Analysis: All bets are off: Cuba policy in the Trump era

Julia Sagebien: On Cuba policy, as on many other fronts, the Trump presidency presents a whole new set of complex dynamics

Sagebien column headBy Julia Sagebien

Donald Trump won Florida. Marco Rubio kept his Senate seat. Cuban-American Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Mario Diaz-Balart and Carlos Curbelo are still in Washington. Does this all-Republican political configuration automatically mean that the Trump administration will roll back President Obama’s bipartisan normalization policy advances? Not necessarily. On Cuba policy, as on many other fronts, the Trump presidency presents a whole new set of complex dynamics.

What we know: What Cuban-Americans do in Congress

When it comes to Cuba policy, Rubio, Ros-Lehtinen, Diaz-Balart and Curbelo are certainly one-trick ponies. They will continue to oppose the Castro regime, will continue to support the embargo and will try to reverse Obama’s Cuba overtures in every way they can.

What we don’t know: Where Trump really stands on Cuba

During his 11th hour visit to Florida in early November, Donald Trump made several lukewarm remarks about how his administration would roll back Obama’s rapprochement. That promise may indeed have won him some votes from the hard-right Cuban-American community, but there is scant evidence that Donald Trump is beholden to the Cuban-American community in any way.

Even if post-election analysis proves that the hard-right Cuban-American community voted en masse for Donald Trump, this is more likely a result of their visceral loathing of Hillary Clinton, Democrats and Obama’s normalization policies than of anything that Trump did, said or promised. Sadly, for the once electorally invincible Cuban-American community, Dade and Broward countries where many of them live, voted for Hillary Clinton. There goes the neighborhood.

Some of Donald Trump’s greatest foes during the Republican primary contest were Cuban Americans—Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. There is no bromance between these men. And there is no romance between Trump and the Cuban-American community. They represent different strains of the Republican Party. In this context, the election of Rubio, Ros-Lehtinen, Diaz Balart and Curbelo could actually be regarded not just as the traditional Cuban-American vote, but as a countermeasure to Trump’s shoot from the hip, ‘cut and paste’, business first, unpredictable brand of Republicanism.

Trump is not a cold-war warrior. On the contrary, he sees himself as a Washington outsider, an admirer of Putin and, first and foremost, a businessman. Will Trump’s very Republican pro-business instinct override the Cuban-American Congressional lobby’s very Republican anti-Castro sentiment? Which lobby will have more power, the business lobby being organized by groups like Engage Cuba, the US Chamber of Commerce, the Cuba Consortium, Cuba Now and the US-Cuba Trade and Economic Council or the remnants of the Cuban-American National Foundation and the Cuban-American Washington establishment?

Three scenarios in a Trump/Cuban-American line-up 

One: Rubio and Trump kiss and make up and Rubio and the Cuban-American Representatives convince Trump that rolling back President Obama’s overtures is ‘the right thing to do’ just because it rolls back Obama’s policies. The official Republican Party Platform is to do just such a thing. What would remain to be seen if this option prevails is how the human rights discourse of the anti-Castro forces adapts to the rounding up of illegal immigrants, to racial profiling and the barring of Muslim immigrants in the US.

Two: Rubio and Trump kiss and make up and Trump convinces Rubio and some of the Cuban-American Representatives that the best way forward for the United States, for Cuba and for their constituents in Florida (and for Rubio’s career) is to continue moving forward with normalization on a pro-business platform.

Three: Trump and Rubio (and Cruz) continue despising each other but Trump moves forward with the US business lobby no matter what the Cuban-American Representatives and the anti-Castro lobby have to say.

Should an advancing pro-normalization scenario win, the sticking points in the negotiations are likely to get stickier. Take, for example, immigration, Guantanamo, compensations and the complete lifting of sanctions.

If Trump builds any kind of wall on the US-Mexico border and moves forward on his promise of reduced immigration, the preferential Cuban Adjustment Act will find itself up against the wall too. Its suspension would mean that dissatisfied Cubans would have no preferential entry into the US, and this increases political volatility and the potential for civil unrest in Cuba. In anticipation of such a move, a slow-trickle mini-Mariel exodus is already in the works.

A hawkish State Department is not likely to look favorably at the dismantling of the US Naval base in Guantanamo or give any play to Cuban demands for its return. Given Trump’s campaign promises to Venezuelans that his government would strongly oppose President Maduro, US military strategist are probably busy coming up plans that give the Naval base a key role in the process of signalling that the US is ready to act.

As for compensations, the US-Cuba business lobby includes those seeking reparations for nationalization during the early Revolution. Will Trump saddle up with Starwood Hotels and their new hotel concessions in Cuba or with Bacardi and their claims over the Havana Club brand among many?

Lastly, as far as the end of the sanctions regime, there are too many other things to worry about now. Moreover, the partisan conflict between Democrats and Republicans over all kinds of policy platforms will be accompanied by an even more vociferous conflict between the various strands of a Republican party in major disarray and in search for what it means to be a Republican. Thus, repealing the Helms-Burton Act, something that seemed like a slam-dunk in a Clinton administration, is now too touchy an issue for the Republicans to put on the agenda. With Rome burning, Cuba is once again relegated to the back burner, unless a mini-Mariel exodus starts a kitchen fire. And this definitely will upend the normalization policy.

What we know about how the Cubans might react to Trump 

In its usual blunt style, though not officially directly linked to the election results themselves (Trump and the Cuban-American Congress members), on November 9th, Cuba announced the launch of five days of nationwide military exercises to prepare troops to confront what the government calls “a range of enemy actions”. A ‘show of force’ Cuban style, just in case.

President Trump will have to develop an arm’s-length relationship with his business interests to avoid accusations of conflict of interest. However, how his politically active and highly visible progeny divvy up the family business interests and the spoils of their newly acquired political booty remains to be seen. For a corporation with real estate, leisure, travel and entertainment interests, an aggressive move in Cuba seems like a natural. And Trump was actually ahead of the curve. In 1998, the company made an embargo-violating corporate scouting trip to Cuba.

Trump casinos will definitely not be on the agenda since their disappearance from the Cuban scene is still regarded as highly symbolic of the integrity of the Revolution. Golf courses are a hot potato in Cuba because the island’s water resources are already strained. Trump Towers developers would have to come to terms with erecting (or brand-licensing) their building on leasehold land owned by the Cuban state. Trump wines would meet stiff competition from European products already distributed on the island.

A very worrisome part of a President Trump-led business promotion effort is the kind of business that a climate change-denying, pro-coal US administration is likely to promote and facilitate in Cuba. Moreover, Trump has political debts to pay to coal, Midwest big agribusiness and the rust belt. A Trump administration is likely to protect the interests of these sectors over more sustainable ones such as renewable energy, organic agriculture and sustainable tourism. A Trump corporate advance is also not likely to have sustainability as a top of mind concern. The Trump corporate website does not appear to contain a corporate sustainability report.

The promotion of these outmoded and unsustainable business models would be most unfortunate. The confluence of Cuba’s ‘2030’ development plans, the rapidly evolving and well-financed post-COP21 low carbon economy dynamic, and the US-Cuba normalization process presented the island with an ideal scenario in which to develop sustainably. The business case for a sustainable Cuba may now fall on deaf ears when it comes to Trump-promoted business prospects.

Despite Cuba’s highly publicized recent round of ‘open for business’ measures, the opening of American hotels and US airline concessions, the Cuba leaders remain deeply suspicious of the American government and its commercial interest in Cuba. The ‘deals’ have not materialized and the US business community is quickly souring on Cuba. Will they continue to press for further openings if there is no quick return on investment?

If the business community gives up its pressure to end the embargo (because the Cuban themselves are driving them crazy with their inaction), the easiest thing for President Trump to do is to align with the Cuban-American lobby and follow the Republican Party platform as a demonstration of his willingness to follow along with traditional Republican stances. This is a low political-cost/high symbolic-value trade-off.

President Obama’s negotiating team and the Josefina Vidal-led Cuban negotiating team have done wonders to move the normalization agenda forward. Even if this process were to continue with the support of a new bi-partisan coalition, President Trump’s bluntness and impatience, his sheer ignorance of the give-and-take of foreign policy-making and trade negotiations, and the touchiness of Cuban diplomats and negotiators does not augur well for a smooth normalization process.

With President Trump at the helm, figuring out Rubik’s Cuba just got a lot harder.

This article first appeared in Sagebien’s blog on Huffington Post

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