Last week President Trump dealt another blow to the U.S. policy of engagement with communist Cuba. He banned U.S. people-to-people travel to Cuba – and also cruise line travel, which last year carried an estimated 800,000 passengers to the island. It was just the latest rollback of the normalization of relations that Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama, began five years ago. And it raises the question: Does U.S. engagement with Cuba have a future anymore?
The Cuba Study Group is one of the most important private organizations heading that movement. It was founded by Miami Cuban-Americans and is based in Washington D.C. Its executive director is Miami native and Cuban-American attorney Ric Herrero, who spoke by phone with WLRN’s Tim Padgett about where U.S. Cuba policy goes from here.
Excerpts from their conversation:
WLRN: President Trump hasn't just scaled back U.S. travel to Cuba. He's cut back the money Cuban-Americans can send to families on the island; he's allowing Cuban exiles to sue foreign companies that use confiscated property there; he even killed the deal to let baseball players in Cuba sign with major league teams. So is U.S. engagement with Cuba all but dead now?
HERRERO: Far from it. The fact is that most Americans – and Cuban-Americans – are supportive of a policy of openness and engagement with Cuba as better serving our interests, even if many are rightfully frustrated with the glacial pace of reforms on the island. Most of the business community continues to favor engagement; the vast majority of the U.S. Congress and just about everyone in Cuba.
I think Trump's South Florida advisers, like Senator Marco Rubio, they were always opposed to the Obama opening. It offended their sense of ownership of Cuba policy. It also drove them nuts to see that the opening was so popular with the public. But Trump's advisers really are overreaching by restricting American travel and, just before that, cutting off visa processing for Cubans. These measures do have an effect on Cuban families and will bear a political cost.
So I'd say the long-term trend lines are very much in our favor, even if the current moment is a particularly dark one.
The administration says it's rolling back normalization to bring down Cuba's oppressive communist government and punish it for propping up the authoritarian regime in Venezuela. Does Trump's pressure-cooker approach have a chance of forcing regime change in Cuba? I mean, the island's facing another severe economic crisis and a lot of people think the government there is vulnerable to this kind of pressure right now.
You're seeing a lot of wishful thinking by hardcore ideologues who have always believed that the only way to promote changes in Cuba is through a pressure-cooker policy and create conditions so desperate that the people will rise up against the regime. We forget that Cuba has been through worse periods than it is in today – and that most Cubans on the island today have always lived under conditions of scarcity.
So there's no reason to think that this strategy, which is the same policy that we've had in place for most of the past 60 years, is suddenly going to become a magic wand and result in a democracy – because this policy galvanizes the hardliners in Cuba, it sidelines reformist elements within the government and it's just going to pile on greater hardship on the Cuban people.
VICTORIOUS IN FLORIDA
So what do you think is really driving Trump's Cuba policy?
The hardline group that does support this policy rollback remains politically powerful in Miami and did a bang-up job at convincing Trump that they delivered Florida for him in 2016. And now those same people have convinced him that he has to impose the same pressure-cooker policy, deal a death blow to the Cuban regime and he'll reign victorious in Florida come 2020.
Do you think he's getting ready to go all the way and end diplomatic relations with Cuba again?
We've seen them double and triple down on this failed policy, so there's no reason to think that they can or will correct course.
So what do pro-engagement organizations like the Cuba Study Group do now that U.S.-Cuba normalization looks like it's on life support for the moment?
We hold the fort and remind the public and policymakers that we've been down this road before and nothing positive came of it then – and that expanding the private sector in Cuba is a means of advancing positive changes there. Our members continue to support Cuba Emprende, which is a small business training program that has graduated close to 5,000 entrepreneurs in Havana, Cienfuegos and Camagüey since 2012.