Trump and Cuba: Politics Over Good Policy

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Author: Ellie Schwartz

Trump is expected to announce in June that he will reinstate the restrictions on travel and trade with Cuba that Obama lifted in 2014. Obama’s new Cuba course represented a commitment to end decades of hostility toward our island neighbor. In working toward normalization, the United States not only created economic opportunity for both Americans and Cubans, but also seized the chance to shift its role to ally of the Cuban people as they move toward a less restricted economic future. However, with the Trump Administration on the verge of making its announcement, we are poised to set U.S.-Cuba policy back toward its frigid past. It is crucial that we send a strong message to Trump to support trade, travel, and engagement with Cuba before he rolls back the significant progress we have made.

Trump and the Cuba Hardliners

Trump tweeted in October of 2016 that he “will reverse Obama’s Executive Orders and concessions towards Cuba until freedoms are restored.” Big-businessman Trump is not known for prioritizing international human rights and freedoms. So what is his motivation for reconsidering this regressive old policy? While he denounces “making concessions toward Cuba,” Trump is making concessions to Cuba policy hardliners—namely, Republican Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Representative Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL).

Rubio and Diaz-Balart, both Cuban Americans, have been pressuring Trump to roll back Obama’s Cuba policies. They virulently oppose Obama’s opening of relations, citing human rights abuses by the Castros. Taking a harder line on Cuba is an obvious way for Trump to curry favor with Rubio and Diaz-Balart. Both are key legislators for him to win over: Rubio is on the Senate Intelligence Committee conducting the Trump-Russia investigation, and Diaz-Balart sits on the House Committee of Appropriations. Diaz-Balart in particular has reportedly asked the Trump Administration for “assurances” that Trump would adopt his stance on U.S.-Cuba relations. He is even rumored to have swapped a vote on Trump’s health care plan for such assurances. And it appears that Trump is bending to their demands: Rubio released a statement saying he was “confident the president will keep his commitment on Cuba policy.” This means we stand to lose all the progress on U.S.-Cuba policy we have achieved to outright politics.

The reality is that very few people besides Rubio, Diaz-Balart, and a handful of other Cuban-American members of Congress support the archaic policy that Trump threatens to return us to. A growing number of Americans, Cubans, and Cuban Americans in Florida support the opening of relations. According to the Pew Research Center, in December 2016, 75 percent of Americans expressed support for renewed diplomatic ties with Cuba, and 73 percent supported ending the embargo altogether. Similarly, more than half of Cuban Americans in Miami now oppose the embargo, and the same number believe that the embargo has not been successful “at all”. A Washington Post survey also found in 2015 that a majority of Cubans (64 percent) believe normalizing U.S.-Cuba relations will change the Cuban economy, and nearly all (97 percent) think normalization will benefit Cuba. People on both sides of the ocean and the political aisle believe that furthering engagement with Cuba benefits everyone. What’s more, most U.S. government agencies, from the Chamber of Commerce to the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, have endorsed the lifting of all sanctions against our island neighbor. In light of such overwhelming support, we cannot allow Trump’s Cuba policy to be commandeered by a couple hardliners.

Consequences of a Rollback

Cuba is not merely a pawn to be used in Trump’s political bargaining. The effects of the impending rollback must be taken seriously. If the United States limits travel and commerce with Cuba again, 11 million real people will feel the economic and political strain. History has shown that when the Cuban economy is strapped, it is the average Cuban who face shortages, hunger, and deepened poverty.

And it is not just Cuba that will take a hit. Should Trump reimplement the restrictions, the United States could lose huge amounts of revenue from travel, manufacturing, and remittances. In a recent report by Engage Cuba, returning to pre-Obama policy could cost the U.S. travel industry $6.6 billion and 12,295 jobs. On the other hand, according to the Chamber of Commerce in 2015, lifting the embargo entirely could mean up to 6,000 new jobs and $1.1 billion in total economic impact. If the President was truly concerned with creating American jobs (as he claimed in justifying the United State’s exit from the Paris Climate Agreement last week), he would continue on the path of normalization rather than turn his back on Cuba.

In November 2016, Trump tweeted, “If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate deal.” But the evidence shows that the best way to improve the lives of Cubans is to promote U.S.-Cuba engagement, not return to outdated punitive policies. Re-imposing sanctions is nothing but a harsh display of hostility—it sends a message to our Cuban neighbors that the United States has no desire to support or interact with them.

The way forward for U.S.-Cuba relations is to not simply relax travel and trade restrictions, but to end the embargo once and for all. After half a century, it is clear that the embargo is a failed policy. It has done nothing to accomplish its primary goal of regime change. The embargo has not improved Cuban lives; it has succeeded only in further snubbing the Cuban people it claims to help. If Trump truly sought a “better deal for the Cuban people,” he would support continued engagement, trade, and travel to Cuba, and thereby increase opportunity for all.

Here’s What You Can Do

  • Tell Trump to move forward, not backwards, on U.S.-Cuba policy!
  • Urge Congress to lift the travel ban once and for all!
  • Download LAWG’s infographic, Support for Changes in U.S.-Cuba Policy!