Trump’s anti-Cuba posturing clashes with his ‘America First’ doctrine

If Trump wants to stop basing foreign policy on human rights concerns, why is he knuckling under to Cuba hardliners?

Passengers check in for the first direct commercial flight from Newark to Havana in decades, in November 2016. CREDIT: AP Photo/Julio Cortez
Passengers check in for the first direct commercial flight from Newark to Havana in decades, in November 2016. CREDIT: AP Photo/Julio Cortez

Less than a year after America and Cuba formally reopened diplomatic ties and relaxed many conditions of the ongoing economic embargo, President Donald Trump will reportedly call an end to the United States’ new beginning with its closest communist neighbor.

The move is out of step with Trump’s broader commitment to reorienting American foreign policy around hard-edged economic and security interests, as opposed to seeking to export democratic values. Re-freezing the newly thawed cultural and economic portal between the countries makes sense only as a means to punish Cuban dictator Raul Castro’s regime for failing to allow a free and open society to prevail on the island.

Though Trump himself had reportedly explored business and hotel deals in Cuba, his campaign seemed to take its cues from Florida congressional delegation hardliners like Sen. Marco Rubio (R) and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R). Cuba-watchers had therefore braced for an abrupt reversal of President Barack Obama’s diplomatic overtures.

The whiplash speed of Trump’s own reversal makes it hard to predict exactly what form this new policy will take, Florida International University professor and Cuba expert Frank Mora told ThinkProgress.

“I was one of those after the election who thought the president doesn’t care much about this issue, he’s changed his position quite a bit, so he is going to outsource Cuba policy to those for whom Cuba mattered, and then at some point they would owe him [politically],” Mora said.

“But I’ve been hearing through the grapevine that there’s quite a bit of debate within the administration on this review.”

One camp within the White House advocates the line Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL) laid out in a March memo to Trump: A 90-day ultimatum for sweeping concessions from Havana, after which Cuba policy would revert to where it stood before Obama’s re-opening. Another camp seeks middle ground.

“There’s another school of thought that argues, listen, we can do certain largely symbolic things without hurting or reversing some of the good that has come out of the Cuba policy change,” Mora said.

Reports that Trump will “reverse Obama policy” insinuate a concrete, simple action. But the actual policy apparatus here is complex enough to allow Trump significant wiggle room. He can take a very public action and declare victory, Mora said, without necessarily fulfilling the demands of the aging hardliners on Cuban relations.

“My sense is that things are leaning toward the more symbolic version. Envision this: In the next couple weeks, the president has a signing ceremony in the Oval Office, surrounded by Cuban-American legislators and maybe even a Cuban dissident,” said Mora. “Politically it will be important for him to say, as he’s done since the election, ‘Promises made, promises kept.’”

But on the substantive layer of things, Mora said, Trump is in a tighter bind than it may seem. If he fully restricts travel again and tears up the early normalization of diplomatic and business ties begun under Obama, American companies excited about the prospect of a new market will be unhappy. If he settles for just restoring limits on Cuban cigars and rum — Mora’s example of the minimum-effort end of Trump’s spectrum of choices — then Diaz-Bahlart and other hardliners in Congress may bolt.

It isn’t just interest groups and elected officials who are split here. The Cuban-American population itself is in upheaval. After generations during which harsh opposition to Castro’s Cuba and fierce support for the American embargo were the dominant attitudes across all sub-demographics, recent years have seen attitudes thaw among younger Cuban-Americans. Polling done by Mora’s colleagues at FIU since 1991 finds that while most senior citizens remain opposed to the Obama thaw, the majority of those younger than 65 strongly support a gradual end to the embargo and re-opened economic and cultural ties to the island.

To whatever extent younger Cuban-Americans agree with Obama’s analysis that decades of embargo and silence had netted no material improvement in either Cubans’ lives or American relations with the island, their votes in a key state like Florida could be another factor in Trump’s calculus.

But setting the politics aside, Mora said, a Cuba crackdown wouldn’t make much sense in the broader context of Trumpian America-First foreign policy.

“The president and the secretary of state [Rex Tillerson] have been very, very clear that human rights and democracy are not going to be a central part of our foreign policy anymore,” he said, pointing to Trump’s prioritization of Saudi ties and the administration’s cozying up to Turkish President Recip Tayip Erdogan. “Doesn’t matter in the Middle East, in Asia, in Russia, we’re not going to use it as a core part of foreign policy anymore as we have for decades.”

“But when it comes to Cuba, their democracy matters, we want a better deal from the Cubans on democracy,” said Mora. “It shows once again, unfortunately, that Cuba is no longer a policy where the president is pursuing the national interest as he sees it.”