President Donald Trump’s long-awaited announcement to reverse the openings to Cuba made under his predecessor Barack Obama finally came to pass on June 16, 2017. It was a perfect speech reflecting the contentious relationship between Cuba and the United States – a perfect speech if it had been made 30 years earlier. Instead, it became yet another example of the president’s ability to talk tough yet deliver very little, and his remarkable capacity to completely misunderstand the current reality of a situation.
Trump’s self-serving message was held at the Manuel Artime Theatre in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, named for a deceased exile leader of the Bay of Pigs veterans’ association that endorsed Trump last October. The location was filled, in the vast majority, by those Cuban-Americans who desperately want to turn the clock back to the days where there was nothing but confrontation between the two countries, when any talk of normalizing relations would put oneself in serious physical danger.
Those days, thankfully, have passed and the key takeaway from Trump’s minor (though important) changes to Obama’s policy is the further indication that the forces to end the embargo are winning the war – despite this setback.
Trump declared that Americans could no longer travel to Cuba on individual licenses, and no US companies could conduct negotiations with GAESA, the Cuban military’s business and commerce wing. To mitigate the latter, officials said Trump’s plans were not meant to “disrupt existing transactions that have (already) occurred,” although the new policy might make it difficult for any US company to expand their interests in Cuba. A relationship that will not be affected is the Four Points by Sheraton Havana, the first US hotel to open in Cuba since the Revolution. The ending of travel on individual licenses will have a negative impact on the record number of Americans now visiting the island, which in turn will adversely affect the income of many Cubans operating private restaurants and rental accommodations.
While the new restrictions are of some significance, they certainly don’t represent the total reversal that Trump had threatened. Americans can still travel to Cuba, through the already well-established tour operators who have been arranging trips for years and who accelerated their efforts when Obama announced the easing of travel as part of the new relationship with Cuba back in November 2014.
Most of those new regulations remain intact. Cuban-Americans can still travel without restrictions to their homeland, the elimination of the ‘wet-foot, dry-foot policy’ continues, American airlines flying to Cuba are untouched, as are the cruise lines coming into Havana and other island ports. The embassies remain in both Washington and Havana, US businesses can still look for opportunities in Cuba (with the restriction of not doing business directly with the military, a condition that will impose a deterrence.)
So why did Trump’s promise to reverse all of Obama’s openings end up being such a lame response?
Because the forces to end the embargo have yet again made their influence felt. The new relationship between US and Cuba has had more than two years to function, and the benefits are obvious. Tremendous pressure was applied by US business interests already in Cuba, and those who want to get in, not to dismantle their opportunities. Security experts explained to the president the benefits of engagement, and many among his own administration favored keeping the normalization process moving ahead.
Trump, however had to save some face after talking so tough, so he made a big deal out of the announcement in the hope of appeasing the hard-right faction he was speaking to. There was also the political consideration to placate Cuban-American Republicans Marco Rubio and Mario Diaz-Balart. The two had pressured the president to completely rescind Obama’s regulations, in part because the anti-Cuba industry in South Florida has been so good financially for them. Their failure to convince Trump to eliminate all engagement with Cuba speaks directly to the weakening influence of the pro-embargo side.
The clearest proof Trump’s speech was caught in a time warp came during his tirade reiterating the standard anti-Cuba propaganda that has been heard so often for the past half-century. To the delight of the partisan crowd, he demanded Cuba change their political structure, alter their economic system, release political prisoners (without naming any) and conform to all American requirements before the embargo would end. Incredibly, in the next breath Trump declared he respects Cuban sovereignty. No one in the theater giggled at the ridiculous hypocrisy. Because they all so wanted to believe it was still 1987.
Unsurprisingly, Trump then trotted out the tired old canard that his changes will help the Cuban people, ignoring the overwhelming evidence from the Cubans themselves that they support normalization. His new regulations will hurt those in the private sector who have benefited from increased American tourism. This is the continuation of US aggression against Cuba aimed at the individual more than the government, despite the decades-long propaganda that has claimed otherwise.
As Heriberto Garcia, a worker in the Havana tourist industry commented, “These new laws mean less Americans will come, which means I’ll earn less. How does that help me, or anyone else here? It doesn’t hurt the government, it hurts me. Trying to turn back things to before this opening is such a stupid idea.”
In response to Trump’s theatrics the Cuban government will undoubtedly simply shrug and comment that they’ve heard it all before. The government and its people will stay calm and carry on, confident that the new economic/social path they are taking will continue. Little credence will be given to the antiquated pronouncements of Trump or to his surrogates in Miami.
Trump ‘fulfilled’ his promise on Cuba, now he can go back to worrying about more important things, like Russia. With his little theatre of the absurd out of the way, the real efforts to maintain the normalization process, the work to end the embargo which is re-energizing in Congress, can continue. That’s where those forces will finally overcome the dying breed of Cuban-Americans, including the political types like Marco Rubio, who so urgently want to deny that this is 2017.
Keith Bolender is author of Voices from the Other Side (Pluto Press 2010) and Cuba Under Siege (Palgrave 2012).