Barring unexpected events, President Donald Trump will disclose our nation’s new Cuba policy in Miami on Friday.
By all accounts, he has relied heavily on the counsel of Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, two of the hardest Cuban hard-liners in the U.S. Congress. Were it up to them, all of the historic changes to Cuban- American policy made by President Barack Obama would be reversed.
Theirs is a distinctly minority view — in Congress, in the business community and in the general population, even among Miami-Dade County’s Cuban-Americans.
Most people greeted Obama’s bold move to end the 55-year-old Cold War policy as a giant step toward reality-based thinking about our relationship with a neighbor just 90 miles away.
Since Obama announced the change in December 2014, each month has opened a new door to Cuba and brought the U.S. more in line with the rest of the world. U.S. planes flew there. Cruise ships sailed there. Americans visited. Cuban diplomats traveled freely through the states.
At this writing, we don’t know exactly which changes Trump will unwind, though we have a pretty good guess. You don’t come to Miami — heartland of the Cuban diaspora — to announce further warming of a relationship with Castro Cuba, even if the new generation has moved on.
Speculation is that he will not re-establish the wet-foot/dry-foot policy, which allowed any Cuban who reached our shores to become a permanent American resident. Since the policy’s end, the number of Cubans risking their lives to cross the Florida Straits or make the trek across Central America has dropped dramatically.
However, it’s believed the president will impose harsh restrictions on travel and trade.
Still, it is possible Trump will surprise us, if for no other motivation than political reality.
In the last week, seven Republican senators from the Midwest urged a go-slow approach to reversing the Obama changes. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce reiterated its opposition to the embargo, another Cold War relic whose end would be a giant step into the 21st Century.
Seventy-five percent of Americans favor the Obama moves toward normalization, according to a December 2016 poll by the Pew Research Center. And a recent Florida International University poll found two-thirds of Miami-Dade residents favored a restoration of relations with Cuba.
But politics, as always, cuts at least a couple of ways.
Some Trump critics, for example, thought it unseemly last week when Rubio’s questions on the Senate Intelligence Committee investigating Russian influence in the 2016 presidential election seemed so supportive of Trump. That Rubio had dinner at the White House the night before the hearing — and that Trump announced his Miami visit the day after the hearing — fed speculation that Rubio went soft to get his way on Cuba. He denies it.
Advocates for a rollback of the Obama changes argue that Cuba remains a dictatorship with no regard for human rights. Continuing to normalize relations would be an outrage, they say.
Yet the Trump administration has cozy relations with world-class human rights violators across the globe, from Saudi Arabia to the Philippines.
And while Trump denounces the autocratic Castro regime, he proposes a budget that would cut USAID funds, which support the island’s dissident groups.
Those who oppose the Obama policy point to the Bay of Pigs invasion as a loss of life in the fight against Castro that can’t be forgotten or forgiven. It’s an argument that resonates with Trump. But he seems to have forgiven Vietnam, where 57,000 Americans died and countless others were maimed for life. Vietnam, by the way, is one of those human rights violators that’s been given a pass.
A return to the failed isolationist policy in Cuba has a price tag that seems to have been overlooked. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce puts it at an annual loss of $1.2 billion a year.
Engage Cuba, an anti-embargo group of private businesses, estimates a loss of $66 billion over the course of the Trump presidency. Its polling also differs from other sources, asserting that six out of ten Republicans oppose changes to the Obama policy.
Whatever the size of the loss, were there no loss at all, continuing the Obama policies is the right thing to do. Fifty-five years of a failed policy is not a persuasive argument for continuing it.
Ironically, our distorted fear of Cuba grew from a fear of it inviting the Soviet Union to our doorstep. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, China has filled the void. Today, China is Cuba’s biggest trading partner and the largest holder of its debt.
Disengagement has gotten us nowhere. Obama’s policies were the first smart steps we’ve taken in our relationship with the island in at least a generation. It would be a tragedy to reverse them.