By Eric Hershberg
One wild card on the horizon in the normalization of U.S.-Cuba ties looks unlikely to materialize. As pointed out in several CLALS publications (such as here and here), ever since Presidents Obama and Castro announced on December 17, 2014, that they intended to improve relations, there has been a sense of uncertainty regarding whether their successors might roll back the advances they make. This was particularly so when several Republican politicians seeking their party’s presidential nomination campaigned against President Obama’s “coddling” of the Cuban Communists and his “unilateral concessions” to Havana. Marco Rubio (Florida) and Ted Cruz (Texas) – two of the Cuban-Americans in the U.S. Senate –made particularly aggressive statements indicating an intention to reverse all or parts of the Obama administration’s executive actions affecting Cuba policy, which, unlike legislation, can be reversed by a subsequent administration. But they have dropped out of the race as presumptive nominee Donald Trump defeated them and former Governor Jeb Bush, whose Florida political base, family background, and public statements also indicated opposition to normalization.
Trump and the leading Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, have very significant policy differences on many issues, but apparently not on Cuba. Clinton in her memoirs about her tenure as Secretary of State, like Trump in his public statements, appears inclined to sustain the current direction of Washington’s engagement with Havana (although Trump claimed last year that “we should have made a better deal”). The two likely nominees share noteworthy characteristics, including, remarkably, that they are the least popular candidates that either major party has nominated since polling data have been collected. Advocates of full normalization cannot take either candidate’s leadership on the issue for granted. Clinton’s challenger, Senator Bernie Sanders, has pushed her to the left on some domestic issues, but recent press profiles on her indicate that she remains wedded to a hawkish approach to foreign policy. The endorsement of several key Washington Neo-Conservatives further suggests she could swing to the right on foreign policy matters. On the other hand, Trump’s zigzagging on Cuba – 15 years ago he was a staunch proponent of the embargo – and his impulsive decision-making style leave open the possibility that he also could reverse Obama’s executive actions and call on the Congress to keep embargo legislation unchanged.
Although mistakes can occur and various wildcards can slow, or even break, the current momentum, the twists and turns of the U.S. primary election season seem to have diminished substantially prospects that a new President sworn in next January would significantly change Obama’s winning formula on Cuba. Clinton will have no incentives to abandon a policy that she takes some credit for promoting. Trump has, if anything, proven that he revels in taking on GOP orthodoxy – and will presumably continue to do so on Cuba policy. His sympathies align much more clearly with the pro-business Chamber of Commerce, an aggressive opponent of the embargo against Cuba, than with the ideologues on the right of his party, and he will give a green light to the many members of Congress who want full trade with and free travel to the island to change the law. Concerns that a new U.S. president could reverse Obama’s executive actions on January 20, 2017, can now be assuaged, and Congressional proponents of lifting the embargo likely will have time to build momentum to pass legislation rendering the executive measures moot. One can imagine that the Donald’s criteria of success for Cuba policy begin with the glare of a gaudy neon Trump sign on a casino along the Havana Malecón, but it’s reasonable to wager that the Cuban government will negotiate a better deal.
May 31, 2016