Trump barely changes Obamaís Cuba policies

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, June 23, 2017

 

US President Donald Trumpís grandiose announcement of a drastic change in US government policy toward Cuba has so far produced little substantive change. As with several other of Trumpís policies, the contradictions between the presidentís harsh rhetoric and the actual changes that have been put in place make observers wonder whether Trump has an alternative plan for Cuba or if he is simply paying lip service to an electoral voting bloc.

 

When former US president Barack Obama announced the normalisation of relations with Cuba in 2016 ó including the opening of embassies in Havana and Washington DC ó many observers welcomed the end of one of the most damaging and counterproductive legacies of the Cold War. After almost six decades of a trade embargo, Obama softened several sanctions and rewrote executive orders to make it easier for US citizens to visit and for US businesses to trade with and invest in Cuba. Though many other sanctions remain in place, Obamaís decision to thaw relations between the two former cold war enemies was celebrated in Cuba and elsewhere in Latin America. Obamaís visit to the island in March 2016 was long overdue and heavy on symbolism, though it did not bring the full normalisation of relations with the authoritarian government that has ruled the island since the revolution in 1959.

 

Even before Trump was elected president in November 2016, many Cubans and US citizens who hoped for a quicker normalisation of relations were already growing frustrated. The determination by the Republican majority in Congress to block Obamaís normalisation policies slowed down what was already a rather timid effort to move past the cold war mentality and rhetoric.

 

To be sure, the Cuban government did not help things either. The dictatorial nature of the government makes it difficult for any democracy in the world to enthusiastically engage in normal relations with the island. As the state-centred economy thatís been in place since the revolution hinders economic development and blocks private initiatives, the window of opportunity that opened after Obamaís decision to normalise relations was clogged by the Cuban governmentís unwillingness to modernise and catch up with a growing, globalised, market-friendly world.

 

After Trump won, many Cubans feared a swift reversal in the policy changes that Obama had put in place ó such as fewer travel restrictions for US citizens to visit the island and improved access for US companies in order to trade with Cuba and invest in the country. As with many other promises he made as a candidate, Trump dragged his feet in fulfilling his pledge to cancel Obamaís policies toward Cuba.

 

Surprise

Many were surprised when Trump announced, on June 16, that he was ďcancelling the last administrationís completely one-sided deal with Cuba.Ē Making it seem as if he was delivering on his campaign commitment, Trump spoke in Miami to an audience comprised of hardline conservative Cuban-US citizens who opposed Obamaís new policies. Unsurprisingly, the US president used strong rhetoric, denouncing the lack of democracy in the island and the human rights and civil liberties violations that regularly occur in Cuba.

 

Though a few critics pointed out the contradictory nature of that rhetoric, given this is a president that embraces some dictatorships and criticises others, Trumpís criticism against the Cuban government is justified. After 58 years of authoritarian rule, the Cuban government persecutes opponents, restricts freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of the press. Yet, the announcement that he would adopt a stronger stance against the Cuban government does not seem to be a result of any real commitment on the part of Trump, who has not focused on the promotion of democracy and human rights in Cuba or anywhere else. One could certainly criticise the timing and depth of Obamaís policy changes, which came without asking much from the Cuban government in return, but Obama had the promotion of democracy and human rights at the centre of his agenda when dealing with Cuba. For Trump, the announcement seemed motivated by his desire to please the hardliners in the Cuban-US community.

 

After the speech, experts rushed to figure out what would change and how. So far, that is still yet to be known. Trump has directed the US Department of Commerce and the US Treasury to come up with new rules within 30 days. The general guidelines are that citizens will be banned from doing business with any Army-owned enterprise in Cuba. Since the Army is heavily involved in the tourism industry, such a restriction should technically make it a lot harder for citizens to travel to Cuba. But Trump refrained from closing the US Embassy in Havana or from barring any individual travel from the US to Cuba. Many observers believe that the new rules, when issued, will be far less radical than what Trump implied in his fiery speech ó though it remains a mystery what the new rules will look like.

 

Though Trump has a proven track record in surprising people with his next move, he does not seem to have figured out what policies he actually wants to adopt on Cuba. So far, just as the Cuban government has done every time it has announced changes that would introduce more market-friendly policies to the nationís economy, Trumpís announcements are based more on rhetoric than enforceable new policies.