CUBA STANDARD — With Donald J. Trump moving into the White House in January, a big question mark is hovering over the U.S.-Cuban normalization process begun by his predecessor, possibly removing a keystone from Havana’s foreign policy and a driver of economic growth for the island.
The president-elect — who sent his executives to Cuba in the 1990s to scout for business opportunities — has emitted mixed messages on Cuba during his campaign. During the primaries, he was the only Republican candidate (except Rand Paul) who openly supported rapprochement, despite the criticism of rivals such as U.S. Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. His preference of diplomacy is a view contrary to the Republican Party platform, which states that “the current Administration’s ‘opening to Cuba’ was a shameful accommodation to the demands of its tyrants. It will only strengthen their military dictatorship.” But in the crescendo of the last weeks of the campaign, he went from criticizing President Barack Obama’s normalization policy as a deal that needed some fixing, to threatening to roll back normalization unless Cuba makes political changes.
While Cuba’s foreign policy can best be described as one of diversification — seeking as many political and economic partners as possible — U.S.-Cuba normalization and the promise of an end to the U.S. embargo have been key elements of an effort to ease the island’s dependency on crisis-stricken Venezuela. A major driver behind European and Asian investors’ raised interest in Cuba has been the anticipation of an onslaught of U.S. investments in the island.
Cuba will in all likelihood not be among Trump’s top foreign policy priorities, some observers believe, and little change from the status quo should be expected as the Republicans kept both the House and Senate.
However, Timothy Ashby, a senior official responsible for Cuba policy under Reagan and the elder Bush who has advised several presidential candidates, has a more optimistic view.
He describes Trump’s Cuba policy as “pro-business and anti-embargo, but driving a harder bargain in negotiations”.
“Most importantly, the U.S. Congress has been retained by Republicans, which means that it is far more likely to support his policies than if Hillary had won. Republicans like (Arizona Sen.) Jeff Flake and (Wyoming Sen.) Mike Enzi would have opposed Hillary even if they personally agreed with her on Cuba policy. Trump dislikes Rubio and Cruz, and they will have lost considerable influence. (Alabama) Sen. (Jeff) Sessions is a friend of Trump and supports ending the travel ban, which I expect to pass next year.”Mexico as a pattern?
If Trump’s words and actions towards Mexico are an indicator, the island economy is in for a time of uneasy coexistence, at best. He hammered away during his campaign that he will renegotiate or even end NAFTA and charge Mexico for the construction of an anti-immigrant wall along the border. Yet he also sent a signal by reaching out to, and visiting, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto amid the heated electoral campaign.Cuban and Cuban American attitudes
No official statements are yet available from Cuba. Radio Reloj, an official radio station with a night program hinted at a revival of fortress mentality in Cuba, sending a Tweet at 2 a.m. declaring that “they shall not pass”. No pasarán was a slogan used by Spain’s defenders of the Republic against fascist forces.
“Cuba will continue its social and political project with Trump, Clinton, or any other representative of the emprire. Here, for sure, they shall not pass,” the Radio Reloj Tweet said.
Interestingly, even though Trump held some of his last campaign events in Miami and Florida, appealing to Cuban hardliners, Cuban American voters in Miami-Dade County apparently were not part of the Trump landslide. Miami-Dade voted 66% for Clinton and 57% for the opponent of Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban American hardliner.
“So don’t even try putting this on Cuban Americans or on Cuba policy,” said Ric Herrero, executive director of CubaNow, which advocates normalization, in a Tweet.
“She won Miami-Dade by 1% less that Obama in 2012. Almost all Republicans in the county are Cuban-American. Cuba not a factor,” Herrero said in an earlier Tweet.Trump, verbatim
In September 2015, The Daily Caller, a conservative Washington publication, asked Trump: “Do you think Obama’s rapprochement is good policy, or do you oppose America’s opening with Cuba?” The candidate responded: “I think it’s fine, I think it’s fine, but we should have made a better deal. The concept of opening with Cuba — 50 years is enough — the concept of opening with Cuba is fine. I think we should have made a stronger deal.”
When asked to respond in writing to the question “Do you support President Obama’s move to lift the trade and travel embargo on Cuba?”, Trump responded, “Ultimately, it’s going to be good,” adding that the U.S. government could have “made a better deal” and wished the United States was better at negotiating.Conditions for repealing the embargo
Trump is at odds with the Republican platform on ending the embargo, which calls “on the Congress to uphold current U.S. law setting conditions for the lifting of sanctions on the island: Legalization of political parties, an independent media, and free and fair internationally-supervised elections.” Trump is a pragmatist and believes that unrestricted commercial relations with Cuba are the best way to promote free enterprise and a better standard of living for the Cuban people. Although personally a non-smoker and teetotaler, Trump favors allowing U.S. imports of Cuban rum, cigars and other agricultural products, and thinks that U.S. hotel and real estate developers should not be restricted from investing in Cuba when foreign companies are profiting from the growing volume of American visitors to the island. Trump Organization executives have visited Cuba to consider future golf course and hotel sites, and the candidate himself said he would be interested in opening a hotel there “at the right time, when we’re allowed to do it,” and that “Cuba would be a good opportunity ….”Claims
Trump favors a settlement of both sides’ claims, but is concerned that any deal brokered with Cuba would lead the United States to get “sued for $400 billion or $1 trillion.” He is known to favor a “business approach” to claims settlement, stating “We don’t want to get sued after the deal is made …. I do agree something should take place. After 50 years, it’s enough time, folks. But we have to make a good deal and get rid of all the litigation that’s going to happen.”Radio and TV Martí
In the past, Trump has agreed with conservative Republican Sen. Jeff Flake that the $700 million of taxpayers’ dollars spent on Radio and TV Martí broadcasts is wasteful and should be stopped.Guantánamo
The president-elect has said he wants to use the Guantánamo Naval Base as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Cuba, suggesting that the United States should “get them to take it over,” thereby saving $40 million a month. Although during the primaries he advocated “keeping it open and loading it up with bad dudes,” as president he would probably turn the U.S. naval station into a free zone for Cuban and foreign entrepreneurs, making best use of the new high-speed fiber optic internet cable connection to Florida, which cost $40 million.The Cuban Adjustment Act
One of the few policies on which Trump and Marco Rubio jointly disagree with their Party is the Cuban Adjustment Act, the program dating from the Lyndon Johnson administration that enables Cuban immigrants to get welfare benefits from the moment they set foot on U.S. soil. Both politicians want to see the legislation repealed.
Donald Trump may be many things, but he’s neither an ideologue nor a fool. On Cuba policy, Trump is more aligned with the majority of Republicans than with the Republican establishment that drafted the party platform. He and his policy team are aware that 56% of Republican voters recently surveyed by the Pew Research Center favored Obama’s Cuba policy, and 59% supported doing away with the embargo.
—Parts of this report were taken from a column by Dr. Timothy Ashby that appeared in Cuba Standard in July