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The Empire Strikes Back: Cuba-US Relations under Trump

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After December 17, 2014, when United States president Barack Obama and Cuban president Raúl Castro agreed to reopen diplomatic relations between their two countries after more than 50 years, the future suddenly seemed positive, hopeful.

It was about time.

Washington had broken ties with Havana back in January 1961. Since then, the record of aggression emanating from the United States had been extreme:

  • dozens of assassination attempts against Cuban leader Fidel Castro,
  • an economic embargo introduced in 1960 and strengthened on several occasions,
  • an attempted invasion through a proxy army at the Bay of Pigs in 1961,
  • and a campaign of terrorism emanating from exile groups (and often funded by the CIA) that had resulted in the death of some 3,400 Cubans.

Finally, however, common sense seemed to prevail under Obama. In July 2015, diplomatic relations were officially renewed. Cuba was removed from the list of countries that allegedly sponsor terrorism, American citizens were finally permitted by their own government to visit Cuba, direct flights from the United States were allowed and business leaders flew down to look for potential investment opportunities.

Then Donald Trump was elected president.

What would he do about Cuba? Maintain the free-flowing policy introduced by his predecessor? Introduce an aggressive policy against the communist government and reinstate a policy of regime change? Invest in hotels and golf courses as he has done in several countries?

The answer to this in many ways resembles the fable about the blind men describing the physical features of an elephant, with each holding a different part of the animal, and reaching different conclusions.

In September 2015, for instance, Trump agreed with Obama’s approach to relax trade and investment opportunities with Cuba: “I think it’s fine. But we should have made a better deal.” At this stage of his presidential campaigning he was clearly supportive of the Obama liberalization policy. 

His opinion had changed dramatically by October 2016, however, after campaigning for votes in Miami: “The people of Cuba have struggled too long” he tweeted. “Will reverse Obama’s Executive Orders and concessions towards Cuba until freedoms are restored.”

Another month, another tweet, this one in November 2016: “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.”

In these three terse communications we see the essence of Trump’s position. He is fully prepared to roll back détente, break off diplomatic relations with Havana again, close down the US Embassy and expel Cuban diplomats, deny Americans the right to travel to Cuba, and forbid investment on the island — unless he gets the “deal”.

But none of those events is likely to happen.

Instead, his preference for “the deal” will likely come into play. The reality show star-turned-politician is aware that returning to the pre-Obama policy would be enormously unpopular with American citizens who have been flocking to the island in the past two years. In 2017 alone, a total of 614,500 Americans and Cuban-Americans visited the island, and all polls in recent years have confirmed a strong interest in a normal relationship with Cuba. 

Likewise, he will be unwilling to alienate the business sector in the United States, which sees Cuba as a source of profitable trade and investment. Many belong to influential national associations and large corporations which donate generously to the Republican Party, and have made their feelings abundantly clear. This combination of the business lobby and hundreds of thousands of Americans who have been to Cuba (and millions more who have expressed an interest in tasting the formerly-forbidden fruit), is a powerful, and volatile, combination.

And of course we should not forget that Trump himself broke U.S. law by sending a delegation to explore the potential for investment in hotels and golf courses. Indeed, the head of Spanish hotel chain Iberostar was quoted in September 2016 claiming Trump “was looking at buying hotels in Cuba as recently as six months ago.” Once again, the pursuit of a good deal comes to the fore…

It is obvious President Trump has far more pressing concerns to deal with at the moment, ranging from dealing with a belligerent North Korea to bizarre claims about Obama “wiretapping” his campaign office, and so the Cuba file does not exactly constitute a burning issue. But at some point he will have to confront it, perhaps in 2018 when Raúl Castro steps down as president of Cuba.

At that time he would be wise to remember how Cuba has managed to survive over five decades of hostilities, defying the odds time after time—while the superpower just 90 miles away sought relentlessly to destroy the revolutionary process. From a U.S. perspective, he could also bear in mind the words of fellow Republican politicians such as Representative James Comer of Kentucky. In March 2017 Comer, a farmer and former Commissioner of Agriculture, remarked on a recent trade mission to Cuba.

He noted that Cuba’s major agricultural trade partners were China, Canada and Europe, while Cuba’s logical supplier was just 90 miles away. Moreover, while the United States exported products of just $150 million, the estimate for food exports if the blockade were lifted was $2.2 billion. He concluded “President Trump has the ability to change the course of history in Cuba as well as open up a major new market for American goods”.   

So, a “deal” is to be expected when the question of US-Cuba relations appears on his political radar. Then, hopefully, he will have a better answer than that given by New York Yankees legend, Yogi Berra, who once noted “I wish I had an answer to that because I’m tired of answering that question…”

Until then, we will live with typical Trumpian unpredictability.

John Kirk, a professor of Latin American Studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax, has written or co-edited more than 15 books about Cuba. In 2012, the Cuban government presented him with its Friendship Medal, the highest honour given to a foreigner.

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