Donald Trump's 'America Second' Cuba Policy

The president is pursuing a course that will harm American citizens––and that may help his family’s business interests by hurting its corporate rivals.

Eric Thayer / Reuters

In “Trump’s Cuba Policy Will Fail,” Ben Rhodes offers a strong substantive critique of the president’s decision to pander to a Republican special interest group by reversing his predecessor’s rapprochement with the island nation.

“As a democracy-promotion vehicle, the embargo has been a failure,” notes Rhodes, who was the architect of that rapprochement as Obama’s deputy national-security adviser. “For more than 50 years, it has been in place; for more than 50 years, a Castro has governed Cuba. If anything, the embargo has provided a justification for the Cuban government to suppress political dissent in the name of protecting Cuban sovereignty.”

That critique is quite similar to one offered by the libertarians of Reason magazine, the last place you’ll find any illusions about the awfulness of Fidel Castro and his regime.

As Anthony L. Fisher wrote there:

The half-century-long embargo did not defeat the Castros, or communism, or lead to any meaningful liberalization of economic or human rights on the island nation. If anything, it provided the Castros with a ready-made excuse that the source of Cubans' poverty and isolation was yanqui imperialism. … Allowing for more trade with Cuba will allow for more information to flow to the people, who when freed from the myopia caused by some of the strictest government censorship in the world will stand a better shot of overthrowing their tyrannical one-party system.

The Reason article concluded that “reverting to the previously failed position is worse than fighting the last war, it's fighting the last losing war.” And it added an insight that voters who supported President Trump ought to find especially compelling: Isolating the Castros “is a self-spiting position from an American point of view.”

Indeed, for a man who ran on an “America First” platform––once telling Wolf Blitzer that he had ambitions to open a hotel in Cuba, and that it was okay to bring them into the fold––Trump is now adopting a position that embodied a failed Washington, D.C. foreign-policy consensus for decades, and is a decidedly “America Second” approach.

After all, if he goes forward with “plans to announce he is clamping down on travel and commercial ties with the island nation,” as The New York Times reports, he will be heavy-handedly restricting the freedom of American citizens who wish to travel to the country and American employers that wish to sell American-made products there, even as the citizens of other nations are free to travel and do business in Cuba.

America’s loss will be the gain of the EU, China, and Latin America.

The notion that American citizens should bear those costs in the name of advancing human rights is refuted by the aforementioned decades in which those very policies exacerbated the immiseration of Cubans without benefiting them in the least. And it is difficult to believe that Trump is truly motivated by human-rights concerns as he moves to restrict Cuba commerce, given his personal willingness to do business in numerous foreign countries that perpetrate human rights abuses, and the deadly weapons he has sold in his official capacity to Saudi Arabia’s repressive regime.

Why might President Trump do this beyond trying to shore up the support of a Republican interest group as he fights back against an FBI investigation and calls for his impeachment? The Washington Post raises one possibility that should not be ignored: the owner of a real estate company with a big stake in hotels and resorts, Trump brings an added element to an issue that is unique to his presidency — the ability, through his official actions, to undermine a growth area for his industry rivals who have raced in recent years to establish a foothold in a lucrative new market.

Starwood Hotels and Resorts, which merged with Marriott International to form the world’s largest hotel chain, last year debuted the first Cuban hotel managed by a U.S. company in nearly 60 years, taking advantage of President Obama’s 2014 move to normalize relations with Cuba and lighten regulations enforcing the U.S. embargo on the island. Trump is expected to announce in Miami on Friday his intention to ban certain financial transactions between U.S. businesses and the Cuban military, whose companies control much of the island’s economy and a significant share of the tourism and hotel sector. That directive could undercut efforts by the U.S. hotel industry, which hopes to use the Starwood deal as a template as it continues to push Congress to lift the ongoing U.S. embargo completely.

The Trump family’s company operates no known properties in Cuba. The resulting conflict of interest illustrates why it is so problematic that Trump continues to profit from the Trump Organization’s global holdings even as he executes U.S. foreign policy. It would be better for the United States if he gave up his role as a global business elite by selling off his businesses, but he doesn’t care to do what’s best for America.

If he proceeds on Cuba, his family’s business may win even as American citizens lose. Should he reverse course before the end of his tenure, don’t be shocked if Havana’s horizon is thereafter transformed by a new building topped with the Trump name.