Trump Cuba Policy Reversal: More Sound and Fury, Signifying…. No Mucho

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She now spends much of her time in Asia and is currently researching a book about textile artisans. She also writes regularly about legal, political economy, and regulatory topics for various consulting clients and publications, as well as scribbles occasional travel pieces for The National.

By now, regular readers should be familiar with Trump’s drill. First off, there’s a splashy announcement of a policy change: this time, it’s rolling back his predecessor’s Cuba initiative. This change is often made by a legally dubious executive order,  or in a speech, or in some other non-binding form– certainly not by initiating– let alone completing– the often messy legislative process.

And then, when the dust is settled and the rhetoric is parsed, the mooted changes end up signifying– well, while I may not go quite as far as the Bard, but I will say: no mucho.

Announced Trump Changes

So, first off, what has Trump done?

On Friday,  Trump made a speech in Miami to an audience of Cuban exiles, Remarks by President Trump on the Policy of the United States Towards Cuba.

The takeaway from that speech were policy changes Trump announced that reversed his predecessor’s detente policy first launched in 2014, and cemented during a presidential visit to the island in 2016. From the White House’s June 16 Fact Sheet on Cuba Policy :

  • The new policy channels economic activities away from the Cuban military monopoly, Grupo de Administración Empresarial (GAESA), including most travel-related transactions, while allowing American individuals and entities to develop economic ties to the private, small business sector in Cuba….
  • The policy enhances travel restrictions to better enforce the statutory ban on United States tourism to Cuba. Among other changes, travel for non-academic educational purposes will be limited to group travel. The self-directed, individual travel permitted by the Obama administration will be prohibited. Cuban-Americans will be able to continue to visit their family in Cuba and send them remittances.

Most significantly, “the policy reaffirms the United States statutory embargo of Cuba and opposes calls in the United Nations and other international forums for its termination. The policy also mandates regular reporting on Cuba’s progress—if any—toward greater political and economic freedom” (as per the Fact Sheet). The goal is to force Cuba to address human rights abuses, release political prisoners, hold free and fair elections, legalize political parties, and in general, open its society, as reported in this Wall Street Journal account, Trump Announces Rollback of Obama’s Cuba Policy.

Trump’s new policy leaves the US Embassy in Havana open.

Impact on Cuban Politics

What does this mean? Well, first off, some accounts suggest that the Tump policy will backfire, and instead of improving protection for human rights and promoting Cuban policy and leadership changes that the US might applaud, has actually “dismayed moderates who were working with pro-engagement Americans but now fear association with a policy of open hostility toward the communist system could make them targets for repression”, as reported in this New York Times account, Tougher Trump Line Toward Cuba Delights Hardliners on Island.

Continuing with that NYT account:

“Trump’s become the independent business people’s new enemy because — even though he’s said he wants to help entrepreneurs — this new policy alienates entrepreneurs from the government,” said Angel Rodriguez, a 27-year-old sociologist who works with the Catholic Church in entrepreneurship-training programs. “That could bring them under fire now, and they could find themselves much weaker.”

Trump’s new policy retains key aspects of Obama’s reforms, leaving full embassies in Washington and Havana and letting U.S. cruise and airlines continue service to Cuba, although it will make travel harder by requiring most Americans to come in groups and banning payments to military-linked businesses.

Nor does the mainstream of US business seem exactly to be on board with the Trump changes. Permit me to again from the Wall Street Journal account cited above:

“Unfortunately, today’s moves actually limit the possibility for positive change on the island and risk ceding growth opportunities to other countries that, frankly, may not share America’s interest in a free and democratic Cuba that respects human rights,” said Myron Brilliant, executive vice president and head of international affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

What Else Changes?

To elaborate, as with respect to hotels, travel will be directed away from GAESA  properties, but will also hurt operations such as Air BnB, which, according to the Wall Street Journal account cited above, has been a major beneficiary of the previous US policy relaxation.

The Washington Post goes so far as to suggest, With shift on Cuba, Trump could undercut his company’s hotel-industry rivals, that if and when fully implemented, last week’s announced policy shift might harm competitors to Trump businesses. For the moment, I’m loath to credit that claim fully, absent undertaking my own research– which I have not done for purposes of this short post. Given the general hysteria surrounding putative conflicts of interest between Trump policy and Trump businesses, I will only say that alleged conflicts of interest should be taken with a grain of salt, absent close evaluation of further evidence.

Now, I also want to suggest, that even with respect to travel for US passport holders, the actual impact may not be less than appears. The rollback certainly doesn’t make things much more difficult than the status quo before the 2014 changes– which even then, allowed various educational, cultural, familial, and group exceptions to the US travel ban.  And going forward, this recent article, for example, from the San Francisco Chronicle, Cuba travel policy may favor the well-heeled tourist, suggests that affluent  tourists will still easily be able to visit Cuba. As  will, for that matter, will family visitors. Furthermore,  before any changes can take affect, both the Treasury and Commerce Departments must commence rule-making procedures within 30 days after last week’s announcement. Policy changes won’t take effect until these regulations are finalized, a process even the White House estimates may take several months. So until that process is completed, the exact impact of mooted policy changes will remain unclear.

I also want to mention another reason the changes may have even less impact than at first it may seem. A recent MarketWatch piece, Why American tourists don’t want to travel to Cuba, suggests that after an initial flurry, there’s been a drop-off in the interest of US tourists in Cuban travel, largely due to its lagging infrastructure. Sad as I am to see this– I’ve always wanted to visit Cuba and am not sure I want to pony up for an expensive group tour, as that’s far from my preferred mode of travel– it seems from that even if the agencies interpret Trump’s rhetoric strictly, US passport holders will still be able to visit Cuba, on much the same terms that have prevailed for the last several decades.

The Wall Street Journal account cited above also suggests that travel to Cuba hasn’t quite met the expected demand:

Scheduled air service between the U.S. and Cuba resumed last summer for the first time in 50 years. Cuba attracted a record 4 million foreign- visitor arrivals last year, up 13% from 2015, according to the Cuban government. While Canadians remained the largest group, Cuban Americans and other U.S. visitors numbered 614,000, up 34% from the prior year. But supply outstripped demand, and three U.S. airlines quit the market this year.

So if the expected interest of American tourists has yet to match expectations, and indeed, has fallen off, will the announced Trump tigthening actually change much at all?

Bottom Line

I’m going to go out on a limb here. And I suggest that at least with respect to this policy, Trump’s proving himself adept at hammering rhetoric that promises one thing– particularly to a set of supporters– while the actual policy changes he announces, let alone ultimately manages to implement– whether or not we believe in them– don’t amount to all that much. Does that sound familiar?

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  1. Corbin Dallas

    J-L, it still increases the perception of fear against ‘brown communism’ and reinforces the stay within your border mentality Tramp has. Plus, just because this benefits the rich, doesnt mean the poor don’t suffer. We travelled last year to Cuba after the relaxation and there were lots of middle class ppl from NYC going to see a country, not just the standard collection of 1% looking for an island getaway.

  2. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

    Yes, some concerns raised by what you’ve aptly called that “stay within your border mentality” had occurred to me. Please allow me to mull your insight further.

    I’m also curious: What was Cuba like? What did you learn from your trip?

    1. Jill

      Cuba is amazing! Pristine biodiversity, organic growing methods, fantastic culture, and an educated, friendly, laid-back population that has learned to get by in spite of this crippling embargo by sharing with their neighbors. It has its flaws, but its imperfections are part of its beauty.
      I fear that the US will do what the Canadians and Europeans have started doing to the island- turning it into another non-descript resort like Mazatlan.

    2. Corbin Dallas

      Hi J-L,

      Cuba is a fantastic place and beautiful in many ways, but the deprivations brought on by the collapse of the soviet union and the consequent scarcity of items means its tough to buy groceries (though not fruit/veg) and basics like coffee very easily. I loved that there were two currencies, so I as a gringo pay what I can afford for a mojito (CUC) while locals pay 1/3rd that in theirs (CUP).. its an affirmative action/socialist thing that really appealed to me.

      There’s a muted, but visible police presence, which I always pay attention to, but unlike say militarized Rio de Janeiro or NYC, the people really take up the public squares and the famous malecon (waterfront) as if it was their own. Also, unlike the images we have via American culture of white [conservative] Repubilcan Cubans in Florida, Cuba is very, very mixed race in ways that did remind me of Rio or the DR. Much more colorful than our reductive “latino” identity (which is really mostly upper class white). I would highly, highly recommend it.

      One other thing, I speak Spanish really well but the cuban accent was very tough for me lol.

  3. Bugs Bunny

    J-L, just go to Cuba. The people are wonderful and it’s an eye-opening experience. You can rent a car and travel all over the island. In the rural areas people will invite you into their houses. Havana is fantastic and so are all the provincial cities as well. It’s a great place.

  4. Mickey Hickey

    From a Canadian perspective Cuba is a safe destination and that is their main attraction. Safer than the US outside of New England. The resorts range from economical to comfortable not Four Seasons or Ritz Carlton pampering. The resort operators are mostly European and Mexican companies who already have large operations in their home regions. Health care is readily available and is competent, the health insurance fee is included and itemised in the airline ticket statement. This may be a purely Canadian-Cuban arrangement. Internet is usually slow and the shopping is not Fifth Avenue. Staff speak a number of foreign languages English, German, French, Russian in addition to Spanish. Service is friendly and competent, my impression is that people in Cuban service jobs are better educated and more intelligent than their counterparts in first world countries.
    China has a visible business presence in Cuba which will increase if the USA continues with its hostile attitude. Freedom and Democracy might get Trump some Congressional and Senate support in Florida but to the rest of the world it smacks of hypocrisy

    1. Joel Walsh

      The Cuba where Cubans live is not safer than the US, at least in terms of theft and robberies, and I would imagine, given the unbelievable levels of street harassment, sexual assault. And if you’re just going to stay in the resorts, why not just go to any other resort in any country on earth?

      The only place in the world I have ever been mugged.

      The problem is the Cuban government doesn’t publish these statistics so I’m just going off of numerous conversations with Cubans and plain common sense, a highly unequal society with a corrupt police force = lots of economic crime.

  5. Kris Alman

    I was on a People to People sanctioned trip to Cuba last year just after Obama visited and the embassy opened. Fidel was still alive and he was deeply suspicious of Obama’s fig leaf. Full translation here:

    Our tour guide was aghast by Castro’s comments–thought he was crazy. Her running response throughout the trip when we asked hard questions about life there was, “Es complicado.” It’s complicated.

    Cuba’s dual currency sets up a very unequal society driven by tourism.

    It means that doctors, professors and others who are highly educated often work as taxi drivers making far more money than they would in their profession.

    The black market thrives there. When flying from Miami to Havana, one sees huge plastic wrapped packages. I assumed that this was because people were too poor to buy luggage. But it’s done to mitigate the expense of bringing goods into Cuba. If I remember correctly, the first time people return from the U.S., there is no cost for items brought in. Thereafter, charges are determined by the weight of possessions brought in.

    Because my cousin is married to a Cuban national, I met a relative of hers who works in the tourism. The internet is forbidden, but Cubans who need this for business figure out how to get access. If they are caught, that is another story.

    Many internet hot spots have emerged near hotels where Cubans legally use their smart phones to connect to the world. It’s costly to use the hourly cards for tourists. My husband’s card was hacked by someone who used up his remaining time.

    We learned that while Cubans are all given free education, health care, housing and food, it’s uneven–especially in rural areas. It was so hard to get teachers to go to smaller towns that they had to shorten required education–leading to poorer quality of teaching in all schools. Thus, those who can afford it, tutor their children. Sounds familiar…

    As for doctors, so many of them are good will exports to countries with poor health care. This is a win for Cuban doctors, who earn more money, but a loss for Cubans who end up with worse care–often from foreign doctors who came there for a medical education or paramedical professionals. Very tiered healthcare. Sounds familiar…

    Housing is especially problematic in places like Havana. Older buildings housing multiple families are unsafe because it’s generally impossible to get all dwellers to come up with money to pay for maintenance. We went to one project where Canada subsidized improvements over time. The families had been using just one toilet for an entire floor and building out subfloors within their units to accommodate their growing family. Sounds familiar…

    We visited a store where families redeemed their vouchers on very limited staples–if they are available. An example: my cousin’s relative had family members send oatmeal for her sick mother from the U.S. because it’s unavailable in Cuba. Their food deserts are far worse than in poor America.

    There is no way to “sell” a home. Instead people convene in places to trade their homes.

    As for private businesses, we learned from the relative how she was able to help her ex-husband open a bar. Because she is of Spanish descent, she was able to get a Spanish passport to travel to the U.S. She has been to the U.S. only once, bringing back items he needed. But the first thing he had to do to open the business was relocate families who lived on the land where he wanted to build. I can’t imagine how he accomplished that!

    Our exposure to the arts on this trip was incredible. It included a rehearsal of the Malpaso Dance troupe in a former synagogue. They’ve come to the U.S. on tour multiple times, sponsored by the Joyce Theater Foundation. The selection process of arts education is rigorous, with kids who show interest and talent funneled to regional arts schools from an early age–ultimately competing for coveted university spots in Havana.

    Our last morning we met with Jorge Mario, a Cuban economist. We had a lively discussion over how development would move forward. I didn’t fully appreciate how U.S. sanctions were so devastating. Historically, if any ship docks in Cuba, it cannot come to the U.S. for 6 months. That is the bully club that isolated Cuba over the last five decades and sent them spiraling in the early 90’s after the Soviet Union collapsed.

    1. Joel Walsh

      I was in Cuba for four months in 2001 (exchange student) and have followed the news there on and off and I think Kris has a far better understanding of Cuba’s challenges than the average English-speaking foreigner and the commenters on this article. One possible correction: the government had announced the limit private sale of houses several years ago and even before that there were intermediaries who operated in a legal gray area and helped arrange three-way transfers of houses.

      One thing I want to emphasize is you have to hire your own translator/guide and bring them everywhere (if possible, a Cuban living abroad who is able to travel to the island) and try to build a rapport with them so they’re comfortable speaking candidly. I don’t want to be mean, but 90% of non-native US speakers of Spanish can’t carry on a normal conversation or even understand most of what they hear and vastly overestimate their abilities. If you don’t understand the language of the country you’re visiting, any country, you will come away with a grossly inaccurate view. I’ve met many North American visitors to Latin America and even expats who were living in a fool’s paradise of pleasant preconceptions. For the most part, I find discussions about Latin America with a large majority of North Americans to be completely infuriating for this reason–they don’t know what they’re talking about and don’t seem to respect Latin Americans enough to just read and listen to their own views on their societies, substituting their own fantasies instead. I would put Michael Moore firmly in this category–his portayal of Cuba in “Sicko” made me lose all trust in him.

      Also, one thing female visitors to Cuba should be aware of is that it has by far the worst street sexual harassment of women and girls I have ever heard of, including men exposing themselves and um…you know… Of course, if you are accompanied by a man at all times or even more so if you’re on a tour group, you will never experience this aspect of Cuban life and can cheerfully talk about progressive gender relations in Cuba.

      1. sharonsj

        My conversational Spanish is okay. I’m much better at reading and writing–would that help in understanding what is said? I’ve always wanted to visit Cuba.

        1. Outis Philalithopoulos

          As a general pattern, if you can read and write a language, then you are often well-placed to be able to understand significant scraps of what is being said once you are parachuted into a place where people speak only that language. Understanding tends to improve much faster than speaking at the beginning – it can happen within a week, or a month. Other factors that can make a difference include:

          (1) Once there, are you constantly forced to communicate in that language?
          (2) Do you have reasonably accurate pronunciation?
          (3) When reading, do you manage mostly to avoid mentally translating into your native tongue?

  6. Jer Bear

    Just another way for Trump to piss off everyone except his hardcore supporters. That’s his intent, and he is exceedingly good at it.

  7. Crazy Horse

    When I worked in Canada the company president was a true believer Harperite– somewhat further right on the conservative scale than George Bush. He though nothing about going to Cuba on vacation.

    The USA on the other hand believes in keeping its commoners captive, dumb and fearful. That way they will continue to pay for the boondoggles that the forces of the Empire feast upon.

  8. RUKidding

    Trump’s Cuba policy was red meat tossed to his base. Simple as that.

    I read that Trump really, really, really needs to hang onto his base support, which is dwindling.

    So, from that perspective, alone, his Cuba policy = smart (for him).

    As a so-called “businessman,” his Cuba policy = very very stupid and short-sighted.

    Well, what does anyone expect? Trump’s base has been so propagandized over the years that they wouldn’t know a good policy if it smacked them in the kisser. And if some policy was created by the N-word in THEIR WHITE house, then, by definition, it was a horrible dreadful awful policy that has Got. To. Go.

    That’s the devolution in US so-called “politics.”

    Not that the D-Team does anything – anything at all – to make improvements for their tradtitional “base.” That ain’t happening, either.

  9. MG

    Ask a hard core Trump supporter what exactly he has done in office that really resonates with them. I have a few in my family and professional circles in PA and NJ.

    They really struggle to give me a substantive answer. Maybe they mention getting tougher on ISIS with no specifics. Other mention the aborted travel ban on select Islamic countries. Some mention the TPP. Others mention the Paris Accords.

    The people who don’t pay much attention cite very generic things like improved domestic hiring by large companies, more illegal immigrant deportations, etc. Nevermind that most of these aren’t true if not false entirely.

    I haven’t seen a single credible poll though since the election that answers this question among his hardcore supporters. I would love to see it and the results.

    1. J.Fever

      Perception is reality.

      I saw a little dog dead on the side of the road.
      He had been hit and then just went into a sleeping nose to tail stance.
      I wonder if his loved ones ever know?

  10. dejavuagain

    Last year I went to Cuba, self-certifying as a people-to-people trip.
    My sense is that open travel has helped Cubans providing b and b’s, private restaurants etc.
    Many travelers bring in goods needed by the people.
    Trump’s retrograde actions will hurt ordinary people.
    Travel to Cuba was not as high as expected due to the perceived lack of tourist services.
    The Cuban government could just spin off the Army’s managers and operators of the hotels and bus and other tourist services – but so what that it is part of the Army. Trump wants to put pressure on his potential competitors in managing hotels. Everything Trump does needs to be considered from the perspective of his business operation present and in the future.
    This is highly regrettable. The more travel and the more commerce with the US, the faster things will change.
    If Trump were serious re democracy, the US would have embargos with many other countries.
    In the words of Trump –

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