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Trump's Cuba policy: nothing new under the sun

The president is new to his job, and he could be about to get a lesson on the impotence of U.S. sanctions when it comes to Cuba.
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18 Jun 2017 – 10:16 AM EDT
President Trump signing a new Cuba policy order in Miami, June 16, 2017. (Left to right: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Florida Governor Rick Scott, Senator Marco Rubio, Vice President Mike Pence.) Crédito: AP

Cuba's communist leaders might have been a bit nervous before the announcement of President Donald Trump new posture on Cuba policy, announced Friday.

But they are surely resting easy after Trump announced the details during a speech to a pumped up crowd of Cuban exiles in the heart of Miami's Little Havana district.

"That's it?" I can hear them saying.

The new policy, outlined in a one page White House "fact sheet" consisting of 408 words , was touted by Trump as a deadly blow to the dictatorial regime in Havana. "With God's help, a free Cuba is what we will soon achieve," he said to incongruous chants of "USA, USA."

"I do believe that end is in the very near future," he added.

Veteran Cuba watchers haven't heard a president come to Miami and talk like that - predicting freedom for the Cuban people - since Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Of course, the only problem is that Reagan died 13 years ago and the Communist Party is still running Cuba.

Such talk offends many of my Cuban friends who feel they are being used again as pawns in one of Washington's cynical political games - the sort Trump promised to do away with.

Some Cuban Americans are sick and tired of politicians playing their emotions like a violin. On Friday Trump even had an exile violinist on hand to play the Star Spangled Banner.

But Trump's revised policy - it's hard really to call it a new policy - merely tweaks existing travel restrictions, while banning financial dealings with Cuba's spider's web of military-run enterprises which operate numerous hotels, among other things.

Trump announced: "Effective immediately, I am canceling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba."

How so? In fact, to the surprise of many, Friday's policy "readjustment," as one White House official called it, keeps in place almost all of President Barack Obama's legacy-making policy of normalization with Cuba which began in December 2014.

That includes the restoration of diplomatic relations after 54 years, the removal of Cuba from a list of state sponsors of terrorism, as well as the resumption of regular airline operations and allowing cruise ships to sail to the once forbidden island.

Trump did not even eliminate the duty free cigars and rum that U.S. tourists are currently allowed to bring back with them from Cuba.

Exercise in futility

Trump "new policy" is being touted as a victory for Miami's Cuban American congressional delegation, led by Senator Marco Rubio. It's a pyrrhic victory at best. Most likely, it's just another exercise in futility.

To be sure, Rubio and his colleagues deserve some credit for accepting a lesser revision of policy than they had wished for. Curiously, while Trump called Obama's policy a "terrible and misguided deal" there appears to be a general acceptance today that many aspects of the normalization effort are, in fact, not such a bad deal after all.

Florida Governor Rick Scott on Friday described Obama's Cuba deal as "capitulation." In reality it is Trump who has had to capitulate to a new reality in U.S.-Cuban relations set by Obama.

As one senior White House official put it to reporters in a press briefing on Thursday: "You can't put the genie back in the bottle 100 percent.”

That is an important recognition of the changing demographics in Miami with many younger Cubans rejecting the harsh Cold War rhetoric of the past, embracing engagement with their roots in Cuba. Polls have shown most Cuban Americans support what Obama did in Cuba.


That makes it all the more difficult to comprehend Trump's speech on Friday. Yes, it was a display of loyalty to the ageing Bay of Pigs veterans who endorsed him during the campaign, and political payback to the Florida senator he once derided as "little Marco."

Trump hailed Rubio on Friday. "Great guy," he told the audience. "He is tough and he’s good, and he loves you."

Rubio, who called Trump a "con man" on the campaign, was all smiles Friday, giving the president a gentle pat on the back after he finished his speech and made his way off stage.

Any gain may be shortlived when voters return to the polling booths. In case anyone has forgotten, Trump lost to Hillary Clinton in Miami Dade County by an almost 2:1 margin of almost 300,000 votes (64-33 percent).

Nor does Trump have the support of many Republicans on Cuba. Sen. Jeff Flake, of Arizona called Friday for the Senate to allow a vote on legislation to eliminate all restrictions on travel to Cuba. Flake's bill has 54 co-sponsors, including nine Republicans.

Obama's policy was not perfect, and it let Cuba off the hook in certain aspects, especially regarding human rights. And, yes, the Cuban military's role is a concern in Cuba, and does make an inviting target for U.S. policy makers.

However, the major human rights groups - Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International - warn that Trump's harsh rhetoric and anvil approach is counter-productive, likely to shove Cuba's leaders back into defense mode. Sadly, that's where they are most comfortable - and experienced.

Obama's strategy was to bring them out of their Cold War siege mentality, creating a new playing field where U.S. soft power has more tools to its advantage.

So, what difference will Trump's "new policy" make?

Not a lot, I suspect. Cuba's military isn't that interested in doing deals with U.S. corporations, at least not the kind of majority ownership deals American businesses are used to.

Earlier this year a friend described to me how Cuban military officers turned down a highly enticing, multi-million dollar investment deal with a major North American hotel chain, saying "we don't need your money." The Cubans were only interested in offering a management contract, withholding ownership.


Under Trump's policy, U.S. visitors will no longer be allowed to spend money in any of these military run businesses, which include hotels and department stores.

The idea is to take tourism dollars out of the hands of the military and promote an emerging private sector. It's highly debatable if the policy will do that, and some experts fear it could have the opposite effect. It's more likely to have no effect at all.

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While Cuba's military holding company, GAESA, has a major stake in the tourism industry, it's hard to see how it can be effectively targeted by U.S. travel regulations.

Enforcement will be almost impossible. Cuba could simply opt to play a shell game and move some of the hotels or military-run tourist companies, such as Gaviota, out of the military orbit, giving them new civilian corporate identities. How will anyone tell the difference? Will U.S. officials ask Havana to see their corporate records? Good luck with that.

One company, Habanaguanex, which owns hotels in the colonial district of Old Havana, the city's biggest tourist draw, was only recently placed under military control. That could be reversed. Cuba could also simply place all non-American tourists in its military-run hotels and reserve the civilian ones for U.S. visitors.

Tourists who flout the new regulations also have the option of mislaying or flushing their illicit receipts down a convenient toilet before leaving Cuba. Be warned however, a friend reminds me that the toilets at Havana international airport are often out of order and don't flush.

If U.S. Customs inspectors ask to see hotel receipts, visitors can always say they were staying with friends.

What happens to your mojito?

Another expert, Emilio Morales, a former director of strategic marketing at the military-run corporation, CIMEX, the largest commercial entity in Cuba, says the scale of the military businesses in Cuba is not as large as many believe. While some have estimated its stake as large as 60 per cent, Morales puts it at 21 per cent, on par with an emerging private sector, and far behind Cuba's civilian-run activity.

The military share of the Cuban economy
President Trump announced that he is banning all financial transactions with companies in Cuba run by the military. So, how much of the Cuban economy is in military hands?
SOURCE: Havana Consulting Group | UNIVISION

Havana's bars and restaurants mostly belong to Cuba's Ministry of Tourism, which is not part of GAESA. So, fans of Ernest Hemingway's famous watering holes may be able to continue to sip their mojitos in La Bodeguita and daiquiris in El Floridita to their hearts content.

However, to add to the confusion, Rubio on Saturday warned ina tweet that the new sanctions also applied to the Tourism Ministry as it is run by a military colonel, Manuel Marrero.

One Cuba expert, John Kavulich, suggested the White House create an app to help U.S. tourists negotiate their way through the island's corporate minefield. (The State Department will be publishing a list of "entities with which direct transactions generally will not be permitted," the Treasury Department announced Friday.)

When Obama decided in 2014 to ditch five decades of failed efforts to isolate Cuba, he understood that sanctions didn't work if the rest if the world refused to join.

His advisers, Ben Rhodes and Ricardo Zuniga. spent more than a year negotiating with the Cuban government, and had the collaboration of the Vatican. They also sought wise council from a wide range of experts at the Brookings Institution, as well as enlightened Cuban Americans at groups like the Cuba Study Group and Roots of Hope.

On Friday Trump praised himself for fulfilling a campaign promise so promtly.

"I keep my promises. Sometimes in politics, they take a little bit longer, but we get there. ... Don't we get there? You better believe it," he said.

Maybe he would have done well to take more time to study the issue properly, instead of relying on a small clique of politicians. In the process he apparently chose to ignore the recommedations of a policy review by federal agencies, according to detailed reporting by Politico and the Miami Herald.

As House Speaker Paul Ryan reminded us recently, "the president's new at this. He's new to government."

Trump better watch out because the Cuban government is not new to this at all.

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