Cuba and the United States: Back to Cold War Chills

By Daisy Ni (PO ’21)

Relations between the United States and Cuba have been stony since the Cold War, with the Cuban Missile Crisis standing as one of the notorious examples of nuclear escalation. The past decade especially has contained dramatic turning points in the diplomacy between the two countries, a diplomacy that is slowly breaking down due to moves from the Trump administration.

To fully understand current developments, we take a brief look into the Obama administration’s policies regarding the island nation. As the first sitting president to visit Cuba since 1928, Obama was articulate about his desire to end the Cuban embargo. During his presidency, he ordered the restoration of full diplomatic relations with Cuba and opened an embassy in Havana for the first time.

Since his campaign, President Trump had repeatedly attacked Obama’s initiatives, calling his policy of engagement with the Cuban regime a “terrible and misguided deal.” In July, Trump signed a six-page directive restricting travel and commercial relations. For one, he banned U.S. companies from doing business with organizations associated with the Cuban military, Gaesa. Additionally, the directive eliminates the “people-to-people” category of travelers, which was previously a backdoor way to allow private American tourism in Cuba despite prohibitions set by the embargo. Though groups are still permitted to travel under certain circumstances, even they are now subjected to strict auditing and new rules from the Treasury Department.

President Trump has justified his initiative as an attack against an oppressive government—he characterizes himself as acting in the best interest of the Cuban people, and as propagating freedom and democracy. The policies, however, may hurt the ordinary Cuban citizen more than it may help. Aided partly by the engagement policies initiated by the Obama administration, Cuba had been steadfastly growing a private sector composed of private restaurants, tour guides, and bed-and-breakfast rentals to cater to visiting American. Tourism, as such, is now one of the largest sectors of the Cuban economy, and cutting off access to American tourists will definitely stand as a setback for Cuban businesses. Trump’s order reinstates the requirement that Americans can only come with tour groups, which are ultimately state-run and controlled by the Cuban government. Thus, instead of undermining the Cuban government, Trump will actually direct money away from the private sector and contribute to the funds of the military, results opposite of his intentions.

Important to note is that while the Cuban government is no doubt responsible for multiple instances of violating human rights, it is not, by far, the only oppressive regime. The Trump administration, however, has shown no interest in battling human right violations in countries such as Saudi Arabia and the Philippines. Thus, the U.S. government unproportional response seems to indicate another factor at play, perhaps political motives.

This implication is consistent with Cuba’s accusations of the U.S. government this past week. Citing a medical condition that has been ailing American diplomats in Cuba, the U.S. has withdrawn all but its most crucial ambassadors to Havana. The American government then pointed to Cuba for lack of protection, and consequently expelled 15 Cuban diplomats from the U.S. embassy. Although Trump has declared that he is not terminating diplomatic relations, the Cuban government sees his orders as a political attack, and there is no doubt that they will lead to distrust and antagonism to cooperation. Furthermore, the move comes at an especially precarious time—next year marks the expected retirement date of Raul Castro. By cutting down on diplomats, the U.S. surrenders access to crucial developments during the political transition and risks being blindsided by a new generation of Cuban leaders.

Trump’s actions may damage more than just relations between the U.S. and Cuba. With the sudden loss of U.S. support, Cuba may turn to other international sources such as China and Russia, sources who have already been providing economic aid. This would represent exactly the kind of fear that the U.S. government has—instead of pushing Cuba toward freedom, Trump may push the island country into the influences of other anti-U.S. interests instead. Additionally, Trump’s move is likely to increase tensions between America and Latin America as a whole, a region which has been unanimous in its support of Obama’s politics of easing relations. By reversing Obama’s policies, Trump may jeopardize Latin American support on issues key to his administration.

Also interesting is the direction of President Trump’s directive itself. Though he had promised a complete repeal of Obama’s policies, Trump actually left several measures in place. This hesitancy on the administration’s part to truly back up the President’s rhetoric indicates a remaining hope to salvage our bilateral relations. The next few months, in which the White House will officially issue regulatory amendments in accordance with the president’s orders, will pave their fate.

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