Trump’s Cuba policy looks a lot like President Obama’s

President Trump signed his revisions to the U.S. Cuba policy in Miami.
President Trump signed his revisions to the U.S. Cuba policy in Miami. adiaz@miamiherald.com

The skillfully executed rollout of the president’s “new” Cuba policy — a hand-picked audience of adoring Cuban exiles, an historic Little Havana venue adorned with Stars-and-Stripes bunting, rip-roaring warm-up speeches by U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart and Sen. Marco Rubio, and Trump’s own overheated rhetoric — almost overshadowed the substance of the president’s Cuba policy announcement. Which is a revision, not a reversal.

The substance is a ban on Americans traveling independently to the island and staying at hotels there run by Cuba’s military, Or eating at state-run restaurants. Or riding around in state-operated tour buses. Trump put the squeze on an outfit called GAESA, the multi-tentacled branch of Cuba’s armed forces that runs tourism. It owns (usually through “joint ventures” with foreign investors) more than half the island’s tourism infrastructure. It’s a big money-maker for the Castro regime, which doesn’t believe in capitalism — unless it’s the capitalist. From now on, those state-run enterprises will be seeing fewer Americans and fewer dollars. The new policy will force most Americans to visit Cuba in licensed groups, reverting to an early Obama-era policy.

But the sanctioned tour groups are in bed with the Castro government, are absurdly expensive and generally require visitors to stay at state-owned hotels and eat at designated state-owned restaurants. Those tour visitors also don’t get much of a chance to meet and interact with ordinary Cubans, just the indoctrinated ones approved by the government.

Sen. Marco Rubio, the chief architect of the revised policy, says individual visitors in the future will have to follow genuine people-to-people itineraries, a rule loosely enforced by the Obama administration. The president and Rubio also say Americans will now be forced to stay at casas particulares (private homes) and eat at paladares (family-run restaurants). “I’m trying to reverse the dynamic,” Rubio says. “I’m trying to create a Cuban business sector that goes to the Cuban government and presses them to change.” Sounds good in theory, but I doubt it’ll work in practice. The Castro revolution has spent nearly six decades suppressing the Cuban people’s demands for social, economic, and political change. Nothing the president announced in Miami is going to change the Cuban system, just deprive it of some American dollars.

Nor will Cuba change when Raúl Castro retires next year. He’ll still be around as the head of the island’s Communist Party, which constitutes Cuba’s oligarchy. Add in the Castro offspring now running things, including GAESA, and waiting in the wings to inherit full power, and you have a kind of Cuban monarchy. You could call it the divine right of dictators. Free and fair multiparty elections? Sadly, that’s a pipe dream.

The downside of Trump’s Cuba policy is that it’ll deprive Cuba’s growing class of cuentapropistas, small business owners, of the dollars they started earning in 2014. Some 22,000 homes in Cuba are signed up with Airbnb and, last year, they welcomed about half a million visitors, raking in an estimated $40 million. All that is now in some jeopardy if the Trump administration writes travel rules that make Americans think twice about visiting Cuba. The president’s stated goal of helping ordinary Cubans may have the opposite result.

“Effective immediately,” the president declared in his best TV-reality star voice at the Manuel Artime Center, “I am canceling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba.” True, it was one-sided because the Cubans never reciprocated. Obama gave, but Castro never gave back. In fact, repression of dissidents increased since Obama and Castro shook hands in Havana. Dissidents I’ve spoken to, like Antonio Rodiles, support Trump’s crackdown — and wish it went further. Diplomatic relations remain in place as before; “wet foot-dry foot” won’t be reinstated; a series of bilateral agreements on the environment, human trafficking and narcotics remain in effect; flights by U.S. airlines and visits by U.S cruise ships will continue unabated; direct mail service goes forward; artists and athletes from both countries will continue to travel back and forth, etc. La plus ca change …

Or as a Cuban friend likes to say No cambia la vaca por el chivo. Don’t trade the cow for the goat.