Cheered by Cuban-American supporters in Miami’s Little Havana, President Donald Trump announced grandly he was “canceling” his predecessor’s “terrible and misguided deal” between the U.S. and Communist Cuba.
Fortunately, Trump exaggerated the extent of his actions. Unfortunately, he took some, once more positioning himself on the wrong side of both history and public opinion.
As President Barack Obama correctly foresaw, increasing Cuba’s relations with the democratic world, especially the United States, is far more likely to bring about change than the totally negative Cold War policy undertaken more than a half-century ago.
Ironically, just days earlier, Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, took that very position, though not specifically with regard to Cuba, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“The more we engage with other nations on issues of security and prosperity, the more we will have opportunities to shape the human rights conditions in those nations,” said Tillerson, who was not at Trump’s Friday announcement. “History has shown that the United States leaves a footprint of freedom wherever it goes.”
To be fair, only unrealistic optimists believed Obama’s moves, in themselves, would end Cuba’s communist dictatorship and its policies curbing political dissent. Changes have eased the means of punishment, not ended it, reports Human Rights Watch, which monitors such issues around the globe.
“The Cuban government continues to repress dissent and punish public criticism,” it said. “It now relies less than in past years on long-term prison sentences to punish its critics, but short-term arbitrary arrests of human rights defenders, independent journalists and others have increased dramatically in recent years.”
At the same time, there has been a steady growth in internet access and in the country’s non-governmental economic sector, primarily by individual entrepreneurs who took advantage of the flood of new American tourists.
Greater American access to Cuba would expand that further, benefiting both countries, a position long held by many American businesses, especially in the agriculture sector. Both the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce see Cuba as a ripe new market and want to end the 50-year-old U.S. trade embargo.
Caterpillar Inc., a major farm equipment manufacturer, issued a statement soon after Trump’s announcement that, “Caterpillar believes that engagement with Cuba continues to represent a strong opportunity — not just for American businesses, but to serve as a powerful tool for change.”
As for Trump, one motive may have been a desire to undo a signature Obama legacy.
Much of his 2016 campaign rhetoric was aimed at Obama’s policies, including a September speech in Miami vowing to reverse “all of the concessions that Barack Obama has granted the Castro regime … unless the Castro regime meets our demands. Those demands will include religious and political freedom for the Cuban people and the freeing of political prisoners.”
None of those “demands” have been met. But, despite Friday’s sweeping language, Trump’s actual steps stopped far short of reversing all of Obama’s moves.
Diplomatic relations will continue, as will the ability of Cuban-Americans to send money to their relatives on the island and the expanded telecommunications and internet access there. Trump’s main step was to restore some limits on U.S. travel to Cuba by individual Americans, including banning business with hotels and restaurants controlled by the Cuban military.
With Trump, it’s often difficult to determine the degree to which such moves are primarily ideological or political. In this case, the political appeal may be limited to a small area of south Florida — if there.
A recent poll by the nonpartisan Morning Consult for a group supporting expanded trade with Cuba showed 64 percent of Republicans favored maintaining Obama’s trade and travel liberalization and 55 percent of them favored scrapping the U.S. trade embargo entirely.
In Washington, a bipartisan coalition of 55 of the Senate’s100 members has cosponsored legislation to end the embargo. But Trump’s opposition probably precludes early action.
Even in Florida, the percentage of Cuban-American voters favoring the GOP’s hard line toward Cuba has gone down as the population has aged. Once heavily Republican, the state’s Cuban-Americans voted relatively evenly in 2012 and 2016, though Trump did slightly better than Mitt Romney in 2012. But two decades earlier, former President George Bush polled more than three-fourths of Florida’s Cuban-American vote.
Meanwhile, the Democratic share of Florida’s growing non-Cuban Hispanic vote has risen sharply, to about 60 percent for both Obama and Hillary Clinton.
The best news about Trump’s speech is that it is more bark than bite. As in other areas, hopes for restoring a more realistic policy will have to await the election of another president.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is a columnist for The Dallas Morning News. Readers may email him at email@example.com. Column courtesy of the Associate Press.