The impact of Trump’s Cuba policy revisions will likely be small
BY MARK FEIERSTEIN, OPINION CONTRIBUTOR – 07/11/17 05:40 PM EDT
As U.S. officials prepare to implement President Trump’s Cuba policy,
the rancor over the revised course is masking an emerging bipartisan
consensus over American policy toward the island. Despite declaring he
was “cancelling” President Obama’s deal with Cuba, Trump’s approach
maintains the vast majority of steps the Obama Administration took.
Critics of Obama had protested his efforts to increase American
commercial and cultural interaction with Cuba. Hardliners excoriated him
for facilitating commerce with and travel to Cuba, removing the country
from a list of state sponsors of terrorism, reopening embassies in
Washington and Havana, and ending a migration policy that favored Cuban
immigrants over those from other countries. Yet, when two of Obama’s
most vociferous congressional critics, Senator Marco Rubio and Rep.
Mario Diaz Balart, joined Trump in Miami last month for his Cuba
announcement, the Florida Republicans celebrated a policy that enshrines
all those steps.
Trump’s limited policy changes, which complicate American travel and
limit certain commercial engagement, reflect the growing constituency
for engagement with Cuba. White House officials had initially
anticipated a groundswell of support to reverse Obama’s Cuba moves. But
as debate over proposed changes to the policy ensued, officials
recognized the strong support to continue the bulk of the previous
Administration’s approach and even to go further and lift all trade and
Polls showed that most Americans, including Republicans and
Cuban-Americans, favor normalizing relations with Cuba. Fifty-five
Senators supported a bill to eliminate all restrictions on travel to the
island the only country where tourist travel by Americans is illegal.
Republican Members of Congress lobbied the White House not to restrict
trade with Cuba, and the Chamber of Commerce and its member companies
advocated for maintaining commercial opportunities for American firms
rather than handing over that business to companies from such countries
as Russia, China, Spain, or Brazil.
Within the Administration, most policy makers favored a continuation of
some form of engagement and did not want to return to a policy of trying
to isolate and pressure Cuba which had failed for five decades to
produce change on the island. Policy makers valued collaboration with
Cuba in combating drug trafficking, protecting the environment, and
developing vaccines. They also recognized that re-imposing travel limits
to Cuba would hurt the people Trump says he wants to support:
independent Cuban entrepreneurs who run restaurants, bed and breakfasts
and markets frequented by American travelers.
Trump himself was naturally sympathetic to preserving business
opportunities for American companies. Jason Greenblatt, a senior White
House official, explored commercial deals in Cuba in his prior position
as counsel for the Trump Organization and Trump said privately during
the presidential transition that he favored Obama’s commercial opening
to the island. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who is skeptical of the
utility of sanctions, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross also advocated
for preserving commercial opportunities in Cuba for American companies.
A substantial rollback, therefore, was not politically or practically
feasible. As a Trump administration official conceded, “You can’t put
the genie back in the bottle 100 percent.” Nevertheless, Trump kept his
campaign pledge to modify U.S. policy toward Cuba, though his
announcement featured more harsh rhetoric and political theater than
actual substantive change.
To be sure, the Trump Administration rolled back two significant
elements of Obama’s policy. First, Americans will no longer be allowed
to travel on individualized people-to-people educational itineraries;
they will be required to visit on more costly group tours. Second,
transactions that “disproportionately benefit” the military, which
manages much of the tourist sector, will be prohibited. It’s not
surprising the administration settled on those policies to reverse:
allowing Americans to develop their own travel itineraries and
permitting transactions with military-run entities were initially
controversial ideas in the Obama Administration.
The impact of Trump’s policy revisions, moreover, is likely to be small.
Most Americans travel to Cuba on trips that will not be affected by the
new rules, and most Cuban hotels are not managed by the military.
Further, airlines and cruise ships will continue to carry passengers to
Bureaucratic considerations also may limit the impact of Trump’s policy
changes. The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control is
understaffed, and its efforts are better spent administering sanctions
on countries such as North Korea, Russia and Iran than keeping Americans
off Cuban beaches and policing which hotels they can stay in.
Thus far, the government of Cuba has reacted to Trump’s announcement
with relative restraint, understanding that those in the United States
who want to limit engagement represent a minority view, and confident of
the significant momentum for greater ties. Cuba’s direction in any case
will be shaped more by its own transition — Raul Castro will step down
as president in February — than any measures the United States takes.
If economic and political reform advance under a new leader in Cuba,
that would give added impetus to the process of normalizing relations
between the two countries. Years from now, we might look back at Trump’s
announcement in Miami not as a step backward in relations between the
two countries, but as the point when the divisive debate over U.S.
policy toward Cuba finally began to recede.
Mark Feierstein is a senior advisor at the Albright Stonebridge Group,
was special assistant to President Obama and senior director for Western
Hemisphere Affairs on the National Security Council.
The views expressed by contributors are their own ad are not the views
of The Hill.
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