Two years after the Obama administration initiated the thawing of US relations with Cuba, President Trump wants to partially roll back the rapprochement. An event is planned for Friday in Miami, where Trump is expected to announce new restrictions on American travel to the island and on US companies doing business with the Cuban government.
But the train bringing a new era to Cuba long ago left the station.
For one, there continues to be overwhelming support among American voters for the US opening with Cuba, which has yielded a significant amount of economic activity both on the island and in the United States. Private-sector employment now accounts for 40 percent of the Cuban labor force, with the tourism industry playing a big role. Last year, half a million Americans visited Cuba, more than triple the number compared with 2015. Airbnb recently reported that in just over two years, Cubans have earned nearly $40 million by hosting tourists in their homes.
In other words, there are no winners, only losers, if Trump moves away from engagement with Cuba. American jobs are at stake. The only constituency that wants to reverse course is the very small group of diehard, older Cuban-Americans, the Miami anti-Castristas, whom Trump credits for his victory in Florida last November.
The main rationale for the reversal is apparently based on the violation of human rights that continues to occur in Cuba, such as arbitrary arrests of human rights advocates and journalists. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said as much to US senators: “We think we have achieved very little in terms of changing the behavior of the regime in Cuba . . . and it has little incentive today to change that.” What the Trump administration seems to forget is that five decades of a US policy of isolation and sanctions against Cuba, including the ever-present embargo, also did nothing to move the needle in terms of political change. Why go back to that ineffective era?
A group of GOP congressmen sent letters to Trump urging him to leave Cuba open. In fact, 55 senators last month introduced bipartisan legislation to eliminate all travel restrictions to Cuba. And on Tuesday, a group of 55 Cuban female entrepreneurs sent a letter to Ivanka Trump in an effort to have her lobby her father on their behalf.
“There are hundreds of thousands of Cuban women working in the private sector,” the letter read. “Today we are owners of boutique hotels, BnBs, restaurants and shops. We are designers, photographers and computer programmers, and much more. On behalf of Cuba’s female entrepreneurs, we ask for your support.”
Obama’s policies reflect the fundamental belief that political change on the island will come by empowering the private sector in Cuba, like those businesswomen. And that remains true today.