For anyone who remembers the name-calling that characterized the repartee between “little” Marco Rubio and Donald (Small Hands) Trump during last year’s Republican primary campaign, it is more than a little surprising to see them now celebrating a partnership. But Rubio’s sudden transformation into a Trump loyalist, during last week’s questioning of James Comey by the Senate Intelligence Committee, hinted that a deal had been struck between the two men. And so it was.
Today in Miami, with Senator Rubio at his side, President Trump unveiled his much anticipated review of Cuba policy. The venue chosen for the occasion was the Manuel Artime Theatre, named after a late leader of Brigade 2506, the Cuban-exile paramilitary group, backed by the C.I.A., which led the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, in 1961. After that disaster, Artime participated in a number of other C.I.A.-supported efforts against Fidel Castro, including an attempt to assassinate him. Last October, a week before the election, at the Bay of Pigs Museum, in Little Havana, Trump appeared before the Brigade’s veterans association, which had given him its endorsement. He said, “The United States should not prop up the Castro regime economically and politically, as Obama has done and as Hillary Clinton plans to do. They don’t know how to make a good deal, and they wouldn’t know how to make a good deal if it was staring at them in the face.”
Trump didn’t make clear what kind of a deal he would make instead, and it seems unlikely that he knew himself. Indeed, around that time, he was telling senior Obama Administration officials that he was impressed with President Obama’s policy, a historic breakthrough, dramatically unveiled in December, 2014, after two years of secret negotiations with Raúl Castro’s government. Whatever Trump thought or said privately, he clearly wanted to make the right sort of noises to potential voters in Miami.
Trump had pulled a similar maneuver before. In November, 1999, when he first toyed with the idea of running for the Presidency, Trump spoke to a crowd of Cuban-Americans at an event in Miami hosted by the anti-Castro Cuban American National Foundation, and said that he would never do business in Cuba as long as Fidel Castro was in power. That wasn’t true; less than a year earlier, a party of Trump’s consultants had travelled to Havana to look for investment opportunities, a violation of the restrictions of the U.S. trade embargo.
Upon learning of Fidel Castro’s death, on November 25th, Trump, who had won the Presidency three weeks earlier, took a harder line, saying, in a statement, “though the tragedies, deaths and pain caused by Fidel Castro cannot be erased, our administration will do all it can to ensure the Cuban people can finally begin their journey toward prosperity and liberty.”
As with most initiatives of the Trump White House, the Cuba policy has already been widely leaked; the Miami Herald ran a story on Thursday, based on its reading of an eight-page document that it described as Trump’s Cuba “policy directive.” In essence, it reintroduces restrictions on travel by Americans to Cuba and places new curbs on U.S. investments there. Its stated aim is to deny the Castro government, which controls a majority of business on the island, through a military holding company, easy access to American funds. The move will also likely curtail the numbers of Americans travelling to the island as well, by obliging them to provide proof that they are following the new rules. (Under the U.S. trade embargo, which can only be lifted by an act of Congress, travel to Cuba for tourism is officially banned, but the Obama Administration had relaxed the rules to permit American travellers to come and go under a “report yourself” honor system.) The new orders may well hurt the Castro government’s cash flow, but they seem equally likely to dent the forward momentum of Cuba’s nascent private sector.
At the Artime Theatre, Trump said that Cuba had not opened up enough under the Obama guidelines, and so he was “cancelling the previous Administration’s completely one-sided deal.” America would enforce the trade embargo rather than seek to relax it, as Obama had done, and, Trump added, “We challenge Cuba to come to the table with a new agreement that is in the best interest of their people, of our people, and of Cuban-Americans.” The President then issued a series of demands that made his failure to ask anything similar of the Saudis during his trip to Riyadh, several weeks ago, all the more glaring, calling on Havana to “end to the abuse of dissidents, release political prisoners, stop jailing innocent people, open yourselves up to political and economic freedoms.”
Senator Rubio has been taking credit for helping to draft the new directive, telling the Herald that he worked on it with input from Representative Mario Díaz-Balart. (Díaz-Balart, whose district is in Southern Florida, is a nephew of Fidel Castro’s first wife, and, like his older brother Lincoln Díaz-Balart, who served eighteen years in Congress, he is one of the Castro regime’s most bitter opponents.) Rubio said, “All the pressure comes from American business interests that go to Cuba, see the opportunities, and then come back here and lobby us to lift the embargo. I’m trying to reverse the dynamic: I’m trying to create a Cuban business sector that now goes to the Cuban government and pressures them to create changes.”
As with much else that Trump has done since assuming the Presidency, his Cuba directive appears to be a deliberate attempt to dismantle Obama’s legacy. Although there were Cubans, including the late Fidel Castro, who were skeptical of the sincerity of U.S. intentions, many others were elated at the possibilities promised by the Obama Administration’s rapprochement. Already, that policy has helped to speed up economic and cultural reforms in Cuba initiated by Raúl Castro, who took over as President from his ailing older brother, in 2008, and fuelled a private-enterprise boom. It has also spurred a foreign-investment boom, and an increase in the number of American tourists visiting the island in the two years since diplomatic relations were restored; last year, more than six hundred thousand Cuban-Americans and other U.S. travellers went to Cuba, an increase of a third since 2015. Several U.S. cruise lines have begun ferrying Americans to Havana, and six U.S. airlines, including American and JetBlue, fly regularly scheduled flights to nine airports across Cuba. Airbnb now lists fifteen thousand apartments and houses for rent. A hotel-building boom has also begun, but this is an area in which Trump’s directive may cause a slowdown. One business likely to be affected is Havana’s new Four Points Sheraton, which opened, last year, under the management of the U.S. hotelier Starwood; the owner of the hotel property is the Cuban military holding company GAESA, Grupo de Administracion Empresarial.
Obama visited Cuba in March of last year, and, in an interview in the Oval Office after his return, he told me that his operating theory about Cuba had been based, in part, on “the belief that if you are interested in promoting freedom, independence, civic space inside of Cuba, then the power of things like remittances to give individual Cubans some cash, even if the government was taking a cut, that then allowed them to start a barbershop, or a cab service, was going to be the engine whereby individual Cubans—not directed by the United States, not directed by the C.I.A., not through some grand conspiracy—can now have their own little shop and have a little bit of savings and start expecting more.”
Earlier today, Benjamin Rhodes, who was one of Obama’s lead negotiators with Cuba, told me, “The Cubans need to have greater access to U.S. business and other economies, not less, to be able to take the extra step toward openness. By shoving them back into the penalty box, it’s only going to be more likely they turn to Russia and China, and keep them frozen in time. It’s going to reinforce the narrative of the most retrograde forces in Cuba that the U.S. relationship is necessarily one of conflict.” Rhodes added that the timing of Trump’s directive is particularly bad. Raúl Castro plans to step down in February of next year, which means that, for the first time in six decades, Cuba will not be governed by a Castro. “Rather than having a chance to change the dynamic with a policy of continued openness,” Rhodes said, Trump’s measures risk “isolating us once again on this issue, not to mention isolating the Cuban people.”
Trump’s initiative is also in direct opposition to the thinking of a number of influential Cuban-Americans, some of whom helped to shape the Obama policy. Mike Fernandez, a Miami-based health-care billionaire and a major Republican donor, overcame his own misgivings about engagement with Cuba to become an ardent supporter of greater openness as the best possible instrument for change. He and a number of others formed the Cuba Study Group, which lobbied for an end to isolation. Trump’s reliance on Rubio and Díaz-Balart for his Cuba rollback is a direct riposte to the group’s efforts.
In an op-ed in the Herald this week, Fernandez wrote, “Because of our willingness to allow an exchange, a quiet revolution has been happening inside Cuba without a shot being fired. What is clear is that progress has been made these past two years; progress that we have not seen in the previous 58. Why would we want to change an American cruise line for a Russian or Chinese warship in Havana’s harbor?” Fernandez reminded his readers of something that Rubio had said about Trump during the campaign: “He called Trump ‘a con man.’ If you believe anything Rubio says, believe that.”
Ana Dopico, the director of the King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center, at New York University, and a Cuban-American herself, said that, in her view, Trump’s initiative amounted to little more than an act of political theatre. “It’s the last gasp of the Cold War, a nod to the generation that supported hard-line politicians who no longer have a large base of support,” Dopico said. “There is a new generation of Cuban-Americans who are more pragmatic in their attitudes toward Cuba. Their hearts and their pocketbooks are with their relatives on the island, and they don’t want to see them hurt with tightened restrictions.”
In an e-mail exchange with a senior Cuban official, I asked what he thought about Trump’s directive. He replied, “We’ve been through the worst of times during the past fifty-eight years, and any new setback we suffer can’t be comparable to what we’ve already been through.”