Since the November 8th election, the talk in Miami (the city where I reside and a city which—you may have heard—cares some about Cuba) has been whether President-elect Donald Trump will jettison one of President Barack Obama’s key foreign policy initiatives: the normalization of diplomatic relations and the relaxation of U.S. restrictions on commerce, travel, and financial transactions with Cuba. Journalists, academics and the business community and Cuban-Americans around dinner tables and Cuban coffee bars are obsessively trying to figure out whether Trump is actually serious about going as far as breaking diplomatic relations and returning Cuba to the list of state-sponsors of terrorism.
If we are to take Trump’s recent statements and tweets at their face value, then a return to the policy is imminent, obviating all this rampant speculation. But should we take them at their face value? After all, there’s always been a high degree of contradiction, uncertainty and incoherence about The Donald’s policy intentions across a range of issues from health care reform to NATO to immigration.
The former reality T.V. star prides himself as being unpredictable. In the case of Cuba, he went through several policy contortions during the campaign. In 2015 he told the Daily Caller he was “fine” with the administration’s policy of rapprochement but that he would have made a better deal. He continued by saying that “50 years is enough” for the U.S. embargo. Then, in March 2016, during a primary debate, he was more critical of the policy but still said that he “was somewhere in the middle.” Finally, during a September campaign rally in Miami, he went all-out retrograde, announcing to a group of Cuban-American hardliners that he would reverse President Obama’s executive order “unless the Castro regime meets our demands…[and] those demands are religious and political freedom for the Cuban people. And the freeing of political prisoners.” In October, Governor Mike Pence followed up with, “when Donald Trump and I take to the White House, we will reverse Barack Obama’s executive orders.”
After the election, some of those trying to read the crystal ball of Trump’s intentions toward Cuba argued that Trump is ultimately a pragmatic businessman and that he would, in the end, soften his stance. After all, the argument goes, reversing policy would adversely affect business deals and other benefits for businesses and people on both sides of the Florida Straits, deals that are thought to total more than $5 billion. Then, on November 28, he 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 the deal.” The president-elect’s future White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus followed up by saying that Trump will void the deal unless Cuba makes concessions. (Never mind that there’s no one deal; it’s a post-truth world now.)
So, what will the president-elect finally do? Will he carry out his campaign and transition promise to reverse Cuba policy and risk condemnation from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and businesses and even GOP members of Congress that have openly pushed for the opening and pressured the president-elect to maintain it? Or will he take empty, symbolic measures against Obama’s policy and risk the ire of Cuban American legislators and community hardliners who believe (though empirical evidence says otherwise) that Trump won Florida because of them?
Although it may be too early to say with great certainty, there is already evidence that he will choose reversal over symbolism. In addition to statements made since the election, the president-elect has placed some Cuba hardliners in key policy transition positions, most who will likely serve in the administration. For instance, Mauricio Claver-Carone, a lobbyist who is among the harshest critics of the president’s detente, is serving on the Treasury Department’s transition team. Others populate the Homeland Security, National Security Council and State Department transition teams.
But beyond campaign/transition promises or appointments, the reason Mr. Trump is likely to fulfill his promises is that, in the end, he really does not care about Cuba or democracy. Through the campaign and the transition period, he has consistently shown a willingness to sacrifice national interests and policy effectiveness for transactional domestic politics.
Only in Cuba has Trump said anything about supporting democratic values or institutions across the globe. In fact, he continues cozying up to autocratic leaders in Russia, Turkey and the Philippines who have recently shown a determination to undermine democratic rule at home and abroad. When asked why he refuses to criticize human rights violations, his answer was, “we need allies.” How ironic, then, that the only country where he would pursue this policy is toward Cuba.
The reason, though, isn’t because he suddenly cares more about the freedom of 11 million people in Cuba than the human rights of Philippines or Russians but rather his own pure domestic political calculations. Trump’s indifference and lack of ideological convictions coupled by recent statements by Cuban American congressional representatives suggest that we are returning to the days when Cuba policy was shaped by domestic political imperatives and hardline leaders in South Florida. President Obama restored the executive’s foreign policy prerogatives by gaining control of Cuba policy, emphasizing national interests over localized political preferences. However, a Trump administration is, once again, likely to defer or delegate Cuba policy to localized and narrow domestic political interests and constituencies—even when the past policy failed in its objectives of promoting democracy.
The drumbeat of policy reversal is being heard often from Senator Marco Rubio, Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart and others who have promised that US policy will change “dramatically.” The drumbeat has become louder since the death of Fidel Castro as many believe that “freedom in Cuba is now near” and that returning to the punitive policies of the past will hasten change on the island.
So, it seems like we will soon return to the “feel-good” policies of taking punitive action against a dictatorship, even though those policies proved singularly ineffective and counterproductive during the 55 years they were in place. As a result, we’re likely go down this road again, despite numerous studies that show unilateral economic sanctions almost never produce the desired effect, especially if the objective is regime change.
What those who want to return U.S.-Cuba relations pre-December 17, 2014 do not understand is that the previous policy was based on a false premise—that the U.S. had leverage over Cuba. The entire policy was premised on the unfounded, disproven and misguided belief that Havana would commit political suicide (i.e. allow for democratic elections, political parties, free press, etc.) in exchange for normalization of diplomatic relations and lifting of the economic embargo.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for dictatorships and the autocrats running them committing political hari-kari but it’s not realistic nor practical to think that they would. The answer from Havana was always “keep your diplomatic relations and embargo. In the meantime, we will use U.S. policy to strengthen our position at home and abroad.” Havana was very good at turning U.S. hardline demands to its own purposes.
President Obama changed the tired script by engaging the Cuban people directly. By increasing opportunities for travel and communication with the island, the changes provided Cubans with the tools and a new relationship with the American people to enhance opportunities for change on the island, albeit gradually. In the end, the policy was about acquiring leverage. Now it seems like a Trump administration, for domestic political considerations, will weaken U.S. leverage and undermine a policy of engagement with the Cuban people that was clearly contributing to tensions and anxiety within the regime.
So, will Mr. Trump reverse Cuba policy? I’m not a betting man, but, if I were, I would bet on yes. But it’s a bet I’m really hoping to lose.