The normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba had a profound symbolic impact on U.S. relations with Latin America: it was a sign that the United States was finally prepared to end the Cold War and change a policy that, rather than isolating Cuba, had isolated the United States. The Republican victory in Florida and the Donald Trump slight majority among Cuban-American voters pushed the new administration to partially rescind Obama’s executive orders relaxing restrictions on remittances, direct flights, and people-to-people contacts.
We analyze here the political, economic and geopolitical consequences of Trump’s reversal action.
Cold War Dejavu
- The new Trump policy —as stated by Vice President Pence in a conference in Washington DC– is indeed the old American policy toward Cuba: “Our policy will not change until all political prisoners are freed, freedoms of assembly and expression are respected, all political parties are legalized and free and internally supervised elections occur.” In a Miami pep rally full of populist grandeur and surrounded by Senator Marco Rubio and old advocates of the pro-embargo Cuban exile establishment, Trump praised their sacrifices on behalf of a free Cuba. There he insisted on the basic bargain Congress adopted when it systematized the rules of the embargo in 1996: abandon communism and give Cuban people their inalienable political and civil rights to choose who governs them, then we will talk about lifting the embargo.
- Trump and Pence’s stands reflect that US policy towards Cuba is determined almost exclusively by domestic politics in swing state Florida. A majority who want to help the Cuban people through principled engagement and dialogue is of no interest to the current administration. No other country in the world receives this exceptional treatment from the US. Not even the most abject dictatorships and those that represent an actual security threat.
- Unfortunately, this has been a failed policy. As gratifying as this grandstands are —and this largely symbolic reversal of Obama’s approach may feel good to exiles in Miami–, a return to the past is unlikely to achieve its aims of regime change and empowering the Cuban people or to press Raul Castro for democratic reform and human rights. It is dubious that with this action the Trump’s administration will succeed in achieving the stated objectives of expanded openness, pluralism, and independence for the Cuban civil society.
- The contrary is more likely: a hardline posture in the USA translates as embolden hardliners in Havana and a harder life for democracy activist, religious groups and private entrepreneurs it purportedly wants to help. The truth is that the Cuban government was not making any concessions regarding its socialist system, and it is not going to do it now. We are back to the Cold War stalemate that has lived on for 55 years only in the Caribbean.
- Reversing Obama’s openness towards Cuba is economically hurting a small but growing community of entrepreneurs more than the Cuban regime. It has also opened the space to other international actors all which emphasizes US self-inflicted isolation.
- The economic advantages of increased openness have led to a rapidly expanding private sector in Cuba. However, other areas of the Cuban economy have been negatively impacted by the continued crisis in Venezuela, resulting in an overall decline of the nation’s GDP. Before Trump, Cuban economy was doing two different things at the same time. There was one economy in stagnation, and there was another one, very dynamic, experiencing a boost.
- Trump’s new measures prohibit US visitors organizing their own individual people-to-people educational travel but do not affect commercial air connections to Cuba. This only restriction disproportionately causes an adverse impact on Cuba’s emerging private sector and non-military employment in linkage industries. However, the Cuban economy is already enduring the loss of Venezuelan subsidies. Thus the limited sanctions on travel are not likely to cause any significant harm. Nor will they diminish the clout of the armed forces.
- Accordingly to Emily Morris, associate fellow at the Institute of the Americas at the University College London —currently, in an academic mission in La Havana– the new shift in policy could cause a “ripple effect” in the Cuban economy, in addition to severely impacting Cuba’s private sector. Certainly, not only would entrepreneurs lose out, Morris explains, but a more restrictive policy is also affecting investors’ confidence in the island nation. However, Cuba has an enormous web of diplomatic contacts they are trying to convert into economic partners. With the United States reducing its business with the island, Russia and China are eagerly trying to fill the void.
- Another sign that Trump’s measures only helps isolate the US is Europe’s expanding interests in the island. Few weeks after Americans pressed the backward button, European Parliament Ministers approved the first European Union trade and dialogue agreement with Cuba. This new “Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement” seeks to “expand bilateral trade, promote dialogue and economic cooperation, and provide for joint action on the world scene.”
- The US has defaulted its advantage position transforming an economic risk in a security risk.
- Although Trump’s executive order was presented as a National Security Presidential Memorandum, neither Trump or Pence cited a security concern when re-establishing the aged Cold War policy. However, its effect goes beyond prohibiting financial transactions with Cuban state enterprises managed by the armed forces.
- Brigadier General David L. McGinnis —member of the American Security Project’s Consensus for American Security– sustains that from a security point of view it was a mistake that the United States disengaged from Cuba. “They’re engaged around the world with everybody but us,” says General McGinnis arguing that “to achieve mutually shared objectives of stability, prosperity, and peace in the hemisphere, the US needs to increase engagement with Cuba.
- Imposing American values on any nation, whether it be Cuba or Afghanistan, detracts from the United States’ goal of establishing peace and security”.
Importantly, Obama’s openness toward Cuba had allowed the United States to establish four working groups with the Cuban government addressing nine areas of strategic focus, ranging from counter-terrorism to human trafficking. A stronger stance against Cuba has put that work in jeopardy.
- The policy shift has also re-opened Cuba’s doors to Russia. Russia is reassessing its presence in Latin America and is openly considering to return to its former bases in Cuba. The Kremlin’s want to expands its naval reach and to challenge the U.S. in its backyard. With an urgent need for cash and oil due to the Venezuelan crisis, Raul Castro sees this development as an opportunity to exert leverage on the Russians.
- However, accordingly, to Jaime Suchlicki —former Director of Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami— it is not likely that Russia would establish a naval base in Cuba immediately. “The short-term tactic would be for Russian naval vessels, including submarines, to pay short-term visits to Cuba, as well as Venezuela and Nicaraguan ports.”
- Suchlicki considers it ironic that the US victory in forcing Soviet land-based missiles out of Cuba in 1962, will now be reversed with a more dangerous threat: Russian nuclear submarines in Cuban waters. President Donald Trump, in general, has underestimated the importance of Obama’s legacy, but especially regarding his diplomatic advances with Cuba. This terrible blunder endangers America. The US now will have to face-up to Russia’s strategic objectives, not only in Eastern Europe and the Middle East but a few miles from the homeland, in Cuba. A little island which is the single more important geopolitical Caribbean factor.