Will Trump Stop America's Reset with Cuba?

Street scene in Havana. Flickr/Creative Commons/Bryan Ledgard

This will be the first test of a man who touted his deal-making skills.

In 2014–16, U.S.-Cuban relations witnessed a considerable thaw. Both countries moved to normalize relations long frozen by Cold War considerations, a development that culminated in President Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba in 2015, the first time a president visited the island since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. And U.S. companies, long excluded from one of the Caribbean’s largest markets of eight million people, have rushed in—multiple commercial airlines are flying planes to Cuba, U.S. telecom companies have signed roaming agreements with the island state, Marriott has commenced a joint venture to manage a number of Cuban hotels, the Caribbean island has become Airbnb’s fastest-growing market and a cruise line has started to sail to Cuban ports. In addition, other U.S. companies are seeking to develop business relations in Cuba. But all of this could change when the Trump administration comes to office in January 2017.

It is early in deciding what is next in U.S.-Cuban relations, considering that President-elect Trump has yet to name key officials for his administration. However, he did state that “concessions” the Obama administration made to the Caribbean country can be easily reversed (as many of them were done by executive order) and that he will unwind them unless U.S. demands are met. Along these lines, he stated, “Those demands will include religious and political freedom for the Cuban people and the freeing of political prisoners.”

Cuba is the only full-fledged dictatorship left in Latin America. Although Venezuela and Nicaragua are dominated by left-wing caudillos, there is still some façade of democratic form; Cuba is controlled by the Castro family and the Cuban Communist Party. Political freedoms are limited, competitive national elections are not held and there are political prisoners. Moreover, the regime monopolizes all forces of coercion—the military has a history of being loyal to Raúl Castro, who has led it for decades and is now the Caribbean country’s líder máximo.

For a long time, the Cuban American community’s views on its homeland were shaped by exile, the loss of property and the ruthless nature of the Castro regime toward any opposition. Indeed, those who left the island in the 1960s are staunchly anti-Castro, want no deal with the Castro regime ever and have voted on a regular basis in U.S. elections (98 percent of the first wave are U.S. citizens and 97 percent are registered to vote). Later waves are less anti-Castro, care about other issues beyond Cuba, and are fewer in terms of U.S. citizenship and voter registration (at 53 percent and 43 percent respectively, for those in 1994–2016 period).

Obama’s push to normalize relations with Cuba did receive a positive response among the Cuban American community. According to a Florida International University poll, 63 percent of respondents oppose the continuation of the U.S. embargo and “most respondents favor expanding economic relations between companies and the island.” That 63 percent was no doubt accurate, but it did not match up to the breakdown in voter participation in November.

The Cuban vote (or at least a significant part of it) was important in the Trump victory in Florida, which accounted for twenty-nine Electoral College votes. A New York Times–Siena poll days before the election indicated that support for Trump went from 33 percent in September to 52 percent. This has left the president-elect in the position of having elevated expectations to take a tougher stance on Cuba. This could be done by downgrading the U.S. embassy in Havana to a U.S. Interests Section again, reduce travel to the island for U.S. citizens, penalize companies doing business with Cuba and tightening immigration from the Caribbean country to the United States. He could also reimpose limits on the import of cigars and rum and promise to maintain (or possibly tighten) the trade embargo for the foreseeable future.

Pressure on Trump from the strongly anti-Castro part of the U.S. Cuban community is not likely to go away. Indeed, Mauricio Claver-Carone, the editor of Capitol Hill Cubans and a pro-embargo advocate, stated during the campaign: “Candidates should stop taking advice from a handful of greedy businessmen who are clueless as regards the real pulse of the Cuban-American community.” Moreover, Trump’s Cuban American backers intend to hold him to his “commitment to reverse Obama’s executive orders.”

Although the potential for a policy reversal is possible, such a change in direction will not be easy. The “handful of greedy businessmen” employ large numbers of U.S. citizens (some of whom voted for Trump), there would be costs borne by U.S. companies if sanctions are fully reimposed which would give birth to litigation against the government, and farmers in the Midwest want to sell their products to Cuba and are seeking to have a financing prohibition removed. Moreover, Trump during the campaign did acknowledge that fifty years of the same policy was enough, especially since it failed to remove the Castro brothers from power.