Two years ago, Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro announced a surprise opening between the US and Cuba that launched a long series of negotiations. Now, Americans face only nominal restrictions on travel to Cuba, remittance caps have been lifted, export and import restrictions—including on rum and cigars—have been eased to the limits of the embargo, and 10 airlines fly scheduled flights to the island. The US flag flies over the embassy in Havana, just as the Cuban flag does in Washington.
Substantial majorities of Americans and Cubans support the changes. According to a New York Times poll in March, “nearly six in 10 Americans support normalizing relations with Cuba, and most favor ending the trade embargo.” Even a majority of Cuban Americans in Miami-Dade—69 percent—“strongly” or “mostly” supported the decision to open diplomatic relations with Cuba, according to a FIU poll in September.
In Congress, on the campaign trail, and beyond, rhetoric on Cuba was mostly muted in 2016. While all of the Republican candidates for President at some point opposed Obama’s Cuba policies, the issue was frequently absent from debates, speeches, and rallies. Abroad, US-Cuban relations, which had long been an irritant for other countries in Latin America, transformed into a modest symbol of goodwill.
By November, the thaw had almost become a new status quo: with few incentives for Congress to lift the embargo or push back on executive actions undermining it, and the Cuban government slow to embrace limited market reforms and unlikely to soon make further strides on human rights and democracy. The “Cuba issue,” which had for so long had inflamed passions across the Americas had, in short, suddenly cooled to the point of being mundane. It appeared that Obama had succeeded in, as he declared during his historic visit to the island, “bury[ing] the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas.”
Trump’s Election and the New Cuba Tensions to Come
All of that changed on November 8th, when Donald J. Trump surprised the world by winning the US presidential election. While his policies towards Cuba remain unclear—at times he has been supportive of the opening, at other points critical—he has consistently claimed he will negotiate a “better deal” with the Cuban government.
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.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 28, 2016
It’s unclear what Trump will try to negotiate from the Cubans, and if history is any guide, making demands will be ineffective. The Cuban government has long rejected anything resembling quid-pro-quo exchange, and will likely respond to threats of coercion with heightened antagonism. Should Trump move to roll back Obama’s efforts, the likelihood of escalating tensions seems high.
As a result, the future of US-Cuban relations depends on how activist the Trump administration chooses to be on Cuba, and whether it is willing to face the arduous process of re-revising federal regulations—a legally complex task—or, far more consequentially, breaking off diplomatic relations (especially without a specific incident to justify doing so).
Early indications, based on announced and rumored appointments, suggest that he will try. Cuba hardliners in the Republican Party have been emboldened by Trump’s win. Mauricio Claver-Carone, the executive director of Cuba Democracy Advocates and a fierce opponent of Obama’s Cuba policies, was announced on November 21st as part of the transition team for the Treasury Department—which controls most Cuba sanctions and regulations. Rumors also suggest that José Cárdenas, another staunch Obama critic who recently wrote that “President-Elect Trump would do well to put an end to Mr. Obama’s dismal experiment and develop a policy that restores a sense in the Cuban people that Castroism is not a permanent blot on their daily lives,” is under consideration for Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs—the country’s most senior diplomat to Latin America.
Still, Trump faces a more complicated landscape on Cuba than his Republican predecessors. He is likely to find that changing a status quo is more difficult than defending it. Reversing course could have profound impacts on diplomatic relationships in Latin America, calling back to an era when the embargo symbolized US interventionism writ large. Moreover, Obama’s policies on Cuba are popular, especially on family travel, remittances, and tourism. They are also supported by a broad basket of business interests—from agricultural producers across the heartland to airlines, the hospitality industry, and biotech—many of whom have the ear of Republicans in Congress. US companies already have invested considerably in pursuing Cuban markets and may protest loudly if impinged upon. Trump himself is a businessman (and was even accused of violating the embargo in the 1990s), and must square any ideologically-motivated changes with a supposedly jobs-focused, “America First” outlook.
The US Changes, Cuba Stays the Same
In any case, policies in Washington are unlikely to bring new changes in Havana.
Critics of the Obama Cuba policy argue that the administration has given up its leverage in Cuba in exchange for limited or superficial concessions. As Claver-Carone argued in the Miami Herald, “Obama’s new course for Cuba has made a bad situation worse” with “the Obama administration [pivoting] to support the Castro regime, rather than the Cuban people and their desire for economic and political reform.”
This argument, like so much of the discourse on US Cuba policy, relies on a largely false narrative: that the US embargo and policy of isolation have shaped Cuba’s destiny, and therefore the Obama administration is squandering a powerful bargaining chip.
Both governments have been complicit in this falsehood. Washington gets to showcase its defense of democracy and human rights, even without results; and Havana can blame its pervasive economic ills and subsequent need for repression on what it calls “the blockade.” The best evidence for this is just how little economic impact Obama’s opening has had. While new policies opened the door to over $10 billion in potential trade with Cuba, actual trade numbers (including tourism and remittances) remain a tiny fraction of that amount. US exports to Cuba actually fell in 2015, and remain relatively flat in 2016. Tourism initially soared, but has since been lower than predicted. Most flights to Cuba are half empty. The Cuban tourism industry lacks the capacity to welcome large increases in visitors. The economy remains sclerotic with few prospects for growth.
The embargo never succeeded in leveraging democratic and economic reforms because, at root, Cuba’s isolation has always been mostly self-imposed. President Trump will almost certainly find—like his 11 predecessors before him—that no matter how much pressure he applies, the United States is unable to bring freedom to the island.
Cuba’s future is, and always has been, in Cuban hands. That, Trump cannot change.