On Friday, President Trump travels to Miami to announce his Cuba policy. Despite the compelling case for engagement argued by Republicans and Democrats, businesses and human rights groups, few are optimistic. Just like the president’s “alternative facts”-based decision to withdraw from the Paris climate-change agreement, actual experts may pale in influence compared with Steve Bannon’s whiteboard. Don’t expect a last-minute reprieve for a Cuba policy that’s working. Instead, rolling back current policy will be an inexplicably incoherent shift, a gift to Cuba’s hard-liners, a blow to the Cuban people, and a setback for American interests in our own hemisphere.
The incoherence is maddening when measured against the backdrop of a president who, until now, hasn’t met an authoritarian regime he didn’t like. Trump said he’d be “honored” to meet with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. He’s embraced the Philippines’ Duterte, who boasts of extra-judicial killings, and granted Egypt’s president a White House welcome, to say nothing of a bromance with Vladimir Putin that would make Oliver Stone blush. But apparently, with a tiny island country off the Florida coast, it’ll be a back-to-the-Cold-War policy of isolation, which only isolates the United States.
This is the wrong policy in the wrong place at the wrong time — a gift to Cuba’s hard-liners, who lost their most convenient weapon of mass distraction when the last administration normalized relations. For decades, the regime in Havana pointed to an enemy in Washington in order to distract from their own failings. That’s why the Castros resisted normalization. Without the United States to blame, they are finally under the microscope. Polls show Cubans are genuinely unhappy with their own political system and excited at renewed relations with America. How counterproductive to squander this moment. Raul Castro steps down in early 2018. Why restore the United States as a bogeyman when the upcoming transition should be anything but a referendum on Donald Trump?
Rolling back Obama era reforms will hurt the Cuban people the most. Our best ambassadors are the American people themselves, living, breathing faces of freedom and entrepreneurship. In the case of Cuba, greater American interaction with everyday Cubans has meant not just a public diplomacy coup but a meaningful improvement in Cubans’ lives. Tourism has more than tripled since 2014. Americans — 613,000 of the 4.1 million tourists visiting Cuba last year — stay disproportionately in Airbnbs, where the money goes directly to Cubans, not the regime, an average of $2,700 yearly, nine times the annual salary of $311. The irony: If Americans have a harder time visiting Cuba, it won’t hurt the regime — because the 3.5 million non-American tourists stay disproportionately in the resorts owned by the government. We would limit our people-to-people diplomacy, and hurt average Cubans.
Moving backward will also hurt US economic interests. A study shows it could cost us $6.6 billion and affect 12,295 American jobs. But more important, it hurts us geostrategically. The hemisphere’s democratic countries were the biggest cheerleaders for our engagement with Cuba, because it made it easier for them to partner with us. The under-the-radar influential role the State Department played in Colombia’s Nobel Prize-winning peace process wouldn’t have been possible had we not opened dialogue with Cuba. The benefits aren’t just indirect: America and Cuba have reached agreements to cooperate on oil spills, human trafficking, and drug trafficking, as drug routes migrate to the Caribbean. While we abhor Cuba’s human rights violations, engagement created a formal mechanism to confront them — an annual human rights dialogue — and some measurable progress: greater economic freedom, hundreds of public Wi-Fi hotspots, and even blogs addressing race, inequality, and social justice.
By pulling back, we gain nothing — but instead leave a void for Russia and China to fill in a country on the cusp of change. Fifty-five years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, why would we ever voluntarily surrender influence in Cuba to Russia?
Normalization aimed to increase the flow of ideas, resources, and opportunities to the island so Cubans would be less reliant on the state. It’s working. Why pull back now and abandon the experiment when we already have 60 years of proof that disengagement doesn’t work?
David E. Wade was chief of staff at the US State Department and the founder of Greenlight Strategies.