Normalization of US-Cuba Relations: Beyond Trump

Even before his arrival in the White House, Donald Trump didn’t hide his intentions regarding Cuba. His critical posture toward the easing of U.S.-Cuba relations during the Obama presidency was accompanied by a promise to negotiate “a better deal” with Havana.

As the elections approached, Trump became less equivocal.

During the primaries, he said repeatedly that he believed that restoring diplomatic ties with Cuba was “a good thing,” but added that Americans and Cubans wouldn’t get enough in exchange for the agreement. In March of 2016, he told CNN that he probably would maintain diplomatic relations with Cuba, but that he would want “far better deals than we have done.”* Later, as a presidential nominee, his rhetoric shifted to court the Cuban vote in Florida. Trump promised to close the recently opened embassy in Havana, and made it clear that the process begun by Obama didn’t have legislative backing and that the 18 agreements reached by the two countries in various spheres could be undone.

This hypothesis about the possibility of recall has grown stronger, in part due to the presence of some belligerent Cuban-Americans on the periphery of the Trump administration. This group, led by Marco Rubio, aims to return Cuba to the list of state sponsors of terrorism, which would mean an immediate freeze and eventual end to bilateral relations.

Effectively, on paper, it would be relatively easy to return to the old hard line.

The regulatory changes introduced by Obama could easily be reversed. But in practice, it would be incredibly taxing and complicated to undo the two years of progress and accords put in place by the outgoing Obama and Cuban authorities.

A question of great importance is the issue of which influential American groups already have clear interests in the island. Since former President Obama’s historic trip to Havana in March 2016 when the Starwood hotel chain signed the first agreement with Cuban authorities since 1959, many other hotels, and 10 airlines, have followed suit.

Our country is a key destination for American cruise ships. Recently, on March 7, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd arrived in Havana, the third American cruise ship company to start offering trips to Cuba after the re-establisment of diplomatic ties between Washington and Havana in 2015. This company, which has been operating for more than 50 years, is one of the most important international cruise ship companies. This year, Norwegian is planning another nine trips to Cuba with different ships.

This is where the hardliners of the Republican Party will encounter their greatest obstacle in returning to the past: the inertia of an economic opening lush with opportunities for businesses and others like Verizon, MasterCard, Tyson Foods or Netflix.

“Between the range of economic interests that have a vested interest in the maintenance of these policies – whether airlines, Four Seasons, Sheraton, to a number of agriculture companies – and given the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s very firm commitment to the policy changes, and Donald Trump’s inherent transactional nature as a businessman, we are looking at status quo,” declared Christopher Sabatini, professor of international relations at Columbia University.

Recent debates and writing on the theme from a diverse group of experts, ranging from Harvard professor Jorge I. Dominguez to the well known lawyer Pedro Freyre and even Admiral Stavridis, now the dean of the well-respected Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, tend to reject the likelihood of a complete 180 in Cuba-U.S. relations, tending to believe, as a worst-case scenario, in the possibility of stalling or very slow progress. And they all agree that, moving forward, the “reforms” and internal redesigns of Cuban initiatives should foster more constructive scenarios.

This is favored by the growing change in public opinion toward Cuba. According to a survey published this year by CBS and The New York Times, 58 percent of Americans are in favor of continued diplomatic relations, more than twice the number of Americans who oppose it (25 percent). Cubans are also becoming more sympathetic toward the thaw: 53 percent of Cubans under the age of 49 support it, while only 39 percent reject it, according to The Miami Herald. Among retirees, opposition continues to be slightly greater.

Organizations like the Cuba Study Group, U.S.-Cuba Business Council, Latin America Working Group, National Foreign Trade Council, and Engage Cuba see progress toward a normalization of bilateral relations as the best opportunity to reduce irregular migration and perfect border management, among other benefits.

In addition, it seems unlikely that the closest allies of the United States (specifically Canada, Japan and the European Union) would support a reversal based on the re-establishment of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism. Everything these allies have done, and continue to do, is based on continuing the process of normalization and promoting projects that are mutually beneficial. Just two recent examples: if you walk from the Hotel Prado y Malecon toward the Parque Central, you will find, in a place where a couple of years ago there was nothing, six French projects. These projects include not only hotels, but also the symbolic reopening of the Casa Guerlain.

And Japan will contribute to the implementation of projects important for economic and social development in Cuba through two programs that offer non-repayable financial assistance in areas such as agriculture, infrastructure and waste management.

Of course, it isn’t possible to ignore the fact that, among White House advisers, the belief persists that the irritation provoked by the embargo will cause an explosion of popular protest that will put an end to the Cuban revolution. In the perspective of the Trump administration, the normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations would be no more than the restoration of capitalism on the island through acts of sedition and infiltration, among other things, combined with the imposition of neoliberal economic reform, including some “strong economic medicine” administered by the International Monetary Fund.

The crucial step, therefore, in the march toward true normalization of economic relations with the United States, is to reactivate the Cuban economy and effectively advance the strategic lines of development in the country. These steps would guarantee the diversification of Cuba’s international commercial and financial relationships moving forward into the future. This is essential both for the success of the current process of modernization of the Cuban social and economic model, as well as for the construction of a prosperous and sustainable socialism.

*Editor’s note: Although accurately translated, these quoted remarks could not be independently verified.

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