President Donald Trump’s obsession with undoing every policy of President Barack Obama’s continued last week. Fortunately, his actions on Cuba are less than he promised, but still more than is necessary.
On Wednesday, the administration announced tighter rules on travel and trade with Cuba. The changes stem from the directive Trump signed in June in Miami, surrounded by Cuban hardliners. “Effective immediately,” he said, “I am canceling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba.”
Well, not really.
The changes bar trade with 180 entities connected to the Cuban government. No American firms, for example, can do business with the economic zone in the coastal city of Mariel, from which the 1980 boatlift originated.
The Mariel restriction could hurt Florida especially, given today’s highly competitive shipping world. For Mariel is poised to become a feeder hub for jumbo freighters from Asia. From Mariel, smaller container ships could go to Florida ports, including those in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. By refusing to let our ports — and their business customers — work with Mariel, the president is putting jobs at risk.
In addition, Americans who don’t have family in Cuba basically won’t be able to make individual visits. They must travel with a licensed group and a representative. American visitors won’t be allowed to patronize certain hotels, stores or restaurants that have ties to the government. The list, though, is scattershot. Not all establishments that might have ties are banned.
“We have strengthened our Cuba policies to channel economic activity away from the Cuban military and to encourage the government to move toward greater political and economic freedom for the Cuban people,” Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said. Opponents of Obama’s opening have argued that travel and trade have benefited the communist regime at the Cuban people’s expense.
For all of Trump’s bombast in June, however, many key elements of Obama’s overall policy are unchanged. The United States still has diplomatic relations with Cuba, though the State Department has cut staff since a sonic attack last summer on American personnel. Neither has Trump revived the “wet foot, dry foot” immigration loophole that Obama closed. And there will be no changes for airline and cruise ship companies.
A telling reaction came from U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, who embraces the pre-Obama policy that had a 50-year record of failure. Though Diaz-Balart noted “some positive first steps” in the new rules, he was “disappointed that the regulations do not fully implement what the president ordered.” He blamed “individuals within the bureaucracy” loyal to Obama.
Actually, serious pushback has come from Republicans who don’t have a 1960s mindset on Cuba and business groups that see a potential market.
After Trump threw his big show in Miami, Arkansas Rep. Erik Crawford called the backward shift “failed, outdated and isolationist.” His state wants in on some of Cuba’s $2 billion annual farm imports. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce also said Trump’s directive would “limit the possibility for positive change on the island and risk ceding growth opportunities to other countries … “
Then there’s the annoying irony that in the name of freedom for Cubans, the Trump administration will restrict the freedom of Americans. The government allows travel to all manner of countries that are dangerous and/or have lousy human rights records, including China. Rules on Cuba, though, remain uniquely restrictive.
The supposed political power of the Cuban hardliners explains Republican resistance to progress. But that power is fading.
Recall that President Trump lost Miami-Dade to Hillary Clinton, 34-63. The FIU Cuba Poll shows 63 percent of Cuban-Americans in Miami oppose the embargo. Even the president said after entering the race: “The concept of opening with Cuba — 50 years is enough — the concept of opening with Cuba is fine.” He just wanted a better deal.
But this is not a better deal.
Augusto Maxwell is a lawyer who represents companies that do business in Cuba. He told The Miami Herald: “The Trump administration has edited, not undone, the Obama opening. The regulations are nowhere as severe as some people had feared.”
But neither do they make sense, in design or consistency. Trump could have issued basic business restrictions — minus the ban on Mariel — to give companies guidance and left the travel rules alone. He went further, to please the hardliners. Though the future on Cuba is still winning, Trump won’t let the past go away.