Trump Administration Reportedly Planning Reversal of Some Aspects of U.S. Normalization of Cuba Relations   

Next Friday, June 16, in Miami, President Trump reportedly will announce certain changes in U.S. policies regarding Cuba. These changes will be the result of an overall review of such policies that has been conducted from the first days of this administration. Not surprisingly the review process has revealed conflicts between leaders of various federal departments favoring continuation of normalization, on the one hand, and political opponents of normalization from Florida, on the other hand. Supposedly the political cover for the rumored over turning at least some of the normalization is the U.S. desire to combat human rights problems on the island.[1]

While President Trump reportedly still has overall support from most Republicans in the Senate and House, on June 8, seven Republican Congressmen sent the president a letter urging continuation of normalization with Cuba. They were Representative Tom Emmer (MN), who is the Chair of the House Cuba Working Group, along with Jack Bergman (MI), James Comer (KY), Rick Crawford (AR), Darin LaHood (IL), Roger Marshall (KS), and Ted Poe (TX). The letter made the following points:

  • “Given Cuba’s proximity, it is a natural partner for strategic cooperation on issues of immediate concern. Since the thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations, the [U.S.] and Cuba have signed nine formal bilateral agreements that have improved efforts to combat human trafficking, illicit drug trade, fraud identification, and cybercrime. A rollback of Cuba policy would threaten these efforts and in turn, the safety of the American people.”
  • “More concerning, if we fail to engage politically and economically, our foreign competitors and potential adversaries will rush to fill the vacuum in our own backyard. For instance, Russia is already strengthening its ties with Cuba, supporting infrastructure investment and resuming oil shipments for the first time this century. China is also expanding its footprint in Cuba as well. China is now Cuba’s largest trading partner and heavily invested in providing telecommunications services, among other investments, on the island.”
  • “Reversing course would incentivize Cuba to once again become dependent on countries like Russia and China. Allowing this to happen could have disastrous results for the security of the [U.S.]. Alternatively, we can counter the growing threat of foreign influence in our region by engaging with our island neighbor. We can empower the Cuban people by providing high quality American goods and supporting Cuba’s growing private sector through increased American travel.”
  • “We urge you to prioritize U.S. national security and not return to a policy of isolation that will only serve to embolden adversarial foreign power in the region.”

This letter was personally delivered to the White House on June 8 by Representative Emmer and three of the other signers of the letter. Afterwards Emmer told Reuters, “My hope is that when the administration is done with their review, they don’t let one or two voices overwhelm what is in the interest of the United States.”

For advocates of normalization, like this blog, this policy review reportedly has bad news and good news regarding U.S. diplomatic relations with Cuba, U.S. business with Cuban state or military enterprises, Americans travel to Cuba and U.S. “democracy promotion” programs on the island.

U.S. Diplomatic Relations with Cuba

Good news: severing U.S. diplomatic relations with Cuba seems very unlikely.

Business with Cuban State or Military Enterprises

Bad News. Reuters says the Administration is considering “tightening restrictions on U.S. firms doing business with Cuban state or military enterprises. Such a restriction could have far-reaching consequences for existing deals, such as the one last year by Starwood Hotels and Resorts last year to manage hotels in Cuba — one of which is owned by the military conglomerate Gaviota — and effectively freeze future ones, since the military in Cuba has a hand in virtually every element of the economy.”

Such restrictions would cost U.S. manufacturing and chemical companies through January 2021 (the end of the term for the Trump presidency) an estimated $929 million, adversely affecting 1,359 jobs. In addition, imposing new restrictions on U.S. agricultural and medical exports to Cuba, for the same time period, are estimated to cost the U.S. an additional $3.6 billion and 3,087 jobs.

On the other hand, there also is internal resistance in the Administration to making it more difficult for U.S. businesses and agricultural interests to do business with Cuba. Similar resistance exists in Congress as evident with various pending bills to end the U.S. embargo of the island, in whole or in part, as discussed in an earlier post.

Americans Travel to Cuba[2]

Bad News. There are rumors that the Administration may cut back on the ability of Americans to travel to the island. Again, however, there are pending bills in Congress that would prevent this.

Presumably, however, the Trump Administration would be hesitant to adopt measures that would be harmful to U.S. travel companies. U.S. cruise operators and airlines, for example, are estimated to lose around $712 million in annual revenues under enhanced travel restrictions with resulting risks to U.S. employment in these businesses. Especially at risk are jobs in south Florida involved in the cruise business. Through January 2021 (the period for the current term of the U.S. presidency), these costs are estimated at $3.5 billion, adversely affecting 10, 154 jobs.

These adverse effects were echoed at an early June aviation industry conference by Alexandre de Juniac, the Director General of the International Air Transport Association: “Restricting the network of aviation and access to Cuba would be bad news for aviation. Generally we welcome the extension of access to any country by plane.”

In addition, making it more difficult for Americans to travel to Cuba would adversely affect the relative prosperity of the island’s emerging private enterprise sector, which acts as a counterweight to the state-owned enterprises and as a force for liberalization of various aspects of Cuban society and government. According to Engage Cuba, a U.S. coalition of businesses and others supporting normalization, Cuba’s private business sector currently accounts for 1/3 of Cuba’s workforce, has greatly expanded Cubans’ earning potential, has gained a larger share of the island’s food service industry, is providing almost 1/3 of all rooms available for rent in Cuba, and through tech entrepreneurs is helping to modernize the economy.[3]

Just recently some of the Cuban entrepreneurs have formed the Association of Businessmen to help, advice, train and represent the members of the private sector. The group applied in February for government recognition. The official deadline for a government response has passed without approval or rejection, thereby leaving the group in the peculiar status known in Cuba as “alegal” or a-legal, operating unmolested but vulnerable to a crackdown at any time.

U.S. “Democracy Promotion” Programs in Cuba

Good News. As noted in a prior post, the Administration’s proposed Fiscal 2018 State Department budget eliminates funding for the so-called covert “democracy promotion” programs in Cuba conducted by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

However, it also has been reported that the president is weighing an increase in funding for USAID programs that promote democracy in Cuba, initiatives that the Castro government has long condemned as covert efforts to overthrow it.

Cuban Human Rights[4]

A White House spokesman, Michael Short, recently observed, “As the President has said, the current Cuba policy is a bad deal. It does not do enough to support human rights in Cuba. We anticipate an announcement in the coming weeks.”

This issue also was highlighted in a recent article by U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, which severely criticized the U.N. for electing human rights violators, like Cuba, to membership on the Human Rights Council. Cuba’s government, she said, “strictly controls the media and severely restricts the Cuban people’s access to the Internet. Political prisoners by the thousands sit in Cuban jails.” Therefore, she was proposing that “membership on the Council must be determined through competitive voting to keep the worst human rights abusers from obtaining seats.”

However, at a Council meeting in Geneva on June 6, Ambassador Haley did not mention Cuba in a short statement to emphasize the U.S. “strong conviction to the protection and promotion of human rights” and the importance of the Council’s “resolutions [that] can give hope to people who are fighting for justice, democracy, and human rights, and they can pave the way for accountability.”

Later that same day in Geneva at what she described as a Council “side-event,” she spoke about “Human Rights and Democracy in Venezuela.” As the title of her remarks suggest, she focused on that country’s current abuses of human rights and democracy and complained about Venezuela’s being a [Council] member in good standing . . . [and using] that membership to block any meaningful discussion of its human rights violations. The . . . Council has no excuse. It cannot consider itself the world’s leading human rights organization and continue to ignore the violations and abuses that are occurring in Venezuela.” Although Cuba is a strong ally of Venezuela and frequently dismisses the latter’s critics, Ambassador Haley made not mention of Cuba in these remarks.

Cuba, however, returned to her remarks later the same day, June 6, at Geneva’s

Graduate Institute, where her focus was the Council’s failure “to act properly – when it fails to act at all – it undermines its own credibility and the cause of human rights. It leaves the most vulnerable to suffer and die. It fuels the cynical belief that countries cannot put aside self-interest and cooperate on behalf of human dignity. It re-enforces our growing suspicion that the Human Rights Council is not a good investment of our time, money, and national prestige.”[5]

One example of the Council’s failure, she said, was Cuba, where “the government continues to arrest and detain critics and human rights advocates. The government strictly controls the media and severely restricts the Cuban people’s access to the Internet. Political prisoners by the thousands continue to sit in Cuban jails. Yet Cuba has never been condemned by the . . . Council. It, too, is a member country.”

In addition, according to Haley, Cuba uses its membership in the Council as proof that it is a supporter of human rights, instead of a violator. The Cuban deputy foreign minister called Cuba’s 2016 re-election to the Human Rights Council, “irrefutable evidence of Cuba’s historic prestige in the promotion and protection of all human rights for Cubans.

Whatever the merits of the U.S. allegations about Cuban human rights, reversing any aspect of the current status of normalization, in this blogger’s opinion, will not cause Cuba to change its own policies and practices. Instead, any reversal may well harden Cuban resistance to change and provide opportunities for other countries, like Russia and China, to enhance their relations with Cuba. Finally such reversals are hypocritical in light of the recent U.S. embrace of Saudi Arabia with a poor human rights record.

Conclusion

A New York Times editorial summed up this controversy by criticizing the rumored return to the “hard-line sanctions-based approach [that] was in place for more than 50 years after the 1959 revolution and never produced what anti-Castro activists hoped would be the result, the ouster of Cuba’s Communist government in favor of democracy. Isolating Cuba has become increasingly indefensible.”[6]

In contrast, said the editorial, “Mr. Obama’s opening to Havana has enabled the freer flow of people, goods and information between the two countries, even as significant differences remain over human rights. It has produced bilateral agreements on health care cooperation, joint planning to mitigate oil spills, coordination on counternarcotics efforts and intelligence-sharing. In April, Google’s servers went live in Cuba and thus it became the first foreign internet company to host content in one of the most unplugged nations on earth. Mr. Obama’s approach also encouraged Latin American countries to be more receptive to the United States as a partner in regional problem-solving.”

All U.S. supporters of normalization need to express their opinions to the White House, the U.S. State Department and members of Congress.

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[1] Rumors of Upcoming Trump Administration Rollback of U.S. Normalization of Relations with Cuba, dwkcommentaries.com (May 25, 2017); Reuters, Trump Administration Nearing Completion of Cuba Policy Review: Sources, N.Y. Times (May 30, 2017); Davis, Trump Considers Rolling Back Obama’s Opening With Cuba, N.Y. Times (May 31, 2017); Mazzei, Gomez, Kumar & Ordońez, How Cuba policy, and its inevitable drama, ensnared Trump’s White House, Miami Herald (June 1, 2017); Trump Reversing Cuba Policy Would Cost $6.6 Billion, Over 12k Jobs, Engage Cuba (June 1, 2017); Reuters, Trump Expected to Unveil New Cuba Policy as Early as Next Friday: Sources, N.Y. Times (June 9, 2017); Mazzei, Trump to reveal Cuba policy in Miami Next Friday, Miami Herald (June 9, 2017); Reuters, Some Republican Lawmakers Urge Trump Not to Reverse Cuba Opening, N.Y. Times (June 9, 2017); Letter, Representative Tom Emmer and six other Republican Congressmen to President Trump (June 8, 2017);Werner, Many in GOP unshaken by Comey’s testimony against Trump, StarTribune (June 10, 2017).

[2] Reuters, U.S. Travel Sector to Suffer if Trump Reverses Cuba Detente: Report, N.Y. Times (June 1, 2017); Glusac, How a Shift in U.S. Policy could Affect Travel to Cuba, N.Y. Times (June 1, 2017); Assoc. Press, Cuban Entrepreneurs Start first Private Business Group, N.Y. Times (June 1, 2017); Reuters, U.S.-Cuba Policy Looms at Aviation Industry Conference, N.Y. Times (June 7, 2017).

[3] 5 Facts About Cuba’s Private Sector, EngageCUBA (Feb. 24, 2017).

[4] Assoc. Press, Trump Faces Tough Task Unwinding Obama Cuba Policy, N.Y. Times (June 2, 2017); Haley, The U.N. Human Rights Council whitewashes brutality, Wash. Post (June 2, 2017); Haley, Remarks at a Human Rights Council Side Event: “Human Rights and Democracy in Venezuela (June 6, 2017); Haley, Remarks at the U.N. Human Rights Council (June 6, 2017); Cumming-Bruce, U.S. Stops short of Leaving U.N. Human Rights Council, N.Y. Times (June 6, 2017).

[5] Haley, Remarks at the Graduate Institute of Geneva on “A Place for Conscience: the Future of the United States in the Human Rights Council,” (June 6, 2017).

[6] Editorial, Undoing All the Good Work on Cuba, N.Y. Times (June 5, 2017).

Lobbying the Incoming Trump Administration To Continue Normalization with Cuba  

Major supporters of U.S. normalization of relations with Cuba have been lobbying the incoming Trump administration to continue that policy. This includes Cuban entrepreneurs, as discussed in a prior post, and most recently U.S. agricultural and business groups.

Agricultural Groups[1]

On January 12 over 100 U.S. agricultural trade groups, including the American Farm Bureau and the American Feed Industry Association, sent a letter to President-Elect Trump. It said, ” we urge you to continue to show your support for American agriculture by advancing the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba and building on the progress that has already been made.”

The letter cited a recent deep dip in farm income to bolster their argument that U.S. farmers needed more trade. “Net farm income is down 46 percent from just three years ago, constituting the largest three-year drop since the start of the Great Depression.”

They also mentioned that under an exception to the U.S. trade embargo from the year 2000, Cuba may import agricultural products for cash, but this cash limitation limits the ability of U.S. agriculture to export to Cuba. Therefore, the letter calls on Trump to allow normal trade financing and credit so the sector can better compete for the Cuban market.

The letter concluded with these words: “As a broad cross-section of rural America, we urge you not to take steps to reverse progress made in normalizing relations with Cuba, and also solicit your support for the agricultural business sector to expand trade with Cuba to help American farmers and our associated industries. It’s time to put the 17 million American jobs associated with agriculture ahead of a few hardline politicians in Washington.”

Business Groups[2]

On January 17 the Cuban Study Group, an organization of Cuban-American business leaders, led a group of advocates for U.S.-Cuba normalization, in submitting to the President-elect a memorandum entitled “U.S. Policy Toward Cuba: the Case for Engagement.”

It argued that continued engagement with Cuba will create U.S. jobs and facilitate more positive change on the island. It states “constructive engagement — including the reduction of travel and commercial barriers — is the best strategy for supporting the Cuban people and boosting U.S. jobs and exports.” Indeed, further progress toward normalization stands the best chance of improving security just off U.S. shores, reducing irregular migration, enhancing the management of U.S. borders, and encouraging continued, positive evolution inside the island.” More specifically, continued engagement with Cuba should produce the following benefits to the U.S.:”

  • “U.S. Job Creation. Further engagement would allow the United States to regain lost market share in emerging Cuban markets from economic competitors such as China, Vietnam, and Brazil and employ thousands of U.S. workers in agribusiness, infrastructure, tech, and tourism.
  • Cuban-American support. Lifting restrictions on remittances and travel allows Cuban-Americans to support their families in Cuba and provide critical seed funding for the island’s nascent private sector.
  • Cuba’s burgeoning entrepreneurial sector. In just a few years, Cuba’s private sector has grown to account for 30% of the country’s workforce. U.S. travelers to Cuba have become the principal source of revenue for many small businesses.
  • Greater access to information. Internet access is growing, and continued engagement can further contribute to connectivity and the development of civil society in Cuba.”

Moreover, they say, “to reflexively reverse course could have pernicious consequences for U.S. economic and foreign policy interests and the prospects of evolutionary change in Cuba.”

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[1] Engage Cuba, Over 100 U.S. Agriculture Groups Urge Trump to Strengthen U.S.-Cuba Trade Relationship (Jan. 13, 2017); Reuters, U.S. Farmers Ask Trump to Stay the Course on Cuba, N.Y. Times (Jan. 12, 2017).

[2] Engage Cuba, Cuba Groups to Trump: Reversing Course Could Harm Cuban People and U.S. Interests (Jan. 17, 2017); Reuters, U.S.-Cuba Detente Supporters Make Last-ditch Effort to Sway Trump, N.Y. Times (Jan. 17, 2017).

The other signers of the memorandum are the American Society/Council of the Americas; the U.S.-Cuba Business Council; the Center for Democracy in the Americas; Ted Piccone, Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution; Richard E. Feinberg, Professor, UC San Diego and Senior Fellow (non-resident), Brookings Institution; William M. LeoGrande, Professor of Government, American University; Engage Cuba; Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA); Latin America Working Group; National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC); Christopher Sabatini, Executive Director, Global Americans and Lecturer, Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs; The National Cooperative Business Association CLUSA International (NCBA CLUSA) National Tour Association (NTA) United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA) TechFreedom The American Society of Travel Agents NAFSA: The Association of International Educators; the National Foreign Trade Council, the American Society of Travel Agents and the Association of International Educators; Christopher Sabatini, Executive Director, Global Americans and Lecturer, Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs; The National Cooperative Business Association CLUSA International (NCBA CLUSA); National Tour Association (NTA) United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA); TechFreedom; The American Society of Travel Agents; NAFSA: The Association of International Educators.