Cloud of uncertainty hangs over U.S.-Cuba relations with a Trump presidency
Nora Gámez Torres, El Nuevo Herald
Donald Trump’s election as the next president of the United States has cast a shadow over the Obama administration policy of warming relations with Cuba.
While Cuban leader Raúl Castro issued a short congratulatory message on Trump’s victory, the official Granma newspaper on Wednesday also announced five days of upcoming military preparedness exercises, a signal that the island is getting ready for a “hostile” U.S. administration.
Those exercises began during the Reagan administration in 1980 but had not been held for the last three years. A reporter on a Havana TV news program noted that Cuba has had “similar” experiences and maintains its “will to resist the big neighbor to the North.”
President Barack Obama’s legacy on Cuba could well be affected by whatever happens after Trump moves into the White House.
Obama announced dramatic changes in U.S. policy toward Havana starting in December 2014. Saying he wanted to end the last vestige of the Cold War, he decided to reestablish diplomatic relations, broken more than 50 years ago, and eased economic sanctions on the island.
U.S. residents can now travel to Cuba more easily, commercial flights have been restored and many companies are looking over the Cuban market, although the island’s government has been unwilling to give them more access so far. One month before Tuesday’s election, the president also lifted restrictions for travelers on the importation of Cuban cigars and rum for personal use and published a presidential directive that sketched out a path for fully normalizing relations.
But the directive could remain just a piece of paper if Trump honors some of the promises on Cuba policy that he made during the campaign.
As the Republican candidate, Trump started out saying he supported relations with Cuba but added that he would have negotiated “a better deal” with Havana. Later, to win the votes of Cuban-American Republicans in South Florida, he promised to reverse the Obama opening.
“We will cancel Obama’s one-sided Cuban deal, made by executive order, if we do not get the deal that we want and the deal that people living in Cuba and here deserve, including protecting religious and political freedom,” he declared in Miami just a week before the election.
Obama changed policy on Cuba through executive powers that were allowed by the trade embargo on the island, and can be reversed by the new president. The Obama administration tried to make them “irreversible” with written guidelines sent to federal agencies.
A senior administration official told reporters in October that a new president could issue a new directive on Cuba to reverse Obama’s directive, although that would “take a significant amount of time.” The Obama guidelines remain in place in the meantime, the official added.
Frank Mora, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Latin America from 2009 to 2013 who now teaches at Florida International University, said the next president has several options for changing the Obama policies on Cuba.
On the day of his inauguration, Mora said, Trump “can simply write, although I doubt that would be one of his priorities, something that says that everything in the presidential directive related to U.S. policy on Cuba is invalid.”
The document would not have to be long, but must be explicit, Mora said.
Trump also could “totally freeze the process, and would not need a [new] directive or even something in writing. It could be an oral instruction to the secretary of state,” Mora said. “If he wants to, he can break [diplomatic] relations with Cuba.”
Even if Trump does not go to that extreme, Cuba watchers agree that he probably will make some gesture to fulfill his campaign promises and acknowledge the support of Cuban Americans whose votes might have helped him to win Florida.
“He has a political debt with the Cuban community, and perhaps feels that he has to pay it in some way, maybe not reversing everything … but signaling that he’s returning to the status quo before the Obama changes,” Mora said.
Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of the pro-embargo U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC in Washington, agreed.
“As for President-elect Trump, his Cuban-American supporters will surely hold him to his commitment to reverse Obama’s executive orders,” he said. “Moreover, his election and the huge win of the Cuban-American Congressional delegation give Trump the clear mandate to do so.”
Sen. Marco Rubio and Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Mario Díaz-Balart and Carlos Curbelo — all Cuban Americans from South Florida who oppose Obama’s policies on Cuba — were reelected Tuesday. And Republicans retained control of both chambers of Congress.
Lawmakers have submitted bills to ease or strengthen U.S. sanctions on Cuba in recent years, but neither side has prevailed.
Supporters of the sanctions say the election of Trump and a Republican Congress has put an end to any possibility of lifting the embargo in the next two years.
“There was minimal chance that a new Congress would ease or remove [embargo] sanctions,” Claver-Carone said, “and those slim chances are now down to zero.”
John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, which monitors business with Cuba, agreed that in the effort to ease or lift the embargo: “The legislative pathway is deceased. It passed at 3 a.m. [when Trump was declared president-elect].”
Kavulich added that the Obama administration must now focus on making as many regulatory changes as it can and “finish strong,” even though there’s no hope that the Cuban government will reciprocate by agreeing to a broader economic or any political opening.
Nevertheless, Engage Cuba, a group of companies and organizations that has lobbied against the embargo and promoted an expansion of U.S. travel and exports to Cuba, said it will continue with efforts to solidify ties with the island.
“Growing commercial and cultural ties that have been forged between our two nations have irreversibly altered our bilateral relations with Cuba,” the group’s president, James Williams, said in a statement. “We remain hopeful that Mr. Trump, who has previously supported engagement with Cuba as a businessman and a politician, will continue to normalize relations that will benefit both the American and Cuban people.”
Rick Herrero, who has long worked for organizations that favor improving relations with Havana, such as the Cuba Study Group and Cuba Now, said he’ll wait to see which side of Trump prevails — the pragmatic side that according to Newsweek and Bloomberg reports explored business opportunities on the island a few years ago, or the political side that would seek to retain Cuban-American support.
Either way, Herrero said, the chances of Congress making any changes in Cuba policy are minimal.
“The forces in Congress that want to isolate the Cuban people … have gained strength, and it will be very difficult to open ourselves to Cuba through Congressional action in the short run,” he said.
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