The impact of Trump's Cuba policy revisions will likely be small

July 13, 2017

The impact of Trump's Cuba policy revisions will likely be small

The Hill | Mark Feierstein 

As U.S. officials prepare to implement President Trump’s Cuba policy, the rancor over the revised course is masking an emerging bipartisan consensus over American policy toward the island. Despite declaring he was “cancelling” President Obama’s deal with Cuba, Trump’s approach maintains the vast majority of steps the Obama Administration took.

Critics of Obama had protested his efforts to increase American commercial and cultural interaction with Cuba. Hardliners excoriated him for facilitating commerce with and travel to Cuba, removing the country from a list of state sponsors of terrorism, reopening embassies in Washington and Havana, and ending a migration policy that favored Cuban immigrants over those from other countries. Yet, when two of Obama’s most vociferous congressional critics, Senator Marco Rubio and Rep. Mario Diaz Balart, joined Trump in Miami last month for his Cuba announcement, the Florida Republicans celebrated a policy that enshrines all those steps.

Trump’s limited policy changes, which complicate American travel and limit certain commercial engagement, reflect the growing constituency for engagement with Cuba. White House officials had initially anticipated a groundswell of support to reverse Obama's Cuba moves. But as debate over proposed changes to the policy ensued, officials recognized the strong support to continue the bulk of the previous Administration’s approach and even to go further and lift all trade and travel restrictions.

Polls showed that most Americans, including Republicans and Cuban-Americans, favor normalizing relations with Cuba. Fifty-five Senators supported a bill to eliminate all restrictions on travel to the island the only country where tourist travel by Americans is illegal. Republican Members of Congress lobbied the White House not to restrict trade with Cuba, and the Chamber of Commerce and its member companies advocated for maintaining commercial opportunities for American firms rather than handing over that business to companies from such countries as Russia, China, Spain, or Brazil.

Within the Administration, most policy makers favored a continuation of some form of engagement and did not want to return to a policy of trying to isolate and pressure Cuba which had failed for five decades to produce change on the island. Policy makers valued collaboration with Cuba in combating drug trafficking, protecting the environment, and developing vaccines. They also recognized that re-imposing travel limits to Cuba would hurt the people Trump says he wants to support: independent Cuban entrepreneurs who run restaurants, bed and breakfasts and markets frequented by American travelers.

Trump himself was naturally sympathetic to preserving business opportunities for American companies. Jason Greenblatt, a senior White House official, explored commercial deals in Cuba in his prior position as counsel for the Trump Organization and Trump said privately during the presidential transition that he favored Obama’s commercial opening to the island. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who is skeptical of the utility of sanctions, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross also advocated for preserving commercial opportunities in Cuba for American companies.

A substantial rollback, therefore, was not politically or practically feasible. As a Trump administration official conceded, “You can’t put the genie back in the bottle 100 percent.” Nevertheless, Trump kept his campaign pledge to modify U.S. policy toward Cuba, though his announcement featured more harsh rhetoric and political theater than actual substantive change.

To be sure, the Trump Administration rolled back two significant elements of Obama’s policy. First, Americans will no longer be allowed to travel on individualized people-to-people educational itineraries; they will be required to visit on more costly group tours. Second, transactions that “disproportionately benefit” the military, which manages much of the tourist sector, will be prohibited. It’s not surprising the administration settled on those policies to reverse: allowing Americans to develop their own travel itineraries and permitting transactions with military-run entities were initially controversial ideas in the Obama Administration.  

The impact of Trump’s policy revisions, moreover, is likely to be small. Most Americans travel to Cuba on trips that will not be affected by the new rules, and most Cuban hotels are not managed by the military. Further, airlines and cruise ships will continue to carry passengers to Cuba.

Bureaucratic considerations also may limit the impact of Trump’s policy changes. The Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control is understaffed, and its efforts are better spent administering sanctions on countries such as North Korea, Russia and Iran than keeping Americans off Cuban beaches and policing which hotels they can stay in.

Thus far, the government of Cuba has reacted to Trump’s announcement with relative restraint, understanding that those in the United States who want to limit engagement represent a minority view, and confident of the significant momentum for greater ties. Cuba's direction in any case will be shaped more by its own transition —  Raul Castro will step down as president in February — than any measures the United States takes.

If economic and political reform advance under a new leader in Cuba, that would give added impetus to the process of normalizing relations between the two countries. Years from now, we might look back at Trump's announcement in Miami not as a step backward in relations between the two countries, but as the point when the divisive debate over U.S. policy toward Cuba finally began to recede.

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