Expert Commentary

Why Trump May Reverse Cuba Policy

Frank Mora
Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Western Hemisphere Affairs

President Donald Trump has indicated he will reverse the Obama administration’s policy on Cuba, despite previously saying the deal was fine. The Cipher Brief asked Frank Mora, Director of the Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University, about what he thinks U.S.-Cuba relations will be like under Trump. Mora previously served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Western Hemisphere Affairs.

The Cipher Brief: How do you think Cuba-U.S. relations are going to play out in the coming weeks, months, and years under the Trump administration?

Frank Mora: Let me start out by narrowing your question: will the president in fact do what he said he was going to do during the campaign, in terms of reversing the Obama administration policy? I think we have to pay attention to when the president says he’s going to do something. So far, he has proven, unfortunately, he’s going to do what he has said.

Early in the campaign, he basically said the Cuba deal was fine, said that he would have negotiated a better one, but that he thought it was okay. Fast forward to a week or two before the election, and he announces if elected, he’s going to reverse the policy – everything that President Obama had done. And Vice President Mike Pence and others in the campaign reiterated that position. They have kept that position since the election. And in fact, there is an expectation among Cuban-American legislators here in Florida and from a certain constituency of the Cuban-American community that continues to hold a hard-line with respect to Cuba policy, however small that may be in Florida, that he will reverse the policy – it’s not clear how far he’s going to go, but he’s going to reverse it. So there is a high expectation that something’s going to happen. I think it will happen, and I’ll tell you why.

One, my view is he couldn’t care less about Cuba. The evolution of his position demonstrates that he doesn’t really understand or consider this a priority. But he’s willing to outsource Cuba policy to those individuals, those legislators, to which the issue matters –  particularly those in Florida. What we’re going to see is some version of what we saw during the Cold War or prior to President Obama’s change. The executive will once again defer or abdicate his responsibility on a key foreign policy issue back to some domestic constituents. From all indications, I hear that is exactly what’s going to happen.

One congressman, Mario Diaz-Balart, referred to the forthcoming change as quote, “dramatic.” So I think it’s going to happen. But how far are we going to go? Is he going to break diplomatic relations? Is he going to return Cuba to the list of state-sponsored terrorism? That’s not clear. I’m not sure they [the administration] know exactly.

Of course it wouldn’t be that difficult to reverse much of what President Obama did by executive order by countermanding it with another executive order. That could very well happen.

TCB: Is there any indication of exactly where on the priority list this is for President Trump and, therefore, at what time he will want to start repealing the Obama administration policy?

FM: This policy sort of fits in his wheelhouse of making decisions, because he doesn’t really have to consult Congress. There’s no legislation required to reverse what President Obama did. He can reverse just about everything that President Obama did by signing an executive order. That is very much within his style of making decisions via executive order, so in a way that shows he’s doing what he said he’s going to do.

It’s also a political thing. Trump met with Bay of Pigs veterans, and he promised to reverse the Obama policy. I think he and his advisors, many of whom were serving in the transition, are people who are very hard-line in terms of the position of maintaining a hard-line position or reversing much of what President Obama did. That would be relatively easy to do, and no consultation with Congress would be required.

TCB: How do the Cubans view the new administration, and are they thinking that Trump probably will roll back the Obama administration policy? How are they reacting to this?

FM: So far they haven’t reacted or said very much. They’re sort of, I suppose like many people, on pause, waiting to see if, in fact, President Trump will reverse Obama’s policy. I can’t tell you whether they are as convinced as I am that there’s going to be some kind of reversal. But there is a sense of let’s wait and see until a decision is made in Washington.

I do recall some government officials saying, hey listen we’re used to dealing with different types of presidents, so we’re just going to have to deal with this new president like we’ve dealt with other presidents in the past. But I think in many ways, the concern is that if in fact President Trump takes a hard position and returns us to a policy of isolating Cuba, and particularly the Cuban people, by taking punitive action, that will probably strengthen those within the Cuban regime that have warned against liberalization and that have insisted on maintaining a harder line themselves. So a hard-line position in Washington will probably promote those within Cuba that want to hold the line and are fearful about any kind of normalization or the consequences of a rapprochement with the United States.

Of course a relationship of conflict and confrontation fits into the old playbook that the Cubans have been very adept at using and exploiting to consolidate power, to refuse making any reforms. Now that’s not the reason why they’ve refused to reform in the past, but that’s certainly the excuse they will give. The fear is we’re going to go back to a kind of Cold War in the relationship in which the hard-line position will gain some advantages in Cuba.  That is not to say that Raul is a soft-liner or reformer. I’m just saying that those hard-liners will come out and say, see I told you so, we cannot trust the United States, the United States is committed to regime change, and therefore, we cannot afford to reform. Now that’s all an excuse. But that’s what the likely rhetoric will be.

TCB: So is there any benefit that could come out of Mr. Trump reversing the Obama administration’s policy?

FM: Well I’m open to any thoughts. But remember, President Obama’s policy was not so much about normalizing state-to-state relations. It was largely about people-to-people. What can the U.S. government do – but, more importantly, what can U.S. society as a whole do—to engage the Cuban people, to facilitate ways in which the Cuban people can communicate better, and maybe improve their standard of living by having greater access to resources, etc.—so that they can be the agents of change. That could all end – that people-to-people initiative –if President Trump decides to, for example, to end all travel to Cuba or not allow maybe, for example, Google to make investments in WiFi and other technologies. That could all be reversed, that progress that I think has been achieved in having the societies engage with one another. The potential opportunity that that may represent in the future for Cuba and Cubans will go by the wayside, and we will return to, as I said earlier, a kind of Cold War position, where relations will be characterized by immobility rather than any potential process of change.

The Author is Frank Mora

Dr. Frank O. Mora is Director of the Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center and Professor in the Department of Politics & International Relations at Florida International University.  He previously served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Western Hemisphere Affairs from 2009-2013.

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