It’s comfortable — and politically expedient — for beleaguered President Donald Trump to delegate the shaping of U.S.-Cuba policy to his former campaign foe Sen. Marco Rubio of Miami, as he seems to be doing by default.
The president came to largely Cuban Hialeah to talk up his tax reform on Monday, came back around Thursday to Key West, 90 miles from where a consequential transfer of power was taking place, but we heard little reaction on Cuba from Trump. Not a peep on his favorite forum, Twitter, either.
With no leadership from the president, Rubio is all too happy to lead the U.S. and Cuba back to isolation from each other.
Surely, Rubio will get the applause of the dwindling ranks of hard-liners in the Cuban exile, los históricos, who’ve been fighting without success to change the political course in their homeland for the last 60 years and will go to the grave without changing strategy.
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But what a wasted opportunity — and strategic mistake — it is to leave Cuba policy to someone like Rubio, a youthful Republican hung up on old, failed ideas because they win him elections and who is incapable of engaging Cuba in dialogue at this critical juncture for the island.
The Cuban National Assembly has just named a new president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, to succeed Raúl Castro, who will stay in other powerful positions — head of the armed forces and of the Communist Party — but is almost 87 and spoke Thursday in Havana as if he were retiring to the countryside.
Díaz-Canel, who turns 58 on Friday, belongs to another generation. He’s a party man, an engineer who rose through the ranks to become first vice president and Castro’s right-hand man the past several years. But he’s also the first person born after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution to assume this high level of leadership.
The grateful pupil doesn’t always follow in the footsteps of the teacher — and the United States would do well to keep that in mind and leave an open door.
Taken at his word and Castro’s, Díaz-Canel is a hard-liner, the counterpart of ultraconservative Rubio, and in his inaugural speech he used all the nomenclature to be expected from a devoted Leninist “deeply moved with emotion” at his new place in the tightly controlled Communist order of the island. In some ways, he looks and acts more stoic Russian than Cuban, lacking in the jovial spirit that is the signature of the people.
But how he will lead is unpredictable at this early point.
Trump ignores Latin America and has left crisis-torn Venezuela largely to Rubio, who hasn’t moved the needle an inch. So what would be in it for Trump to invest himself in the little Caribbean nation next door with no oil, no freedom — but a stable country despite the decrepit state-controlled economy?
Same as for President Barack Obama, the personal gain for Trump would be legacy, a historic score on peaceful change and modernization of a former Soviet satellite, in danger of returning to being one again.
Although Trump hasn’t earned the credibility of a statesman as Obama easily did, he would win some of the respect he covets at home, because Americans want good relations and a Cuba open for business. That became obvious in the wholesale way they embraced engagement and lament Trump’s return to the isolation policy.
With Rubio, whose only idea is the same old tightening of the embargo and further restricting American travel, Trump won’t move the needle in Cuba.
In fact, under Trump and his ignorant pullout from full-fledged engagement barely six months into his presidency, Cuba's repression of dissidents has been as persistent and relentless as it was under Obama, if not harsher. And there are fewer Americans around to watch, chronicle and experience what’s really going on there.
Rubio now is calling for more sanctions against Cuban military companies, including GAESA, that are heavily involved in tourism, further limiting options for American travelers. Just as it was wrong for Obama to give away the house with no expectation of human rights improvements from Cuba, it’s an ill-suited strategy to squeeze and isolate Cuba at this moment.
Given the still unexplained health attacks on U.S. and Canadian diplomats and their families and the unrelenting human rights abuses, it's easy to think that the repressive Cuban government is getting what it deserves from the Trump administration. But is leaving Cuba for other world powers to court the right move for U.S. interests and the cause of democracy? Hardly.
This attitude won’t leave Díaz-Canel any room but to hunker down behind the sacred Communist façade and seek new and old alliances with Russia, China, the Middle East and the European Union, which has continued strengthening its relationship with Cuba despite the human rights picture.
In his elementary vocabulary, Trump has expressed the sentiment that having good relations with Russia, China and an assortment of other less-than-democratic regimes is positive for the United States. And we know that before he became a presidential candidate with the need to win Florida, Trump had his eyes on a Trump Tower in Havana and a golf course near Varadero Beach.
Granted, what we’re saddled with both in Cuba and the United States isn’t material for a morality fable. But there’s opportunity to make moves, shake things up, break old patterns.
And that’s exactly what Cuba needs now.
What we all don’t need is a Marco Rubio vs. Díaz-Canel Little Cold War.
Follow Santiago on Twitter @fabiolasantiago.