During the 2016 presidential campaign Donald Trump criticized President Obama’s Cuba policy and promised to reverse it. However, after Trump’s win, during the transition, “he and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson privately expressed support for Obama’s Cuba policy,” according to a June 2 ABC News report.
In typical Trump fashion, the candidate talked tough but the president is keeping his options open as he educates himself on the issues. And in typical government fashion, a “policy review” under the auspices of the National Security Council was set up to study the issues. It was supposed to report its recommendations on May 20, the 115th anniversary of Cuban independence, but the issues turned out to be more complex than originally envisioned, and Saudi Arabia — President Trump’s location on that hallowed day — didn’t seem like an appropriate venue to berate Cuba on its human rights record.
Yes, that’s right: in a Wilsonian-Carterian flourish, Trump’s Cuba policy “will have important differences with respect to that of Barack Obama, especially with a ‘major emphasis’ on human rights,” according to Francisco Palmieri, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America.
Saudi Arabia — President Trump’s location on the appointed day — didn’t seem like an appropriate venue to berate Cuba on its human rights record.
It seems — to a cynic who might ignore the president’s ostensible, stated reason — that Trump’s thrust is based on two objectives. One is the aim, originating in a gut reaction, to reverse anything Obama did; the other is more nakedly political: according to the Associated Press, the Trump administration wants to maintain good relations with Marco Rubio, who sits on the Senate committee investigating Trump’s relations with Russia, and Mario Diaz-Balart, a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee — both Cuban-Americans, and the latter a not-too-distant relative of the Castros.
Meanwhile, in a Trumpian flourish just before leaving office, Obama restricted Cuban immigration by rescinding the so-called “Wet foot, Dry foot” policy whereby a Cuban caught on the waters between Cuba and the United States ("wet feet") would summarily be sent home or to a third country. One who makes it to shore ("dry feet") can remain in the United States, and would later qualify for expedited legal permanent resident status in accordance with the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, and eventually US citizenship.
The Trump administration’s ambivalence toward Obama’s Cuba policy proceeds from the fact that its favorable aspects conflict with its unfavorable consequences. While the reduced restrictions on Americans traveling to Cuba that President Obama signed as an executive order in 2014 have tripled leisure travel to nearly 300,000 last year, much of the tourist money is spent at all-inclusive resorts run by Cuban military conglomerates that fuel the state security (repressive) apparatus. Organized tours, especially in the “people-to-people” and “educational” categories are little better, spending all their time under direct government control, visiting such exciting venues as printing workshops, organic farmers’ cooperative markets, and other government-organized venues, while traveling in government tour buses with government guides.
Those dollars strengthen the security organs. According to ABC News, arrests and detentions climbed from 8,899 in 2014 to 9,940 in 2016.
Much of the tourist money is spent at all-inclusive resorts run by Cuban military conglomerates that fuel the repressive state security apparatus.
On the other hand, continues the ABC report, a significant proportion of travelers eschewed organized tours, opting instead to explore Cuba on their own and thereby “injecting hundreds of millions in US spending into privately owned businesses on the island,” businesses made possible by the 201 private enterprises (especially B&Bs and restaurants) legalized by the regime since 2010, and “supercharging the growth of an entrepreneurial middle-class.”
Still, the hype has blinded what ought to be sober players into overreach. President Obama did not change the requirements for US travelers to Cuba; he only put compliance with them on the honor system, a system that still requires registering with the US Treasury Dept. The same ABC News report I quote here incorrectly states that “Obama eliminated that requirement.”
And it’s not just ABC News. Airlines such as JetBlue, American, Silver Airways, and Frontier, anticipating tens of thousands of travelers to book their own, independent trips to Cuba, have had to cut back considerably. Silver and Frontier have both canceled all their flights, citing "costs in Havana to turn an aircraft significantly exceeded our initial assumptions." In other words, the costs involved with unloading bags, cleaning the aircraft, customs procedures, etc. were higher than expected, doubtless because of the Cuban government milking the airlines. Earlier this year, JetBlue announced it would use smaller planes for its Cuba flights, and American Airlines cut its daily flights to Cuba by 25%.
The Obama changes did increase US travel to Cuba, just not as much as some expected. NBC News reports that “according to the state-run site CubaDebate, the number of Americans traveling to Cuba spiked in January of this year at 43,200. CubaDebate said that's a 125% increase from January of last year.” In addition, it reported 31,000 Cuban-Americans traveled to the island in January.
The costs involved with unloading bags, cleaning the aircraft, customs procedures, etc. were higher than expected, doubtless because of the Cuban government milking the airlines.
Those Cuban-Americans recently became a political football for cruise lines, which also dove into the liberalized US-Cuba travel market. The Cuban government does not recognize naturalized US citizenship by any Cuban-born individual: in their eyes such people are still Cuban citizens. Many of these expatriates, although allowed to visit relatives in Cuba under one of the allowed US categories of travelers, refused to set foot on the island for any prolonged length of time, declining to give even one dollar to the regime. But the promise of a cruise with all the amenities provided by a US ship and onshore visits a matter of only hours on terra firma suddenly attracted many.
But it was not to be.
The Cuban government declared that Cuban-born Cuban-Americans would not be allowed on shore from any visiting US cruise ship, referring to an earlier Cuban law that prohibited any Cuban-born person returning from to the island by sea. This was probably meant to place a fig leaf over the prosecution of any foreign-based infiltrators.
So, initially, Carnival Corporation refused to sell tickets to Cuban-born Americans. Two lawsuits put paid to that. They were filed in federal court in Miami: a class-action suit and a civil suit, by Cuban-born Americans who attempted to book and were denied tickets on Fathom Cruise Lines, a subsidiary of Carnival. According to the Miami Herald, “the lawsuits alleged that the cruise line was violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by following a policy that discriminates against a class of Americans on a place of public accommodation for transient guests — a cruise ship.”
Carnival then decided to sell tickets to Cuban-Americans but delayed its cruises until Cuba changed its policy — which it did, effective April 26, 2016. The first cruise sailed on May 1, 2016.
Cuba has not adapted well to the increase in visits. Forget booking a hotel room in Havana during the peak season of November-April on your own; rely instead on a package tour. And good luck finding a B&B, called in Cuba a casa particular. Under the Obama initiatives, both governments have struck agreements to cooperate on issues ranging from human trafficking to oil spills, and even increased internet access — a pledge extracted out of Raul Castro by President Obama. The Cuban government has “opened nearly 400 public Wi-Fi access points across the country,” according to the AP. But that reality is much less than meets expectations. The outlets are mostly in parks and plazas and only provide email connections. Full internet access, while more available than before, is beyond most Cubans’ budgets and remains frustratingly slow.
Cuba owes about $8 billion for confiscations and expropriations to US citizens. At that rate, repayment would take about 400 years.
The challenge for the Trump administration’s policy reset is to keep the good bits — full diplomatic relations, some relative freedom of travel, the benefits to Cuba’s private sector, etc. — while limiting Americans from doing business with the Cuban security organs, “according to a Trump administration official and a person involved in the ongoing policy review” (ABC report). Additionally, what with President Trump’s emphasis on jobs, Engage Cuba, a pro-détente group, released a study this May asserting “that a complete rollback of Obama’s Cuba policy would cost airlines and cruise lines $3.5 billion over the next four years and lead to the loss of 10,154 travel jobs.” (Wow, really? Such incredible specificity!)
One novel proposal that might be included in the Cuba policy reset — to ensure the support of the Cuban-Americans — is to impose a 2% export tax on US agricultural products sent to the island. “It is a politically creative, financially plausible measure and may possibly be a first step toward a comprehensive settlement of compensation to those who hold certified claims,” said Richard Feinberg, a former assistant to President Clinton and author of a Brookings Institution study on Cuban claims published in 2015. Of course, whether that 2%, factored into the price of the exports, would come out of the exporters’ profits or out of the Cuban government’s pockets is up for negotiation — if the proposal is implemented. Cuba owes about $8 billion for confiscations and expropriations to US citizens. At that rate, repayment would take about 400 years, though the majority of small claims could be settled with dispatch.
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Oh, yes . . . and what about those extra 1,041 arrests and detentions in 2016? ABC News reports, “Cuban officials say many of those arrests are deliberately provoked by dissidents who are funded and backed by anti-Castro groups with the deliberate objective of driving up detention statistics.”
No doubt those officials saw the May issue of the Cuban American National Foundation’s Boletín Informativo, displaying a photograph of a protester racing in front of Havana’s May Day parade waving an American flag in the air and wearing a Cuban flag on his chest. Daniel Llorente Miranda’s action took the security organs by surprise. After a few seconds’ chase, they threw him to the tarmac and brutally beat him.