Today Trump will travel to Miami to announce that his administration will roll back some of Obama’s openings to this country’s relationship with Cuba.
President Trump will announce a new policy toward Cuba Friday that prohibits any commercial dealings with Cuba’s economically powerful military and somewhat limits the freedom of U.S. citizens to travel to the island, but leaves in place many changes implemented by his predecessor.
In a speech to be delivered in the heart of Miami’s Little Havana, where an older generation of Cuban Americans has long objected to normalization of relations with the communist government of President Raúl Castro, Trump will declare an end to the Obama administration’s policy of “appeasement,” a senior White House official said.
Why would this rather small change become a priority for a president who is in the midst of policy battles over health care, taxes, infrastructure development and Wall Street regulations? That is a question worth exploring.
The most obvious reason is that it fulfills a promise Trump made to politicians like Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who depend of support from the hard line anti-communist bloc of Cuban voters in Florida. That fits with an overall strategy of reaching out to the base while ignoring the changes happening in the electorate. For example, here is what Univision reported about the Cuban-American vote in Florida in 2016:
Depending on your preferred poll, Clinton share of the Cuban-American electorate was somewhere between 47% to 41%. Either figure would be a near record high for Democrats who in 2000, 2004, and 2008 earned 25%, 29%, and 35%, respectively.
Conversely, surveys pinned President-elect Trump’s share of Florida’s Cuban-American electorate somewhere between 54% and 52%, a relatively low number for Republicans compared to George W. Bush (2000 and 2004) and John McCain’s performances of 75%, 71%, and 65%, respectively.
Nationally this is a loser for Trump in that 65% of Americans support Obama’s Cuba policy while only 18% oppose it.
The “appeasement” language is typical of the way Republicans like to talk about Democratic foreign policy. Here is how Trump officials described that part of the their argument for these changes:
The officials said that the aging Cuban government, in which Castro is due to be replaced next year by a designated successor, can return to favor with the United States by improving its human rights record, including lifting restrictions on dissent, releasing political prisoners and moving toward democracy.
Ben Rhodes, the architect of Obama’s Cuba policy, shoots that one down.
…there are dozens of authoritarian governments; we do not impose embargoes on China or Vietnam, Kazakhstan or Egypt. Last month, President Trump travelled to Saudi Arabia—a country ruled by a family, where people are beheaded and women can’t drive. He announced tens of billions of dollars in arms sales, and said: “We are not here to lecture. We are not here to tell other people how to live.” Can anyone credibly argue that Trump’s Cuba policy is motivated by a commitment to promote human rights around the world?
For someone who appears to be motivated more by resentment than ideology, we should not ignore the fact that Trump seems determined to do anything he can to damage Obama’s legacy as president. That could certainly be part of the reason for this announcement.
Finally, Drew Harwell and Jonathan O’Connell point to Trump’s business interests as a possible motivation.
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 Barack 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…
As part of an ethics pledge, Trump’s company has vowed to pursue no new foreign deals during his presidency, making a potential foray into Cuba off limits for now. Yet, according to one industry expert, a presidential directive restricting efforts there by Starwood or other hotel chains would, in effect, neutralize a chief rival’s ability to gain an early advantage.
These are the kinds of questions that will always be triggered for Trump due to his unwillingness to divest himself of his business holdings. They will be impossible to prove or disprove in most instances. But the easiest way to get them off the table would have been to do make them moot in the first place. He chose not to do that and will be plagued by these kinds of accusations as long as he serves.