Tuesday, June 20, 2017
President Trump's symbolic act of reclaiming Cuba policy on behalf of his die-hard anti-Castro fans proves yet again that U.S. policy towards Cuba is determined almost exclusively by domestic politics in swing state Florida. Surrounded by Senator Marco Rubio and other luminaries of the pro-embargo Cuban exile establishment, Trump extolled their sacrifices on behalf of a free Cuba in a Miami pep rally that was pure retail politics.
He did so, however, not by trying to paint Cuba as a national security threat to the United States, as others have done in the past. Instead he went full throttle for the fundamental bargain Congress adopted when it codified the embargo in 1996: abandon communism and give your people their inalienable political and civil rights to choose who governs them, then we will lift the embargo.
The United States treats no other government in the world this way. What makes Cuba different from countries such as North Korea, Saudi Arabia, or Iran, where systemic human rights violations prevail? These states all pose major security challenges to the United States in a way that Cuba has not since the wave of democracy spread across Latin America in the 1980s and the Soviet Union collapsed. Yet these repressive states do not face the comprehensive decades-long blanket of sanctions that Cuba has endured since 1962. And Trump (and Secretary of State Tillerson) has made clear he has no real interest in defending human rights. In some sense, Cuba policy is caught in a time warp between the old ways of ostracizing a state Washington dislikes by unilaterally punishing its entire population, and newer tactics such as targeted multilateral sanctions that have yielded some progress in places like Myanmar and Iran.
What really makes Cuba exceptional is that it faces an organized, well-financed political machine of angry exiles in vote-rich Florida that extracts certain demands from political leaders for its votes. Though majorities of Cuban-Americans, in addition to both Republicans and Democrats, support President Obama's reopening of diplomatic relations with Havana, Trump's conviction that he won Florida thanks to his deal with Rubio and the hardliners is driving Cuba policy for everyone. No other faction so exclusively focused on one foreign country has such concentrated political influence on foreign policy, except perhaps for pro-Israel voters who, nonetheless, are more electorally dispersed. The majority who want to support the Cuban people through principled engagement and dialogue don't seem to count.
As satisfying as Trump's largely symbolic reversal of Obama's more constructive approach may feel to Miami, a return to the past is unlikely to achieve its aims of overthrowing the Castros and empowering the Cuban people to finally claim the human rights they deserve. In fact, a hard-line approach from Washington/Miami is more likely to embolden the hardliners in Havana and make life more difficult for the civil society leaders, religious groups and private entrepreneurs it purportedly wants to help. The Cuban government's initial reply to Trump's show in Little Havana made very clear that it will not make any concessions regarding its socialist system of government. The 55-year stalemate lives on.