At first sight, President Barack Obama’s surprise decision to rescind the longstanding special treatment of Cuban migrants, known as “wet foot, dry foot,” may seem to benefit his soon to be inaugurated successor.
For decades U.S. presidents have been careful not to offend the large and politically active Cuban American community in South Florida. The easy access to U.S. residency for those fleeing Cuba was thus seen as untouchable.
So, when Donald Trump takes office next week he’ll have one thing less to worry about when it comes to Cuba.
“On the face of it, he’s done Trump a big favor,” said Pedro Freyre, a Cuban American who closely monitors U.S.-Cuban relations as chair of the international practice for the Akerman law firm in Miami.
But, like all major moves in the chess game between Washington and Havana, on closer inspection it gets more intriguing.
Rather than a unilateral move, it was negotiated in secret for months with the Cuban government, the culmination of a two year drive by the Obama administration to normalize relations with Cuba, ending half a century of hostility. As part of the deal Cuba agreed to take back any Cubans who are deported after being refused entry to the United States, as well as 2,700 Cuban prisoners stuck in U.S. jails.
Obama's policy shift on 'wet foot, dry foot,' creates a lynchpin issue that Freyre and others say could now make it hard for Trump to decouple Cuban immigration issues from the rest of Obama's engagement policy.
“It sets a trap for Trump,” said Freyre. “It’s very difficult now for Trump to renege on it. If he does a 180 degree turn the Cubans can do the same and refuse to take back anyone who the U.S. orders to be deported.”
During the election campaign President-elect Donald Trump vowed to undo Obama's policy of engagement with Cuba that has seen the restoration of diplomatic relations as well as a massive boom in tourism between the two former Cold War enemies.
After Fidel Castro’s death on Nov. 25 Trump warned on Twitter that he may cut U.S. ties with the island “if Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban-American people and the U.S. as a whole.”
Trump’s tweet reflected the conservative foreign policy leanings of his transition team. However, three quarters of Americans support the recent thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations, according to a December poll by the Pew Research Center.
That doesn't mean anyone is especially excited about the prospects for increased democracy in Cuba in the coming years. Only 42 percent expect Cuba to become more democratic over the next several years, while 47 percent say it will be about the same as it is today.
The Obama administration has long taken the view that progress on changing Cuba is best achieved by disarming the Cuban government of any excuses not to change.
In that context, 'wet foot, dry foot' policy was increasingly seen as a Cold War anachronism. Cuba considered the easy access to U.S. residency for Cuban migrants an affront to its sovereignty, as well as a costly brain drain that enticed its best educated doctors to seek jobs in the United States.
Making it easier for Obama, the policy had also been losing support among conservative Cuban exiles who complain most migrants these days were not victims of political persecution, but rather were only seeking economic opportunity.
One of Obama's sternest critics in South Florida, Cuban American Senator Marco Rubio, said in a statement: "The Cuban Adjustment Act has provided countless Cubans the opportunity to escape the Castro tyranny. However, in recent years it has also led to growing abuses."
Recognizing that "some changes were needed," he did not challenge the abandoning of 'wet foot, dry foot,' but rather refocused attention on ensuring that "Cubans who arrive here to escape political persecution are not summarily returned to the regime, and they are given a fair opportunity to apply for and receive political asylum."
Ironically, that put him in the same company as other Hispanics in the United States who long complained about a double standard in immigration policy that afforded unfair privileges to Cubans.
To be sure, the announcement is devastating news for the thousands of Cubans left stranded in Mexico, Central America and other countries who had sold everything in Cuba to take advantage of the lax 'wet foot, dry foot' rule.
It may seem woefully unfair that someone who arrived at the U.S. border at 4pm on Thursday was allowed 'dry foot' entry, and those who came a few minutes later were turned away.
But to be fair to the Obama administration, Cuban migrants have understood for a long time there was a risk that the law might be lifted any day.
On Friday, the U.S. Catholic Church expressed its disappointment with Obama's decision on humanitarian grounds. Bishop Joe Vasquez, Chairman of the Committee on Migration at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, stated that "while we have welcomed normalizing relations with Cuba, the violation of basic human rights remains a reality for some Cubans and the wet foot/dry foot policy helped to afford them a way to seek refuge in the United States.”
Seen in the broader context of U.S. border security, the new Cuba policy was in keeping with Trump's campaign platform.
"For someone who spent his entire presidential campaign screaming about controlling immigration it's hard for Trump to go against this. It's effectively irreversible," said Brian Latell, a former Cuba analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Another reason that Trump may find Obama's move to his liking, the immigration deal also opens a potential Pandora’s Box in Cuba by making it harder for discontented Cubans to leave the island.
“Washington closes the escape valve for Cubans,” Yoani Sanchez, Havana’s leading dissident journalist, wrote on Twitter.
Indeed, the word escape valve is on a lot of lips. The end of the ‘wet foot, dry foot’ policy was “a major step” to give Cubans the opportunity “to effect change on the island without the escape valve that has been cynically used by the regime and Miami to keep Cuba in a past era,” was how one senior U.S. official put it.
Obama's deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes, hinted as much to reporters on Thursday.
The decision to rescind "wet foot, dry foot' was consistent with a policy that sought to restore normalcy to the relations between the two countries, he said.
Not only was it time to put a stop to the long history of dangerous illegal migration of Cubans by sea and land, he said. It was also time for young, educated Cubans to find solutions at home, he urged, rather than abandon their country.
"It's important that Cuba continue to have a young, dynamic population that are clearly serving as agents of change and becoming entrepreneurs ... And, frankly, we believe that this change is in service of creating more incentive for there to be the economic reforms that need to be pursued on the island," said Rhodes.
Some experts say the most astonishing thing about the policy shift was not Obama's decision, but rather Cuba agreeing to it.
Could that be the signal that Cuba is preparing to make more changes internally to open up its political and economic system?
"Normalizing immigration with Cuba means there's no more escape hatches and easy outs," said Freyre. "Cuba's leaders know they have a very underperforming economy and it's unsustainable. Now it's up to them to solve their own problems."