COMMENTARY by David Usborne
DONALD TRUMP is rolling back the opening to Cuba that his predecessor, Barack Obama, began, and we should ask a couple of questions. If the purpose is to hasten change on the island, is this going to be helpful? Second, what are the motivations behind this semi-reversal? To please his base, or to deliver a sly gift to Vladimir Putin and snub his own Republicans on Capitol Hill?
The declared intention of American policy has been consistent: to force the Castro regime to move towards democracy and to restore the human rights of the Cuban people. Obama took the view that the 50-year-old effort to isolate and impoverish had been a dismal failure that had only ensured more pain for regular Cubans. The smarter way was to engage with Cuba.
Human rights organisations agree. “The previous administration was right to reject a policy that hurt ordinary Cubans and did nothing to advance human rights,” said Daniel Wilkinson, managing director for the Americas at Human Rights Watch in Washington, DC. “The fact that Obama’s approach hasn’t led to political reform in Cuba after just a few years isn’t reason to return to a policy that proved a costly failure over many decades.”
The admonitions to Trump to leave well alone came from other quarters too. Corporate America, which sees opportunities on the island, urged him to desist and so, of course, did many Democrats. Equally alarmed are those Cuban-Americans who are a generation apart from the old guard of Cuban exiles, mostly in Miami, for whom the embargo is an anachronism.
It’s why CubaOne, a group of young Cubans in the US dedicated to widening contacts with the island, wrote to Trump trying to pre-empt his announcement. “As a presidential candidate, you said that you would pursue ‘a better deal’ with Cuba,” the letter said. “To the majority of Americans and our Cuban-American community, a ‘better deal’ means advancing US interests and improving the quality of life of the Cuban people, not returning to Cold War policies.”
Trump ignored all this and travelled to Miami on Friday to outline the changes he was making. Some things will remain the same – the US embassy that Obama re-opened in Havana stays as do the dispensations for American cruise ships and planes to serve the island. It will still be possible for Cuban-Americans to send as much money as they want to their families.
But the old restrictions on tourist visits by Americans are returning. Under the Obama rules, all you needed to do was tick a box saying you had some additional purpose to visit the island – family connections, educational exchange or what-have-you – and you were free to go as a solo visitor, just as with any other holiday destination. The box-ticking was meaningless; no one policed it. Now all that will be forbidden again. Unless they are part of some organised tour, Americans will again risk being accused of breaking the law. The embargo, for tourists, is back.
The biggest chill cast on America’s barely-born Cuba tourist trade, however, will be a new prohibition on any American entity or individual doing business with GAESA, a conglomerate controlled by the Cuban military that accounts for roughly 80 per cent of the island’s tourist economy. It owns most of its major hotels not to mention tour buses and restaurants. If this is fully enforced, it will wreak havoc on the nascent US-Cuba travel scene. There is Airbnb in Cuba. But, as you can imagine, choice is limited.
So why? Yes, Trump is following through on what he said he would do on the campaign trail and his base will applaud it. Indeed, he might have gone further than he has. He is acting after being lobbied personally by Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and House member Mario Diaz-Balart, long a loud voice for the Cuban exile community in Washington. At a meeting with Trump in May, they pressed him on the GAESA interdiction as the most effective way of following through. And they told him to ignore contrary advice from the professional diplomatic class.
“What you’ve committed to do on Cuba, what you want to do on Cuba, is never going to come from career staff. It’s going to have to come from the top down. You’re going to have to tell them what to do,” Rubio recalled urging him, in an interview for Politico. “The career service people, in the State Department and Treasury and in other places, are not in favour of changing this policy.”
But then there is the Kremlin. By retreating from Cuba, Trump risks creating fresh space for Russia to reassert itself there. Just last month Russia resumed oil shipments to Cuba after a hiatus of over a decade – its saviour in the interim has been Venezuela. As Venezuela falls apart at the seams, Cuba needs someone else to stop it collapsing too. If not America, then Russia. Putin recently forgave 90 per cent of Cuba’s debts to his country. There are reports that Russia is in talks about opening a military base on the island again. You get the picture.
It is a danger that was highlighted by Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont who was closely associated with Obama’s 2014 opening to Cuba. Writing in The Hill, he said the roll-back that he saw coming from Trump, “would not only harm US businesses and the Cuban people, it would leave a gaping vacuum just 90 miles offshore, for our adversaries to fill”. He went on: “The Cold War is long over and Cuba is no longer a threat to the United States. But Cuba, a former Soviet satellite, remains within arm’s reach of President Putin.”
This happens against the background of the Trump-Russia maelstrom in Washington. If there were ever any doubts that it had already made it impossible for this administration to carry out any plans it may have had to go easy on Putin they were laid to rest this week when the US Senate passed draft legislation that would make it impossible for the White House to ease any of the sanctions imposed by Obama for the seizing of Crimea and the incursions into eastern Ukraine. It also introduces additional sanctions in response to Russia’s meddling in the US election last year. It passed overwhelmingly with all but two of Trump’s own Republican senators voting for it.
The purpose of the Senate action, clearly, is to box Trump in on Russia and prevent him from extending it any gifts. Yet with his new Cuba policy he may be doing just that. Was that his purpose? Maybe that would involve him connecting more dots than he can manage.