President Trump is expected to roll back parts of the historic Obama-era opening with Cuba, siding with hawks who oppose detente and rejecting demands from U.S. businesses for whom the island is a ripe potential market.
The decision follows an inter-agency administration review of one of President Obama’s signature initiatives and would represent a throwback to policies that date to the Cold War.
The review is believed to have been completed some time ago, with White House officials waiting for the best time to release it. Trump could make the announcement as early as this week.
The move will be controversial. It could dull a boom in tourism by Americans to Cuba and hurt a burgeoning cottage industry of private enterprise on the socialist-ruled island. And it could allow Russia and China to more easily step in to fill the void.
Some Trump supporters argue however that President Raul Castro has failed to improve human rights or expand political freedoms and does not deserve better relations with the U.S.
Human rights is “something that’s very strong to him … It’s one of the reasons that he’s reviewing the Cuba policy,” Trump spokesman Sean Spicer said in a recent briefing with reporters. (More than most of his predecessors, however, Trump has had a selective attitude towards human rights, rarely raising the issue with some of the world’s most abusive strongmen.)
Lobbying Trump against Cuba ties are two Cuban American Republican lawmakers from Florida, Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart. Proponents of continued dialogue and trade, including farm states, businesses, the tourism industry and even a group of retired military officers, have similarly lobbied Congress.
“Normalization was never going to create democracy in Cuba overnight,” said Tomas Bilbao, founder of a Washington, D.C., consulting firm who is active in promoting U.S.-Cuban rapprochement. “The idea was to increase the flow of people, resources and ideas and make the Cuban people less reliant on the Cuban state.”
Two years before he left office, Obama took the dramatic step of revealing the results of what had been a long series of secret negotiations: The United States and Cuba were renewing diplomatic ties after half a century of hostility.
In the months that followed, American entrepreneurs, tourists and even congressional delegations beat a path to the shores of the island that was for so long something of forbidden fruit, barely 100 miles from the tip of Florida.
U.S. hotel chains signed deals, and airlines and cruise ships scheduled dozens of tours to Havana and other Cuban cities. Chicken, grain and other agricultural producers in Louisiana, Kansas and other farm states exported tons of products to Cuba.
Cuba and the United States reopened embassies in each other’s capital, diplomatic missions that had been shuttered in 1961.
Ordinary Cubans, long denied access to the Internet, suddenly were able to go online. Castro allowed Cubans to travel out of the country more easily, and an estimated 20% of the economy is now in private hands for the first time since Fidel Castro consolidated control after the 1959 revolution.
Obama did not end the U.S. embargo imposed on Cuba in 1960. Only Congress can do that. Trump’s actions would stop the momentum to repeal the embargo.
Obama argued that the policy of isolation of Cuba for more than 50 years had failed to oust the Castros, and although Cuba still had political shortcomings, engagement was more effective than hostility. He crowned the new era by becoming, in 2016, the first sitting U.S. president to visit Havana in 90 years.
Fidel Castro died last year at the age of 90, and his brother Raul, 86, has said he will step down next year after a decade as president.
But leading Cuban dissidents say the situation for human rights has not improved but worsened. Jose Daniel Ferrer Garcia, head of Cuba’s largest opposition group, said harassment and arrests of dissidents have spiked dramatically in the last year.
“The United States must continue to be the first defender of those who lack rights and freedoms in the world,” Ferrer wrote in an open letter to Trump. He called for sanctions against the Castro regime.
Trump is not expected to reverse all of the Cuba opening, according to people familiar with the review process. He is not likely to close the U.S. Embassy in Havana, nor would he reimpose restrictions on the remittances that Cuban Americans in the U.S. send to their families in Cuba, something that would anger a large Florida voter base.
He would probably also leave in place Obama’s ending of the so-called “wet foot, dry foot” special immigration status only for Cubans. Under rules that were in force for two decades, Cubans who reached U.S. shores were automatically given visas and an easy path to permanent residency. Obama scrapped the policy in January, saying that normalized relations meant Cubans should follow the same rules as other migrants and refugees.
Trump would likely revert to pre-Obama restrictions on travel by Americans to Cuba and on trade and commerce by U.S. companies by restoring onerous regulations that Obama had lifted. A U.S.-Cuban task force that was meeting regularly to work out additional bilateral agreements on issues such as property claims and cargo shipping would likely be discontinued. He could restore limits on the amount of rum and cigars that American travelers can bring home.
Rubio, one of the chief hard-liners on Cuba, said last week he was “confident” that Trump would “keep his commitment” by making changes on Cuba policy.
Although he spoke rarely of Cuba during the election campaign, Trump did say he could have made a “better deal” than Obama had. More recently, he said he and Rubio shared “very similar” views on Cuba.
Rubio has had a couple of intimate dinners with Trump, including one last Tuesday. Two days later, Rubio was among senators questioning fired FBI Director James B. Comey and seemed to be one of the most supportive of Trump.
Obama’s decision to repair the relationship with Cuba greatly enhanced U.S. standing in the Americas, where Washington had been the lone hold-out refusing to recognize Havana. And that in turn has helped first Obama and now Trump to galvanize opposition to the repressive regime in Venezuela. Turning its back on Cuba now would hamper Washington’s attempts to apply pressure on Caracas, diplomats said.
Engage Cuba, a coalition of organizations supporting robust ties with Cuba, issued a report this month that warned rolling back the policy could cost U.S. businesses and taxpayers $6.6 billion and 12,295 jobs over the course of the presidential term.
And Cubans have benefited. Airbnb, for example, said it paid $40 million to Cubans renting out their homes in the last two years. But Rubio and others argue most money goes to the Cuban military, which is intricately intertwined in the Cuban economy.
One measure Trump might take is to condition future U.S. commercial deals on guarantees that no revenue is paid to the military or ruling Communist Party.
Retired Army Gen. David L. McGinnis, part of a group of former military officers who have also lobbied to retain the opening with Cuba, argued that undoing the relationship will pose a threat to national security.
He and others said joint U.S.-Cuba progress on busting human-trafficking rings and interdicting drug-running operations in the waters between the two countries would be badly impaired.
Moreover, McGinnis said, there are other powers, like Russia, China and Iran, battling for influence in Cuba as they perceive the U.S. withdrawing.
Russia just this month announced plans to invest $2 billion in repair of the deteriorated Cuban railway system. Last month, the largest Russian shipment of crude oil since the fall of the Soviet Union docked at a Cuban port, and Russia’s defense ministry said it is considering reopening military bases on the island for the first time in 15 years.
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