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.

U.S.-Mexico Tensions: Harbinger for Latin America?

By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong

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The U.S.-Mexico border near Tijuana and San Diego. / Tomas Castelazo / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons

U.S. President Donald Trump’s unilateral actions on Mexico last week have precipitated the most serious crisis in bilateral relations in decades and threaten to further undermine U.S. image and interests throughout Latin America.  During last year’s campaign, in the face of Trump’s characterization of Mexicans as rapists and drug-traffickers and repeated pledges that he’d make Mexico “pay for the Great Wall,” President Enrique Peña Nieto adopted a strategy of patience and positive engagement.  He paid dearly in political terms for meeting with Trump in August – a misjudgment that worsened his already declining popular approval – but he continued to try to stay on the high road after the election.

  • Peña Nieto resurrected former Finance Minister Luis Videgaray, the architect of the Trump meeting last August, as Foreign Minister, and he replaced his ambassador in Washington with one having deep experience with NAFTA and a reputation for calm negotiation, in response to Trump’s repeated demand for a renegotiation of the 1994 accord. As opponents across the political spectrum egged him on to reciprocate Trump’s belligerent tone and strident U.S. nationalism, Peña Nieto – like all Mexican presidents for the past 25 years – tried hard to suppress the anti-Americanism that has lingered beneath the surface of Mexican politics even while the two neighbors have become increasingly integrated economically, demographically, and in governance.  Even after Trump’s first barbs following inauguration on January 20, Peña Nieto emphasized his preference for calm dialogue – “neither confrontation, nor submission.”  He declared that Mexico doesn’t want walls but bridges, and accepted the American’s demand to renegotiate NAFTA, although with a “constructive vision” that enables both sides to “win,” with “creativity and new, pragmatic solutions.”

Preparations for the summit meeting, scheduled for this week, crashed when Trump – without coordinating with his Mexican counterpart or the appropriate U.S. government agencies – issued executive orders putatively aimed at tightening control of the border.  One directed an immediate increase in efforts to deport undocumented Mexicans, and the other launched the “immediate construction of a physical wall on the southern border.”  Trump initially abided by an informal agreement with the Mexicans not to repeat his harangue that he was going to make Mexico pay for the wall, but on January 26 he tweeted that “If Mexico is unwilling to pay for the badly needed wall, then it would be better to cancel the upcoming meeting.”  His press spokesman followed up with a suggestion that Washington could impose a 20 percent tariff on imports from Mexico to cover the costs of construction, after which Peña Nieto, facing a firestorm at home, postponed the meeting.  The two presidents talked on the phone for an hour the following day and reportedly agreed to let things calm down, although the two sides presented different versions of the chat.

The speed of the trainwreck – in Trump’s first week in office – and the depth of the damage his unilateralism has done to bilateral relations have alarmed many in Mexico and the United States, including Republicans who worked hard to build the relationship.  (Only the Administration’s stunning decrees regarding immigration from other parts of the world have overshadowed the mess.)  Mexico is, of course, not without leverage and, as Trump stirs up long-repressed Mexican nationalism, Peña Nieto – whose popular support was recently in the garbage bin – is going to have to talk tough (at least) and could have to retaliate.  He could impose tariffs on the billions of dollars of Mexican exports that Americans have grown accustomed to having at low prices.  Mexico could also opt to diminish cooperation in counternarcotics and other law enforcement efforts, or to cease blocking Central American migrants seeking to reach the U.S. border – interests that the impulsive Trump policy team doesn’t seem to have considered.

Coming on the heels of Trump’s executive order totally withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the new president is presenting the image of a U.S. leader whose harsh policies and arrogant style serve neither the United States nor Latin America’s interests.  Having appointed as White House National Security Council Senior Director for Latin America a political scientist whose writings draw bizarrely on analytic approaches that have been rejected in the discipline for more than 30 years, and whose recent articles lament the Obama administration’s abandonment of the Monroe Doctrine, the region’s leaders will rightly conclude that Washington is voluntarily abdicating any plausible case for leading multilateral cooperation around common interests.  The United States and Latin America are inextricably linked, however, and a policy based on stale assumptions of big power unilateralism ultimately will run into insurmountable obstacles: however ignorant Trump and his team are proving themselves to be, we live in the real world of the 21st century, in which imperialist, mercantilist fantasy will be treated with the disdain that it deserves.

January 31, 2017

Guatemala: Cheers for Trump?

By Ricardo Barrientos*

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Iván Velásquez, head of the UN International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). Velásquez and his team face a difficult task of bolstering Guatemalan anti-corruption efforts. / US Embassy Guatemala / Flickr / Creative Commons

Anti-corruption efforts in Guatemala have suffered serious setbacks in recent months, and the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president appears likely to hurt them further.  A number of media reports have already documented that efforts by right-wing Army veterans accused of crimes against humanity during the civil war, politicians, and campaign financiers are seriously threatening anti-corruption efforts started in 2015, which swept former President Pérez Molina from office.  President Jimmy Morales, who campaigned that he was “neither corrupt, nor a thief,” has failed to fulfill voters’ mandate to fight corruption, and instead has allowed Army friends to dominate his administration.  Called la juntita, Morales’s closest advisors are former military officers who operate in the shadows, are widely suspected of crimes against humanity during the war, and are alleged to be using their influence for personal enrichment.

  • The Supreme Court and Congress are also under pressure. Numerous media reports point to members of the Supreme Court, including its President, being tainted.  One magistrate, whose son has already been convicted of illicit use of public funds, is widely suspected as well.  In the legislature, the election of a new Directive Board increased the power of members long suspected of links with the mafias.  (Some local observers speculate that the internal voting was conducted on the U.S. Election Day because U.S. Ambassador Todd Robinson, an advocate of anti-corruption initiatives, and his staff would be too busy to care about what was going on in the Guatemalan Congress.)

With the Central Square in Guatemala City empty and only memories remaining of the citizen mass demonstrations of 2015, the last line of defense against the “re-capture” of the Guatemalan State are Iván Velásquez, head of the UN International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), and Guatemalan Attorney General Thelma Aldana.  They have already started investigations and are prosecuting corrupt members of Congress, including members of the new Directive Board.  U.S. government support has been crucial.  Ambassador Robinson may have crossed the thin line between active diplomacy and intervention at times, but many observers note that – quite unusual in Latin America for a U.S. ambassador – he enjoys strong support and sympathy from Guatemalans, and he is disliked by the Army veterans and others who are part of what in Guatemala is known as the “old politics.”

Corrupt Guatemalans appear to believe that their first hope – to neutralize the U.S. Embassy – moved one step closer to reality with the election of Donald Trump last week.  Politicians and commentators opposed to U.S. support for CICIG celebrated.  One proclaimed that “Democrats shriek; Republicans vote,” while another interpreted the message of Trump’s victory for Ambassador Robinson: “You’re fired!”  The mafias would not expect a Trump Administration to support them, but rather – interpreting the President-elect’s campaign statements – simply adopt a policy of indifference toward Guatemala and its internal affairs.  The corruption networks of the “old politics” in Guatemala hope that Trump will stay focused on nothing in Latin America except stopping migration.  Analysts who say that everyone in Latin America is regretting Trump’s victory are wrong.  Trump’s election may help the corrupt win a battle or two, but the war against corruption in Guatemala is far from over.

November 18, 2016

*Ricardo Barrientos is a senior economist at the Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies (Icefi).

Update: Venezuela-U.S. Tensions Rise

By CLALS Staff

Photo credit: andresAzp / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Photo credit: andresAzp / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

AULA BLOG lets policymakers’ own words characterize the state of relations between Washington and Caracas.

Venezuelan Government Statements

I have ordered the Foreign Minister of the Republic … to declare persona non-grata y to expel from the country these three consular officers from the United States Embassy in Venezuela. We have been watching them for two months already, holding meetings in universities. The story is that they’re offering visas. … Well, let them go and conspire in Washington. …

The demands [made in a statement delivered by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Alex Lee to Venezuelan Ambassador to the OAS, Roy Chaderton] are unacceptable, insolent. I ordered a diplomatic response. In Venezuela, we are willing to accept all consequences in defense of democracy. I take orders from no one. …

The government of the United States should take responsibility, before the Venezuelan people and the world, for allowing U.S. institutions and individuals to finance, legitimize and promote the actions of persons and groups who attack Venezuelan society violently, and who look to twist the democratically expressed will of our people to build their sovereign destiny in peace.
—President Maduro, February 16
AP, EFE (CLALS translation)

The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela forcefully rejects the statements made today, Wednesday, February 19, by the President of the United States, Barack Obama, insofar as they constitute new and crude interference in the internal affairs of our country, made worse by being based on false information and baseless accusations.

This is an offense to the heroic land of the Aztecs, of Juárez, of Villa, and of Zapata; to the noble and courageous people of Mexico, the sister nation from which President Obama continues attacking a free and sovereign nation of Latin America and the Caribbean because its policies, principles, and decisions are the result the democratic expression of popular will.

The statement that the independent governments and people of the world await is that in which the government of the United States of America explains why it finances, encourages, and defends opposition leaders who promote violence in our country, and clears up what right Deputy Assistant Secretary [of State] Alex Lee has in sending a message from his government that tries to impose conditions on and threaten the Venezuelan state for having taken judicial action against those responsible for the violent acts of recent days.

As a final point, the Venezuelan government reiterates that it will continue monitoring and taking the necessary actions to prevent U.S. agents attempting to cause violence and destabilization, and informs the world of the nature of the interventionist policies of the Obama administration in our country.
—Despacho de la Presidencia, February 20
(CLALS Translation)

I have just read recent statements by John Kerry – arrogant, interventionist and insolent – that confirm the terms of the threat that I denounced. John Kerry is threatening Venezuela with more violence through his statements giving the green light to violent groups to attack our people. Let the brutal and insolent imperialists know that we will continue defeating it with the force of our people, which is the force of Bolívar and Chávez.
—President Maduro, February 21
Tweets, via TeleSur (CLALS translation)

I call for a dialogue with you, President Obama. I call for a dialogue between the patriotic and revolutionary Venezuela and the United States and its government. Accept the challenge. Let’s initiate a high-level dialogue and let’s put the truth out on the table. … I say this, and some will say, ‘Maduro is naïve.’ No, we will always find a new situation through political dialogue – a change in the historic relations between the U.S. elite and Latin America and Venezuela. … I propose therefore a grand dialogue, and that we name ambassadors, since they haven’t been accepted so far, so they can sit down and talk.
—President Maduro, February 21
Various media (CLALS translation)

There’s a global campaign against Venezuela. It’s a campaign to justify an intervention in the domestic affairs of Venezuela. … [There is] a brutal manipulation campaign, [which] has created a perception in the world that Venezuela is on the verge of civil war, that here in Venezuela we have a group of docile students opposing an illegitimate government.
—President Maduro, February 22
CNN

U.S. Government Statements

In general, when it comes to Venezuela, we’ve made clear that we’re open to having a constructive relationship with the Government of Venezuela. Quite frankly, we haven’t seen that – we have not seen that reciprocated, to be clear. So we also, I think, see a lot of conspiracy theories or rumors out there in the press about how the U.S. is interested in influencing the domestic political situation in Venezuela, which is absolutely not true. It’s not up to us to comment on internal Venezuelan politics.
—State Department Spokesperson, February 13

So we are deeply concerned by rising tensions, by the violence surrounding these February 12th protests, and by the issuance of a warrant for the arrest of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez. We join the Secretary General of the OAS in condemning the violence and calling on authorities to investigate and bring to justice those responsible for the deaths of peaceful protestors. We also call on the Venezuelan Government to release the 19 detained protestors and urge all parties to work to restore calm and refrain from violence.
—State Department Spokesperson, February 14

The United States is deeply concerned by rising tensions and violence surrounding this week’s protests in Venezuela. Our condolences go to the families of those killed as a result of this tragic violence.

We are particularly alarmed by reports that the Venezuelan government has arrested or detained scores of anti-government protestors and issued an arrest warrant for opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez. These actions have a chilling effect on citizens’ rights to express their grievances peacefully.

We join the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Secretary General of the Organization of American States, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, and others in condemning this senseless violence. We call on the Venezuelan government to provide the political space necessary for meaningful dialogue with the Venezuelan people and to release detained protestors. We urge all parties to work to restore calm and refrain from violence.

Freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly are universal human rights. They are essential to a functioning democracy, and the Venezuelan government has an obligation to protect these fundamental freedoms and the safety of its citizens.
—Secretary of State Kerry, February 15

The allegations that the United States is helping to organize protestors in Venezuela is baseless and false. We support human rights and fundamental freedoms – including freedom of expression and of peaceful assembly – in Venezuela as we do in countries around the world. But as we have long said, Venezuela’s political future is for the Venezuelan people to decide. We urge their government to engage all parties in meaningful dialogue.
—State Department Spokesperson, February 17

We have seen many times that the Venezuelan Government tries to distract from its own actions by blaming the United States or other members of the international community for events inside Venezuela. These efforts reflect a lack of seriousness on the part of the Venezuelan Government to deal with the grave situation it faces. … With the OAS and our regional partners, we are working to urge calm and encourage a genuine dialogue among all Venezuelans. There is no room for violence by either side.
—State Department Spokesperson, February 18

In Venezuela, rather than trying to distract from its own failings by making up false accusations against diplomats from the United States, the government ought to focus on addressing the legitimate grievances of the Venezuelan people. So, along with the Organization of American States, we call on the Venezuelan government to release protestors that it’s detained and engage in real dialogue. And all parties have an obligation to work together to restrain violence and restore calm.
—President Obama, February 19