while adding that “we should have made a stronger deal.” In March 2015, Trump told CNN that he would consider opening a hotel in Cuba.
And like Obama a few years ago, Trump badly needs a headline showing that he is doing something on the foreign policy front following his fiasco in the Middle East. During his recent trip there, he failed to meet his campaign promise of moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and paved the way for a conflict between U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar shortly after his departure.
The main reason Trump is now pretending to care about democracy in Cuba is that he has been urged to do so by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R), who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee that is investigating the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Russia, and Miami Republican congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, a key member of the House appropriations committee. Both legislators have been involved in helping draft Trump’s new Cuba policy.
My opinion: Trump’s limited reversal of Obama’s opening to Cuba is political theater with very little real impact. It will not achieve what U.S. sanctions against Cuba failed to achieve in the past five decades. And it may backfire, by shifting world attention away from the Cuban regime’s oppression of its people to what Cuba will now claim is a new “U.S. aggression” against the island.
This column has been updated to reflect President Trump's speech in Miami.
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