President Donald Trump is right in that the Obama administration’s opening to Cuba has failed to produce any human rights or democratic changes on the island, but I’m afraid that Trump’s plan to partially reverse the current U.S. policy will make things worse.
Trump’s partial reversal of Obama’s opening to Cuba, which he announced in Miami on Friday, includes prohibiting U.S. companies from doing business with companies affiliated with the Cuban military and partial restrictions on U.S. tourism to the island.
Trump will not close the U.S. embassy in Havana, which Obama re-established in 2015, nor will he restore the wet foot, dry foot immigration policy that allowed Cuban refugees automatic asylum if they touched U.S. soil.
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But the trouble with that hodgepodge of measures is that even if they don’t end up doing much economic damage to the Cuban dictatorship, they will give Cuba new ammunition to proclaim itself a victim of “U.S. aggression.” They will also give the Cuban regime a new excuse to postpone democratic changes even beyond the end of 86-year-old Cuban President Raul Castro’s term in February 2018.
Unfortunately, neither Obama’s December 2014 opening to Cuba nor Trump’s 2017 partial reversal of that policy were motivated by a desire to bring about democracy in Cuba. In both cases, the decisions were motivated by domestic politics.
In Obama’s case, he was approaching the end of his two terms in office without any major foreign policy victory. Despite his many domestic achievements, he had failed to bring peace to the Middle East and couldn’t stop the Russian invasion of Crimea nor the civil war in Syria. He needed a quick and easy foreign policy victory.
Trump’s case is no different. Almost everything he has done proves that he doesn’t give a damn about democracy in Cuba or anywhere else.
Trump has broken an age-old tradition for Republican and Democratic U.S. presidents of speaking out for human rights wherever they go. He has praised the rulers of Russia, Egypt and Turkey, and visited Saudi Arabia without uttering a word of criticism of that country’s oppression of women or minorities.
On Cuba, Trump’s company actively pursued doing business on the island in 1998, according to a September 2016 Newsweek article. The effort took place “with Trump’s knowledge” through a U.S. consulting firm, the magazine said.
And like Obama a few years ago, Trump badly needs a headline showing that he is doing something on the foreign policy front, following his fiasco in the Middle East. During his recent trip there, he failed to meet his campaign promise of moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, and paved the way for a conflict between U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar shortly after his departure.
The main reason Trump is now pretending to care about democracy in Cuba is that he has been urged to do so by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee that is investigating the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Russia, and Miami Republican congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, a key member of the House appropriations committee. Both legislators have been involved in helping draft Trump’s new Cuba policy.
My opinion: Trump’s limited reversal of Obama’s opening to Cuba is political theater for domestic consumption. It will not achieve what U.S. sanctions against Cuba failed to achieve in the past five decades. Worse, it may backfire, by shifting world attention away from the Cuban regime’s oppression of its people to what Cuba will now claim is a new “U.S. aggression” against the island.
Andres Oppenheimer’s email is email@example.com.