Why Trump Should Keep Obama’s Cuba Policy

Rachel DeLevie-Orey
Assistant Director, Latin America Center, Atlantic Council

On Feb. 3, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer announced “we are in the midst of a full review of all U.S. policies towards Cuba.” This is excellent news.

Under an administration which has thus far been dominated by knee-jerk responses and actions dictated more by politics than policy, it is encouraging to know that the issue of U.S.-Cuba relations—which does not lack for fireworks and personal passion in this country—is being carefully considered. For those concerned that the U.S. did not get a good “deal” in the recent negotiations with Cuba, this now presents an ideal opportunity to further the relationship while it is at its most malleable. In the last two years, the United States and Cuba have shared discussions, exchanges, and negotiations not possible in the previous 50.

A “full review” means, we can assume, that the Trump administration will be speaking to those affected by those policies. As a businessman, President Donald Trump knows the importance of stakeholders and the value of consulting with them.

The first stop will likely reflect the administration’s clear prioritization of business. Although bilateral trade remains restricted, some industries have benefited from expanded trade and relaxed banking regulations of the last two years. Talk to the farm bureaus in Iowa, the poultry associations in Georgia, the small telecommunications outfits in South Florida, and all will share an enthusiasm for an expanded market. Banks are more willing to finance these operations without fear of crippling fines, making it easier for airlines, hotels, and cruise lines to cater to a newly booming Cuban tourism industry.

With security also at the top of the agenda, the administration will find that despite its small size, fluid communications and cooperation with Cuba are critical to U.S. national security. Just 90 miles from Florida, Cuba is the closest noncontiguous country to the United States. What affects the Cuban coastline affects the U.S. coastline. Already we’ve seen the importance of cooperation when Cuba allowed the U.S. to fly over Cuban airspace to provide aid to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Such cooperation, national security experts have said, is vital with such a close neighbor.

The next stop will be Cuban-Americans, who, given personal ties to this issue, are deeply invested in this bilateral relationship. The administration will find that most Cuban-Americans favor normalized relations with the island. They enjoy the flexibility of traveling to see relatives and the expanded ease of talking to friends with newly available telecommunications capacities on the island. That said, there remains a small, though highly vocal, community of Cuban-Americans who remain in favor of tough sanctions on Cuba. Many of them recall fleeing the oppression of Fidel Castro, and continue to favor policies which exude toughness over cooperation. But support for this approach is fading, as newer generations of Cubans are anxious to move more freely between the U.S. and Cuba.

It is not just niche markets or those with personal ties to Cuba who see the opening of relations as a positive move: The Atlantic Council’s poll at the end of 2015 of four heartland states—Tennessee, Iowa, Indiana, and Ohio—found widespread support for normalization. A full 70 percent of respondents thought that the United States was on the wrong track; yet, despite this pessimism about the general direction of the country, 58 percent supported normalization of relations, with notable enthusiasm for lifting travel restrictions. The support is found across the political spectrum, with most Republicans, Democrats, and independents in favor of the changes in policy. In this politically polarized moment, one would be hard-pressed to find another issue on which Americans show so much agreement.

Meanwhile, in Cuba, domestic and international circumstances dictate that the island repair its relationship with the United States. Turmoil in Venezuela is already restricting funds from flowing to Cuba as they once did, and populist trends sweeping Europe and the U.S. mean less spending in the developing world. The result is fewer readily available resources for Cuba, which is facing a dire need to stimulate the economy. Cuba, if it is to provide food, materials, basic goods, and gainful employment in its critical tourism industry, will need to increase its engagement with the United States. This is therefore an ideal moment to negotiate terms of engagement favorable to U.S. business, and American values.  

Letting such negotiations—any hiccups along the way—eclipse all other Latin American engagement would be a mistake. Latin America policy was for years synonymous with Cuba policy, guiding all regional decisions through a Cuba lens. The onerous policies of the U.S. embargo were an insult to our allies who rightly viewed them as a Cold War relic. But now, with strong relationships in Colombia, renewed relations in Argentina, and an important—if tense—relationship with Mexico, the United States has established diverse regional ties which are hugely beneficial to U.S. security and economic prosperity. To revert back to the Cuba lens would disrupt these benefits on a larger scale, with implications reaching far beyond U.S. relations with one country.

This is what the Trump administration will find in its review of U.S. policies toward Cuba. Support for normalization, strengthened national security, and economic opportunities will bubble up as tangible benefits of renewed relations. As a result, it will be difficult to backtrack on existing policies in any significant way without provoking key constituencies. Unfortunately, the naysayers—that is, those who support tough sanctions on Cuba and would like to see them reinstated—remain at the core of President Trump’s foreign policy community. To assuage them, President Trump will not want to be seen as “giving” anything to Cuba, and will likely shy away from advancing the U.S.-Cuba relationship further. Stagnation, though, is nothing new for U.S.-Cuba relations. At least this time, the status quo grants Americans the opportunity to engage with Cuba on a greater scale. 

The Author is Rachel DeLevie-Orey

Rachel DeLevie-Orey is an Associate Director with the Atlantic Council's Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center. Her work focuses on US-Cuban relations, Mexican reform, and the role of technology in elections. She has been a key player in campaigns to advocate the normalization of relations between the US and Cuba, and strengthen US-Mexico ties. Work on these issues included publishing op-eds, offering political commentary to news outlets, and briefing government entities. Previously,... Read More

Learn more about The Cipher's Network here