Trump's Cuba Policy Reversal

The president announced changes meant to make it harder to travel and do business with the island.

Javier Yanez stands on his balcony decorated with U.S. and Cuban flags in Old Havana, Cuba.
Ramon Espinosa / AP

President Trump announced Friday a drastic change in the U.S.-Cuba relationship, swapping a policy of cultural exchange to bring about democratic ideals for something closer to the embargo-style policies from past decades. Speaking in Miami’s Little Havana district, Trump said he plans to cut off income to the Castro regime, with the hopes of bringing about free elections, by once again limiting tourism and trade to the island.

Reversing U.S.-Cuba policy was a campaign promise of Trump’s—one that has grown increasingly unpopular with the majority of Republican voters—but one that White House officials said Trump planned to keep. "Effective immediately,” Trump told the crowd, “I am canceling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba.”

Trump’s policy change, however, does not go into effect immediately, as White House officials who briefed reports beforehand pointed out. The finer details will be worked out in the future by agencies like the Department of Treasury. Trump’s policy also does not completely reverse the Obama administration’s policy, though it takes away key parts that allowed travel and trade. The largest change from current policy will be doing away with “people-to-people” exchanges. These trips were enabled under the Obama administration so Americans could travel to Cuba without asking permission first from the U.S. government or having to schedule the trip through a licensed tour company. Trump’s new policy also prevents U.S. companies from doing business with Cuba’s Armed Forces Business Enterprises Group (GAESA), which, because it is involved with nearly every sector of the economy, will severely limit trade. Trump’s policy is expected to make an exception for U.S. companies already doing business with GAESA, so flights, cruises, and already-scheduled hotel deals will likely be exempt. Trump did not offer specifics to the deal in his speech, and instead he made sweeping claims that his “historic” policy would eventually defeat the Castro regime—despite his policy falling somewhere between the 50-year-old embargo and the more relaxed policy of the Obama administration.

“With God’s help, Trump said, “a free Cuba is what we will soon achieve.”

Trump’s policy is thought to be borrowed from Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, both Republicans who represent many Cuban American voter, and both of whom have called for continuing  the 50-year old trade blockade against Cuba. But Rubio and Diaz-Balart, and now the Trump administration, are in a shrinking minority.

Leading up to May 20—the date of Cuba’s 1902 independence from the U.S.—there was speculation Trump would use the moment to announce changes to U.S.-Cuba policy. When the day came and went without word, seven GOP representatives signed a letter last week that argued for keeping the current relationship on the grounds of national security. They cited nine bilateral agreements signed between the U.S. and Cuba since the thaw, including those that combat human trafficking, identification fraud, and drug smuggling. They also said if the U.S. didn’t expand into the Cuban economy, Russia and China surely would, as they’ve already begun to do. Republican voters, too, have come around, and overall more than 75 percent of Americans support the Obama administration’s policy. So why is Trump reversing it?

Much of Obama’s six major policy changes, starting in 2014, were done through executive order or regulatory changes, since only Congress can reverse the embargo. Most significantly, Obama loosened travel restrictions so that practically any American could visit Cuba, as long as their trip included educational activities, including people-to-people cultural exchange. The administration also opened trade, allowing certain medical supplies, telecommunication technology, and agricultural goods to flow between nations. At the embassy flag-raising ceremony, which announced the opening of U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said there’d been “too many days of sacrifice, and, sorry, too many days of suspicion and fear.” In March of last year, Obama made a historic visit to Cuba, the first sitting president to do so since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. And as the door to trade creaked open, U.S. companies took advantage.

On his trip, Obama mentioned an Alabama business that would “be the first U.S. company to build a factory here in more than 50 years.” He was speaking of two businessmen, Horace Clemmons and Saul Berenthal, whose proposal to assemble tractors in Cuba was the first approved by the administration. Obama spoke too soon, because Cuba rejected the project (possibly because the tractor technology was 70 years old). However the government has accepted many other U.S. companies since then, all of them eager to tap into the Cuban market. Starwood Hotels and Resorts struck a deal to manage hotels in Cuba. Technology companies like Airbnb let Cubans rent their homes to tourists, and last year some 600,000 Americans visited the island. To accommodate travel, airlines like JetBlue, Southwest, and American Airlines began some 20 flights per day to Cuban cities. In the Midwest, farmers looked on eagerly, hoping for an end to the embargo and the opening of Cuba’s speculated $1 billion agricultural market.

In Cuba, the trade of technology meant internet access flourished. This undermined the Castro regime’s hold on the information, and it spurred entrepreneurism. Last year the Cuban government even legalized small- and medium-sized private businesses. In the short period it was active, the policy seemed to be doing what half a century of embargo had not for Cubans. Domestically, in the U.S., it even seemed to be changing minds.

A U.S. Senate bill to lift travel restrictions that in 2015 had just eight supporters, now has 55, both Democrat and Republican. “Recognizing the inherent right of Americans to travel to Cuba isn’t a concession to dictators, it is an expression of freedom,” Arizona Republican Jeff Flake said.

His current stance against the embargo notwithstanding, as recently as last March, Trump said he’d be interested in opening a hotel in Havana. “I would, I would,” he told CNN. “At the right time, when we’re allowed to do it.” And though he has long called Fidel Castro, the late Cuban leader, a “killer” and a “criminal,” as early as 2012 Trump Organization executives were traveling to Cuba to scout a possible golf course investment deal, according to an investigation by Bloomberg Businessweek. Trump the candidate even praised Obama’s deal, though he had one qualm. The policy is “fine,” he told The Daily Caller. “I think it’s fine, but we should have made a better deal. The concept of opening with Cuba—50 years is enough—the concept of opening with Cuba is fine. I think we should have made a stronger deal.”

His change of opinion seemed to come a couple months before the election. Trump and then-candidate Hillary Clinton were about tied in Florida, and as he campaigned in Miami he took a stance that would please some of Florida’s older Cubans. He demanded “religious and political freedom for the Cuban people,” though he avoided policy specifics. As the race grew tighter, with some polls giving Clinton a slight advantage in Florida, a few weeks before the election Trump accepted the first-ever presidential endorsement from the influential Brigade 2506, the veterans of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. At their headquarters in Little Havana, Trump uttered a few words in Spanish, and he promised to reverse Obama’s policy. “The United States should not prop up the Castro regime economically and politically, as Obama has done and as Hillary Clinton plans to do,” Trump said. “They don’t know how to make a good deal, and they wouldn’t know how to make a good deal if it was staring at them in the face. ”

While Trump may have received an election endorsement from Brigade 2506, its hardline stance toward Cuba does not represent that of the Cuban-American community’s. In fact, Cuban-American’s are almost evenly split on whether the U.S. should engage more with the island, and generally the younger generation supports a closer relationship. Whether it’s Cuban-Americans, his own Republican voters, or even Congress, the future would seem to be pointing to an end to embargo-style policies. It’s one reason Trump’s timing is a mystery, though there’s been plenty of speculation.

Reversing Obama’s executive orders, while unpopular to most people, didn’t require much finesse, assuaging of opponents, or even coordination of his team. All Trump needed to do was borrow policy ideas from Rubio and Diaz-Balart and sign an order. In 56 years, the embargo has not brought democracy to Cuba, has done little to improve human rights, and has not removed the Castros from power. Only time has managed to help that. But Trump has struggled to pass policies domestic or foreign. He needed a win, and Cuba was as close as it gets to a sure thing.