Perspectives on U.S.-Cuba Relations Under Trump

Trump and Cuban Americans

President Trump announces his administration’s policy toward Cuba. / YouTube / Livestream TV News / Creative Commons

Reversing Obama’s Cuba Policy?

By William M. LeoGrande*

In the two years after President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro agreed to normalize relations, Obama tried to make his policy of engagement “irreversible” by opening up travel and trade that would create constituencies with a self-interest in defending engagement. He half-way succeeded. Despite the incendiary rhetoric in which Donald Trump cloaked his new policy when he rolled it out at a rally of Cuban-American hardliners in Miami, the sanctions he announced were limited.

Obama granted general licenses for all 12 categories of legal travel and relaxed other restrictions on who could visit Cuba. Trump rolled back only individualized people-to-people educational travel, so people-to-people visitors must once again travel on organized tours. But they can still go, and bring back rum and cigars.

Obama opened the Cuban market to U.S. businesses by licensing contracts with state enterprises in the travel, telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, construction, agriculture, and consumer goods sectors. Trump prohibited only contracts with Cuban enterprises managed by the military, and even then he exempted all existing contracts, and future contracts involving ports, airports, and telecomm – the sectors in which all but a handful of current U.S. businesses operate.

Trump did not impose any restrictions on Cuban–American family travel and remittances. He did not break diplomatic relations or put Cuba back on the State Department’s terrorism list. He did not restore the wet foot/dry foot policy that gave Cuban immigrants preferential treatment after reaching the United States. He did not abrogate the bilateral agreements on issues of mutual interest negotiated by the Obama administration.

Why such a flaccid set of sanctions from a president who stood on the stage in Little Havana and demonized the Cuban regime as brutal, criminal, depraved, oppressive, murderous, and guilty of “supporting human trafficking, forced labor, and exploitation all around the globe”?

Because Obama’s strategy of creating constituencies in favor of engagement worked. In the weeks leading up to Trump’s announcement, he was deluged with appeals not to retreat from engagement. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce argued in favor of expanding business opportunities, not constricting them. Farmers argued for expanding agricultural sales. Travel providers argued for expanding travel. Fifty-five U.S. Senators cosponsored a bill to lift all travel restrictions. Seven Republican members of Congress and 16 retired senior military officers argued that disengagement would damage national security by boosting Russian and Chinese influence on the island. Polling data showed that large majorities of the public, of Republicans, and even of Cuban Americans support engagement.

Even the executive bureaucracy was won over by the successes scored by the policy of engagement. During the last two years of Obama’s presidency, Cuba and the United States signed 23 bilateral agreements. When Trump ordered an inter-agency review of Cuba policy, the consensus of the agencies involved was that engagement was working and ought to be continued. Trump rejected that conclusion because it did not fit with his political strategy of currying favor with the Cuban-American right, but the agencies fought back successfully against more extreme proposals to roll back Obama’s policies entirely.

Trump’s vicious rhetoric and his open embrace of the goal of regime change – through sanctions, support for dissidents, and “democracy promotion” – risks destroying the atmosphere of mutual respect and good faith that made the gains of Obama’s policy possible. Already, hardliners in Havana who saw engagement as a Trojan Horse for subversion are saying, “We told you so!” Cuba’s private entrepreneurs, who Trump’s policy purportedly aims to help, will be hurt the most by the prohibition on individual people-to-people travel. However, the overall economic impact of his sanctions will be limited, both on U.S. businesses and in Cuba.

Cuba’s official response has been pragmatic but firm. A statement released shortly after Trump’s Miami speech declared, “The Government of Cuba reiterates its willingness to continue respectful dialogue and cooperation on issues of mutual interest, as well as the negotiation of pending bilateral issues with the United States Government…. But it should not be expected that Cuba will make concessions inherent to its sovereignty and independence, nor will it accept any kind of conditionality.”

In all likelihood, political pressures from the constituencies Obama’s policy created will continue to constrain Trump’s impulse to beat up on Cuba, but his loyalty to the exile right and his penchant for bullying will make it impossible to realize further progress toward normalizing relations. That will have to wait until the White House has a new occupant motivated by the national interest rather than by a political IOU given to Miami’s most recalcitrant Cuban-American minority.

*William M. LeoGrande is Professor of Government at American University in Washington, DC, and co-author with Peter Kornbluh of Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana (University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

Cuba: Trump’s “New Policy”

 

By Ricardo Torres*

The “new policy” toward Cuba that President Trump announced to great fanfare in Miami last Friday features little that is new while seeking to restore oxygen to a failed approach advocated by extreme sectors of the Cuban-American community. While adopting language reflecting the worst traditions of American foreign policy, Trump’s declaration implicitly blessed much of the rapprochement between the two countries introduced by President Obama – diplomatic relations will remain intact, for example. But the new measures he announced have symbolic and practical implications. His Cuban-American backers expended great political capital to change the policy in hope of accelerating regime change on the island, but the Trump approach will instead retard change – while increasing the pain of the Cuban people. Moreover, it will undermine the activities of legitimate U.S. citizens, companies, and groups interested in contact with the island and compromise U.S. citizens’ freedom to travel. They have acted against Trump’s campaign promise to create jobs (threatening thousands of workers who depend on U.S.-Cuba interaction) and increase national security (putting U.S.-Cuba cooperation in counternarcotics, counterterrorism, and illegal migration at risk). The new approach also runs counter to Secretary of State Tillerson’s repeated assertion that U.S. policy is not to impose its values and standards on others.

U.S. national interests seem to have taken a back seat to internal U.S. political factors, particularly the opposition to Obama’s policies among certain groups of the Cuban Americans that had seen their political influence decline over the past decade.

In addition to its symbolic weight, the Trump approach is likely to be felt most strongly in several principal areas. Despite continuing differences between the two countries, both governments had decided to move ahead together. It is difficult to overstate the sense of hope created during the Obama era, with immediate and tangible benefits for both.

Cuba’s internal situation has been changing recently, due to a gradual opening internally and to other nations. A steady increase in visits by foreign businessmen and Cuban travel overseas are evidence of this change. Trump’s rhetoric and actions will only strengthen those sectors inside Cuba that exaggerate the external threat and want to reduce the space for debate in the country.

The economic impact that Trump and his backers want – to hurt the Cuban government – cannot be separated from the harm it will cause the Cuban people. The new measures will probably reduce tourism, which provides a significant flow of revenue to vast sectors of the Cuban population that, in formal or informal jobs, benefit from that industry. Indeed, the much bandied-about private sector has been one of the principal beneficiaries of tourism development.

The Cuban government will assess its options in relations with the United States as well as in domestic policies. It will naturally have to let the U.S. government know that cooperation has yielded mutual benefits to both countries and that this step backward will not be limited to areas that Washington prefers. Havana might look for more ambitious ties with alternative partners, including both allies and competitors of the United States. Internally, rather than slow down, Cuba’s transformation should accelerate. The legitimate needs of the Cuban people should not be postponed in the face of this new adversity. The pace of Cuban reform should never be tied to external threats. As for the Cuban people, they will once again tell all who will listen that they themselves – not those on the other side of the Florida Strait – represent their interests. President Trump has empowered a small group of Cuban Americans to speak for people in Cuba whom they do not know, at the cost of sacrificing U.S. prestige and an array of its national interests. The absurd has become the accepted norm in American politics.

*Ricardo Torres is a Professor at the Centro de Estudios de la Economía Cubana at the University of Havana and a former CLALS Research Fellow.

Egypt Policy – Latin America Style

By Fulton Armstrong

U.S. Department of State Headquarters | Wikimedia Commons

U.S. Department of State Headquarters | Wikimedia Commons

We who follow U.S. policy in Latin America shouldn’t be surprised to see Washington’s policy toward Egypt drift from support for democracy to support for the status quo ante.  President Obama’s 2009 speech in Cairo reaching out to Muslims – calling for an end to the “cycle of suspicion and discord” – came just six weeks after he told the Summit of the Americas that he wanted “an equal partnership” with the hemisphere and sought “a new beginning with Cuba.”  When 30-year President Hosni Mubarak stepped down in 2011, the Administration eagerly linked Egypt to the “Arab Spring” and, despite concerns about the Muslim Brotherhood roots of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, tried to make the relationship with Mohamad Morsi work.  Over time, however, Morsi – successor to an undemocratic regime in an undemocratic country with no democratic traditions and no democratic institutions – was accused of being undemocratic.  The estrangement grew so deep that the Obama Administration still cannot bring itself to call the July 3 coup against Morsi a coup, and Secretary of State Kerry saw fit to refer to the military takeover as “restoring democracy” even as the Army was firing on unarmed crowds.

To Latin America watchers, this chronology is reminiscent of U.S. policy in our own hemisphere.  The case of Honduran President Mel Zelaya is clearest.  The Honduran military removed Zelaya– in his pajamas – from his home and country in June 2009 for proposing a referendum that, the putschists claimed, violated the Honduran constitution.  The Obama Administration’s nominee to be Assistant Secretary of State at the time, Arturo Valenzuela, testified that the action was, in his opinion, a coup, but the State Department never categorized it as such and, despite rhetoric committing to restore Zelaya, the Administration let the interim regime consolidate power.  Amidst a state of emergency, media closures, and other irregularities, the State Department also gave its blessing to elections held several months later.  Zelaya’s rhetoric before the coup was caustic, and he squandered political capital in needless confrontations, but he never threatened Honduran “democracy” or violated human rights as the interim regime did.  Nor did he preside over a steady deterioration of security, civil rights, and the economy as the current government has.  Yet, ironically, the Obama Administration has never set the history of the coup straight – just as the Bush Administration never rectified its disastrous support for the 2002 coup against Chávez in Venezuela.

The excesses of some leaders, like Zelaya and Chávez, make supporting or turning a blind eye to a coup very tempting.  But Washington has also shelved its moral outrage when much less provocative presidents – democratically elected but progressive-leaning – have been removed from power, if not with a gun at their head.  The “constitutional coup” against President Lugo in Paraguay last year is the most recent example.  The gap between U.S. rhetoric about democracy, rule of law, and due process on the one hand and its tangible actions on the other has a number of causes. 

  • American “exceptionalism” – the sense that U.S. success gives it a right to judge others and intervene even when national interests are not at stake – sometimes leads Washington to over-extend and make rash decisions.
  • Eagerness to act quickly – to appear decisive – often makes policymakers confuse the symptoms of problems, which seem amenable to quick solutions, and the essence of the problems themselves.  Policies address the short-term while neglecting the strategic.
  • Washington lobbies – the pro-Israel lobby in the case of any matter in the Middle East and the Cuban-American lobby in Latin America – are able to dominate U.S. perceptions of events, pushing administrations into a corner. 
  • Administrations embarrass themselves when they throw around words like “Arab Spring” and “democracy.”  When the inevitable bumps in the road occur, they act betrayed rather than admit they got carried away by wishful thinking. 
  • Double-standards –the expectation that progressives succeeding authoritarians will be perfectly democratic and flawlessly inclusive – make it difficult for Washington to avoid prematurely throwing a potential ally overboard. 
  • Another factor, and potentially the most important, is that the U.S. government builds deeper relationships with elites and the security services that do their bidding than with any other forces.  During the Bush Administration’s “War on Terror,” the U.S. Government entrusted Egypt with extremely sensitive operations, including the interrogation (and alleged torture) of suspected terrorists, and Washington relies on Latin American security services to prosecute the “war on drugs.” 

When U.S. interagency committees discuss how to respond to crises, the departments and agencies with the deepest ties in the country under discussion claim more influence over events there than anyone else – and win most policy debates.  The problem is that their ties are mostly to political and economic elites – or the military and intelligence services that back them – which are rarely agents of change.  Washington winds up allied with forces that suppress the new voices essential for the “springs” and “democracies” that it says it wants.

 

 

Secretary-designate Kerry Hews to Old Line on Latin America

Photo by: cliff1066™ | Flickr | Creative Commons

Photo by: cliff1066™ | Flickr | Creative Commons

Senator John Kerry’s confirmation hearing to be Secretary of State focused overwhelmingly on Syria, Iran, and Libya, but there were glimpses of the nominee’s approach – at least for now – to Latin America.  His almost-certain successor as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), Democrat Bob Menendez of New Jersey, sees Latin America through a distinctly Cuban-American optic and asked Kerry predictably leading questions about the region.  Menendez asked Kerry how he would respond to change in the Western Hemisphere, highlighting “changing political tides,” potential transition in Venezuela, public security in Mexico and Colombia’s talks with the FARC.

Kerry’s responses did not challenge the premises of Menendez’s questions and stuck closely to recent U.S. policies.  He offered neither details nor hints of change.  Reflecting the State Department’s emphasis on a programmatic approach to the region, he highlighted security cooperation with Mexico and Central America, unspecified energy and climate initiatives with Brazil, and development assistance to Honduras and Guatemala.  Kerry praised former president Álvaro Uribe, under whose aegis most of the $8 billion in Plan Colombia funds were spent, for helping make Colombia “one of the great stories in Latin America.”  He termed Venezuela and its allies as “outlier states” and said U.S. policy should “induce people to make a better set of choices.”  When Arizona Republican Jeff Flake expressed support for a broader opening on Cuba travel, arguing that unleashing hordes of American students on spring break would pose a greater challenge to the Castro brothers than continued restrictions, Kerry smiled but remained quiet. Later, Menendez lashed back and turned the focus to Cuba’s human rights record.

As expected, Kerry did not advocate any major shifts or offer new ideas on U.S. policy toward Latin America – obviously preferring to avoid confrontation with Menendez and Republican Cuban-American Marco Rubio.  Kerry’s strategy was to ruffle no feathers.  His remarks about President Uribe, for example, appeared intended to assuage right-wingers unhappy with his focus as Chairman on the Colombian President’s dismal human rights record and lack of accountability for a host of abuses of power.  Likewise, agreeing with Menendez that President Chávez was a problem was thin gruel; eagerly awaiting the Venezuelan’s demise does little to address the shortcomings of U.S. leadership in the hemisphere.  

Latin America-watchers know well that Kerry and President Obama will be more focused on other regions, leaving space for the SFRC conservatives to weigh more heavily on Latin American policy than they already do.  Despite the Cuban-American community’s obvious shifts away from most elements of the right wing’s Cuba policy, Menendez and Rubio have already declared they will block any efforts toward better relations with Cuba even on a people-to-people level.  By extension, they will oppose any outreach to Venezuela before they believe regime change has occurred.  Nor did Kerry offer any departures from the U.S. war on drugs.  Stagnation on these two policies puts the United States on a collision course with even close friends in the region, who have said they will not participate in hemispheric conferences that continue to exclude Cuba and that advocate a more candid conversation about the failure of the “war on drugs.”  This approach risks continuing to undermine U.S. relevance and influence in the region.

Central America on U.S. Elections: A Shy Shadow

Photo by Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the BPL’s | Flickr | Creative Commons

The U.S. election doesn’t seem to matter much for Central America.  Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes – speaking at an event with U.S. Ambassador Mari Carmen Aponte – publicly wished the “best of luck” to President Barack Obama, reflecting his close relationship with the American President.  At the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena last spring, Funes – along with Honduran President Porfirio Pepe Lobo – appeared to be Washington’s closest ally in the “war on drugs.”  This came after newly elected Guatemalan President Otto Pérez had raised the idea of legalizing marijuana, which Obama´s State Department has opposed fiercely.  Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla slammed “the international community” – code for the United States – for pushing a policy in which only Central Americans died.  Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, while perhaps Washington’s most effective partner in counternarcotics, has resorted to old-school anti-U.S. rhetoric.  Panama is missing in action as a Central American voice.

The U.S. has two main interests in the subregion.  One is combating the drug trade, and the other, according to informed observers, is blocking the influence of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.  The U.S. Southern Command estimates that roughly 500 tons of cocaine enters the U.S. market through Central America, accounting for some 60 percent of U.S. consumption.  But there are very few clues in the American electoral narrative about either Obama´s or Republican contender Mitt Romney´s views on Latin America, not to mention Central America.  Romney´s Latin America advisors are perceived as the same hawks, with the same close ties to the Miami lobby, who dominated during the Bush administration.  Robert Zoellick, the fixer for the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in Washington some eight years ago, is also close to the GOP campaign and has been mentioned as a potential cabinet member, perhaps suggesting a push for some sort of second chapter of neoliberal reform.  To date there are no signs of fresh faces in the Obama camp, casting doubt as to whether a second-term State Department will be more open to out-of-the-box thinking.

This apparent estrangement comes at a time that the northern triangle of Central America – Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – is on a very dangerous path towards uncontrolled violence and even more weakened states. Neighboring countries are hardly in a position to help.  President Laura Chinchilla´s tenure in Costa Rica is fading rapidly toward lame-duck status, and Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli is surrounded by corruption allegations.  For a second-term or incoming U.S. President, Nicaragua´s slippage on good-governance, despite the country’s economic tranquility, provides little political space for cooperation.  The next U.S. President will have no easy options in the most violent region of the world, which now faces, as Colombia did 20 years ago, a clear and present danger.  The absence of visible alternatives is probably a consequence of the fact that, since the Salvadoran Peace Accord ended the Cold War in Central America, Washington has not perceived much urgency to grapple with the fundamental political and economic challenges confronting the region.  Only by doing so will a new administration identify opportunities to move forward with a jointly articulated agenda.

El Salvador’s “Constitutional Crisis”

Photo by: rosaamarilla via Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/amccy/3395160591/

A months-long political feud over the Supreme Court in El Salvador has blossomed into what observers are calling a constitutional crisis.  The first shot was fired in April when legislators from the FMLN engineered a “legislative decree” to replace five court Magistrates, the outgoing Assembly’s second shot at choosing justices during its three-year term.  The court’s Constitutional Chamber in June declared the decree unconstitutional – because each Legislature gets to vote only once for Magistrates.  At the same time, the Chamber invalidated a similar move by the opposition ARENA party affecting Magistrates chosen in 2006.

The theater came to a head this month when two feuding Supreme Courts met in different wings of the same building and claimed legitimacy – one with five members elected in 2009 and the other with the 10 invalidated members.  The rightwing ARENA party and its allies in Washington are claiming the crisis represents a shift against democracy by the FMLN.  Two Cuban-American members of the U.S. Senate have called on the Obama Administration to impose sanctions – principally suspending negotiations on a second Millennium Challenge Corporation compact potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars – if the crisis is not ended quickly and in the manner they wish.  The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has called for prompt resolution, and the U.S. Ambassador in San Salvador and the State Department have expressed “concern.”  A Washington Post editorial this week lambasted the FMLN for shifting toward Chávez-style authoritarianism and President Funes for failing to stop it.

This episode reflects maneuvering within the FMLN – fueled by frustration that President Funes’s soft line toward ARENA has only weakened the party’s influence – and poor judgment among activists on where and how to pick the fight.  The legislators rushed the decree because they anticipated correctly that they were about to lose control of the Assembly in elections several weeks later.  The crisis falls into a much more ominous pattern, however, in that – like the coups in Honduras (2009) and Paraguay (2012) – the right wing and its coreligionists in Washington exploit events to challenge the democratic credentials of a democratically elected reformist government to rationalize weakening it, while the Obama Administration responds timidly.  ARENA is again demonstrating its superior lobbying skills in Washington, which have already severely disadvantaged President Funes on issues such as relations between his security cabinet and its U.S. counterparts – resulting in a serious erosion of his own influence over security issues.  If the current political impasse is not resolved to the satisfaction of U.S. conservatives, Washington’s threats – ironically directed against the Administration’s “best friend” in Central America – will likely continue and relations will be strained, further persuading hardliners around Funes that moderation pays no dividends.

Nicaragua: Government-Private Sector Tactical Cooperation

Leaders of Nicaragua’s private sector and political opposition have teamed up with the government to press Washington not to go overboard with sanctions in response to flawed elections last November.  Their traditional allies in Congress, including the Cuban-Americans who dominate the Obama Administration policy toward Latin America, are pressing for suspension of two waivers to U.S. laws that suspend bilateral and multilateral aid to Nicaragua.  One waiver depends on progress on fiscal “transparency,” and the other on the resolution of property disputes from the 1980s.  The former, which would affect several million US dollars in bilateral aid (apparently for an AIDS program), is doomed, according to insiders.  But a decision on the property waiver – suspension of which would require the United States to oppose Nicaraguan loans from the Inter-American Development Bank, World Bank and IMF worth more than $200 million in 2011 – has not yet been made.

In public and private appearances, leaders of the Nicaraguan business community and political opposition, including Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance standard-bearer and Presidential Candidate Eduardo Montealegre, have forcefully stated their differences with the government of President Daniel Ortega, particularly regarding the conduct of elections and the lack of “institutionality” – i.e., the politicization of government institutions.  But the business community has pleaded for U.S. flexibility.  They estimate that suspension of the property waiver would threaten $1.4 billion in development assistance, deal a serious blow to their own prospects, and thrust Nicaragua into deep crisis.  Montealagre said he would lobby “neither for nor against” the waiver, but his participation in the delegation signaled a clear preference for Washington to be cautious.  Ortega’s personal emissary for foreign investment, Alvaro Baltodano, has emphasized the growing commercial links between the two countries and the benefit it provides directly to the Nicaraguan people.

The private sector and opposition are in the odd position of trying to persuade their own friends in Washington to be practical – not to be more anti-Sandinista than they.  Suspension of the property waiver would not only hurt them in the pocketbook; it would give a propaganda boost to President Daniel Ortega and make the population even more dependent on his social programs, heavily subsidized by Venezuela.  All of the U.S. aid and most of the multilateral aid provides direct benefit to the Nicaraguan people.  Ortega’s opponents do not want U.S. sanctions to close the business and political operating space they have enjoyed in recent years, despite Ortega’s excesses.