Donald Trump is officially the president elect of the United States. This is significant for a number of reasons, and it will impact people both in the U.S. and abroad. It will also lead to a number of Obama policies being altered or, in some cases, completely reversed. Obama’s recent rapprochement with Cuba might be one such case. Though, to be clear, it is still far too early for specific prognostications about Trump’s foreign policy agenda. As I wrote in another piece, “[N]obody – including Donald Trump – knows what kind of foreign policy the Trump administration will pursue. Trump seems to have very few fixed views, and his stated foreign policy goals stand in sharp contrast with the more hawkish views of traditional Republican politicians.” Thus, a discussion of Trump’s impact on Cuba is, in reality, two discussions: one about the impact of his policies, and another about whether or not he will change policies at all.
In 2015, President Barack Obama announced an easing of sanctions on Cuba. This was a historic shift in U.S. policy toward Cuba, which had called for complete isolation of the communist state since 1960, when the Cuban government nationalized all foreign firms operating on the island. In December of 2014, Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro agreed to restore full diplomatic ties, leading to the reopening of the American embassy in Cuba. Obama further eased tensions between the two countries by conducting a prisoner swap and easing restrictions on travel and remittances (1). Nevertheless, large parts of the embargo remain in places because the Helms-Burton Act, which is the current legal basis for Cuba sanctions, grants only Congress the ability to lift the embargo. Given that Congress has been dominated by the Republican Party in recent years, Obama has been unable to get Congressional cooperation on Cuba.
This leaves the door open for President Trump to walk back Obama’s initiatives and impose new restrictions on U.S. diplomatic and economic ties with Cuba. Given that he leads a united Republican-controlled government, there is little stopping Trump from rolling back all of Obama’s policy changes toward Cuba and the Castro regime. For example, Trump might break off diplomatic ties and reclose the embassy. He might also impose new restrictions on capital flows between the two countries, blocking tourism and further regulating remittances. At the most extreme, Trump might engage in limited military actions against the communist regime, although this scenario would be highly unlikely. Nevertheless, recent reporting suggests that the Cuban military has engaged in a number of large-scale military drills to prepare for potential disputes with the United States (2).
This raises the question, then: What are the potential side effects of a more antagonistic policy toward Cuba? The good news is that Cuba policy is unlikely to be that significant. Cuba is a very small country that has minimal economic and political linkages with the United States. Furthermore, while Cuba has a considerable amount of clout within Latin America, many of its ideological allies – for example, Venezuela – are preoccupied with internal crises, and it lacks the influence to diplomatically challenge the United States in the Western Hemisphere. Thus, the negative repercussions of a more hostile and aggressive foreign policy toward Cuba would be constrained by structural forces and the limits of Cuban power.
Nevertheless, a reversal of Obama-era reforms toward Cuba could still generate significant repercussions for the United States. For one, it would weaken America’s global image, and tarnish America’s reputation in its own backyard. Every year, the United Nations holds a symbolic vote against the Cuban Embargo, and every year, every country besides the United States and Israel vote against the embargo (3). In Latin America, nearly every country overwhelming views the embargo as a negative and counterproductive policy, and they continuously call for the United States to restore full diplomatic and economic ties with Cuba. By moving to reestablish normal relations with the communist regime, Obama created goodwill both regionally and globally. Many countries viewed his policy changes to be progressive and forward-looking, as they consider the Cuban Embargo to be a relic of the Cold War (4). Were Trump to reverse course, he would significantly harm America’s global standing, making it more difficult for the United States to negotiate agreements with regional powers. Cooperation on trade, counter-narcotics, and counter-terrorism in Latin America would, therefore, become far more difficult.
A reversal of Obama’s policies toward Cuba might also retard Cuba’s transition from a completely state-controlled communist economy to a more market-based economy. By increasing diplomatic and economic linkages, Obama has created conditions likely to accelerate Cuba’s transition to a more capitalist system. Student and diplomatic exchanges expose Cuban intellectuals to alternative systems of economic governance, and increased economic linkages through tourism and remittances grant the U.S. greater economic leverage over the island. Indeed, the more interconnected the two countries become, the more influence the U.S. will possess over Cuba, allowing it to help guide reforms needed for economic growth and political changes (5). By reneging on commitments made by Obama, Trump provides an easy and convincing scapegoat for the Cuban government. They can argue that they sought to strengthen relations with the U.S., but instead of receiving earnest cooperation, they were subjected to a bait and switch. Furthermore, by limiting American diplomatic and economic influence on the island, the U.S. risks prolonging the economic stagnation and political repression on the island (6). While the material impacts of this on the U.S. are relatively insignificant, they are not zero. U.S. companies will continue to lack access to a potentially profitable of market, and the U.S. government will be forced to deal with an uncooperative and closed-off country 90 miles off the coast of Florida.
Clearly, then, it would be better if Trump chose to simply continue Obama’s Cuba policies, and it would be better still if Trump pressured his congressional allies to fully lift the embargo. This raises the question of whether Trump actually will choose to reverse Obama’s policy changes. At a superficial level, it seems obvious that he would. After all, Republicans have generally been vehemently opposed to Obama’s improving of relations, and the Florida-based Cuba Lobby would try to exploit their leverage to pressure Trump into restoring the diplomatic isolation of Cuba.
However, there are certain reasons to believe that Trump actually might choose to leave most of Obama’s changes in place. First, as explained previously, Cuba is a relatively insignificant foreign policy problem. Thus, it would be easy for Cuba to be overlooked as Trump focuses his attention on ISIS, North Korea, China, and Russia. As long as Castro does not intentionally provoke Trump or sabotage relations, it is entirely conceivable that Cuba gets lost in the craziness of a presidential transition. Second, Trump also might intentionally elect not to restore punitive diplomatic and economic restrictions on Cuba because of his private business interests. Indeed, Trump has already taken a number of actions that suggest that he is primarily focused on using the presidency to further his business interests and expand further into the international market. He used his position as president elect to pressure Argentine President Mauricio Macri for a hotel permit, for example, and his daughter Ivanka – a private businesswoman with no position in the government – attended a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (7). Given Trump’s frequent mixing of government duties with private business deals, it would actually be quite shocking if he were to restrict access to Cuban markets, as they represent a largely untapped and potentially lucrative tourism zone. As Trump is primarily a hotel and casino developer, it would make a lot of business since for him to actually further open to Cuba so as to allow his company greater access to a potentially very profitable market. In fact, one of the smaller scandals of the 2016 campaign was that Trump violated parts of Helms-Burton in 1998 by doing business in Cuba and then using loopholes to make it look like a charitable donation (8). It is not inconceivable, therefore, that Trump decides to keep his options open in Cuba.
Trump’s Cuba policy is far from clear at this point. Unlike many other issues – the TPP, ISIS, Russia, etc. – Trump has spoken very little on Cuba beyond token criticism of Obama’s rapprochement. Thus, has a relatively flexible set of options from which to choose. Of course, he will receive strong pressure from the more hawkish elements of the GOP to restore full diplomatic isolation, but it isn’t clear how much influence more establishment GOP figures will have in a Trump administration, especially when their counsel directly cuts into Trump’s potential bottom line. Fortunately, Cuba is such a small player that regardless of which actions Trump chooses to pursue, there will likely be any major impact on the United States. Nevertheless, the way in which Trump chooses to deal with Cuba will be incredibly revealing, as it will reveal both the power of GOP hawks within his administration as well as the degree to which Trump cares about private earnings when negotiating as the president. It will also reveal how ideological Trump is and provide greater insights into whether all of Trump’s campaign rhetoric against the “bad deals” of Obama was simply crafted out of political expediency or if it accurately reflects Trump’s worldview. With Trump, the future is uncertain. Whatever he chooses to do, though, will be highly revealing about his broader set of policy preferences.
(1) Renwick, Danielle. “U.S.-Cuba Relations.” Council on Foreign Relations. September 7, 2016. Web.
(2) Chang, Joshua. “Cuba Holds National Military Drills.” The Caravel. November 16, 2016. Web.
(3) Borger, Julian. “US abstains from UN vote to condemn Cuba embargo for the first time.” The Guardian. October 26, 2016. Web.
(4) Forero, Juan. “U.S.-Cuba Deal Welcomed in Latin America.” The Wall Street Journal. December 17, 2014. Web.
(5) Whiting, Ashley. “Policy Recommendation to Lift the Cuban Embargo.” LEEHG Institute for Foreign Policy. January 30, 2013. Web.
(6) Rodriguez, Andrea. “Lack of customers dooms many Cuban businesses.” U.S. News and World Report. December 27, 2014. Web.
(7) Halper, Daniel. “Trump accused of talking personal business with Argentine president.” The New York Post. November 21, 2016. Web; Lima, Cristiano. “Ivanka Trump sits in on meeting with Japanese prime minister.” Politico. November 17, 2016. Web.
(8) Oppmann, Patrick. “Report: Trump violated law by doing business in Cuba.” CNN. September 29, 2016. Web.
Image: © Erwin F. | Dreamstime.com - Capitolio, Cuba
Sam Seitz is a student at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, where he studies International Politics, German, and European Studies. He has served as an analyst for the Roosevelt Institute at Georgetown University, specializing in defense and diplomacy, and runs the blog Politics in Theory and Practice. Sam’s areas of interest are, broadly speaking, security studies, alliance networks, European politics, and the intersection between comparative politics and international relations. Sam is also a devoted fan of the University of North Carolina’s men’s basketball team.