Is Trump About to Reverse Obama's Cuba Policy?

Each year, the National Security Council performs an annual review of U.S. Cuban policy. Today’s New York Times reports that President Trump is debating whether or not, or just how much, to roll back the opening to Cuba instituted by Barack Obama in 2014, which culminated with the restoration of full diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2016.

Because Obama acted without going to Congress, and depended on the opening by the use of executive actions, as NPR reported in November of 2016, “Donald Trump could easily undo Obama's actions” -- precisely what he promised he would do during the campaign. Peter Quinter, who once worked in Miami for U.S. Customs enforcing the boycott of Cuba, now heads the Customs and International Trade Law Group and lobbies for businesses seeking investment in Cuba. He told NPR:

If the Trump administration reverses course … it will be back to the way it was, which is not good for the Cuban people or the American people.

The debate boils down to a fight between fiercely anti-Castro regime members of Congress -- such as Marco Rubio and Robert Menendez -- and various Cuban émigré groups, and those in Congress and the business community who strongly favor maintaining the opening. The division is not a simple one with Republicans on one side and Democrats on the other. Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota and Rep. Reid Ribble of Wisconsin, both Republicans, strongly supported the Obama opening, as does Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who hopes that eventually Congress can be persuaded to lift the still-existing embargo on Cuba.

The major argument against the Obama policy is the persistence of repression against advocates of democracy in Cuba by Raul Castro’s regime.

The Center for a Free Cuba in Washington, D.C., notes that since January of this year, 1867 dissidents have been arrested. Just last week, Amnesty International announced that a provincial court in Holguin ratified the March 20 sentence of human rights advocate Dr. Eduardo Cardet to three years in prison -- he had given interviews to international media in which he was critical of the Cuban government. Cardet was pushed off a bicycle he was riding by four plainclothes police in November of 2016, and was charged with attacking an official of the government. Cardet heads the Christian Liberation Movement, one of the active pro-democracy groups on the island, which advocates peaceful, democratic change and eschews violence.

The persistence of repression despite the opening is largely the fault of how the Obama administration handled negotiations with Cuba. Obama did not ask the Cuban government to do anything in return for a changed U.S. policy, such as releasing all political prisoners, ending human rights abuses, and halting arrests of democracy advocates.