President Trump announced on June 16 that his administration’s new Cuba policy will prohibit direct transactions with entities related to the Cuban military, intelligence, or security services. A number of commentators in the United States have written that this restriction could place serious restrictions on future U.S. commerce with Cuba, because the military, intelligence and security sector is a significant part of the economy. For example, an editorial by the New York Times asserted that “American companies and citizens will be barred from doing business with firms controlled by the Cuban military or its intelligence services, thus denying Americans access to critical parts of the Cuban economy, including much of the tourism sector.” Making a similar argument, Ben Rhodes, who played a central role in the Obama opening with respect to Cuba, writes that “large swaths of the Cuban economy [are] controlled by the military.”
Such commentaries are simply mistaken, as a matter of fact. The Revolutionary Armed Forces and the Ministry of the Interior, which directs intelligence and security, are a part of the Cuban government; but they in no sense control the government or the economy, nor are enterprises controlled by them an important sector of the economy. There are some enterprises owned and managed by the armed forces in such areas as the tourist and retail sectors, but there are many state enterprises in these and other sectors that are not tied to the military. After reading the commentaries, I talked with members of the Cuban Communist Party, and they all confirmed my previous understanding that the great majority of Cuban state companies in a variety of economic sectors, including tourism, communications, transportation, energy and mining are not tied to the military or to the Ministry of the Interior. Their sense was that it would not be difficult for U.S. companies to find trading and/or investment partners that would not be included in the new prohibitions.
Another specific changed announced by the Trump administration is the elimination of the individual people-to-people authorization for travel to Cuba. The people-to-people program had been developed years ago, on the basis of the belief that the people of the United States, interacting with the Cuban people, would influence thinking in such a manner that the people would push for changes in the socialist political-economic system. Prior to Obama, U.S. travelers in the people-to-people program were required to go through specific agencies, mostly in the Miami area, that had been authorized to conduct the program. These agencies were expected to conduct a full program of activities that involved interchanges with the people, and not with government representatives. The Obama administration modified the program, permitting U.S. travelers to travel and develop their activities on their own, with the same guidelines, but self-administered. With Trump’s elimination of the individual people-to-people program, U.S. travelers to Cuba wanting to use the people-to-people program will have to go through authorized agencies in the United States. No doubt, given that the number of U.S. travelers to Cuba has accelerated rapidly since the Obama opening, these agencies will launch advertising campaigns to attract travelers. In light of the growing number of direct commercial flights between the United States and Cuba, which the Trump prohibition does not touch, and the expanding number of hotels and rental rooms in Cuba, such expansion of the group people-to-people program is a definite practical possibility.
The biggest difference between the Trump and Obama programs is rhetoric. The Obama administration spoke in a respectful tone, but it in fact moved slowly in easing restrictions. The Trump administration invokes a hostile rhetoric, but it leaves intact the important changes initiated by Obama, and it leaves open the continued possibility of step-by-step improvement in relations between the two countries. It is possible that Trump’s rhetoric will slow the process of expanding relations, but given the number of forces that are in motion, the process will likely continue to evolve.
The difference in rhetoric, however, is not insignificant. It is a difference in projection: the Obama administration anticipated a normalization of relations, without demanding changes from Cuba; whereas the Trump administration insists on changes in the Cuban political-economic system as a condition for easing or eliminating the “embargo.” We should keep in mind, of course, that for the Unites States of America, normal relations include interference in the affairs of other nations, seeking to ensure access to raw materials and markets, as is evident today with respect to progressive Latin American governments. Accordingly, Obama, like Trump, wanted to change the Cuban system, because it is a system that is not designed to respond to U.S. interests. But Obama was trying a different strategy, recognizing that the embargo has not been effective in promoting U.S. interests. Obama intended to affect changes in Cuba through measures that would expand the growth of small private enterprise, with the expectation that this sector would be a natural ally of U.S. interests in relation to Cuba.
Cubans overwhelmingly view the Trump June 16 speech as a “show” and as full of comments about Cuba that are entirely inconsistent with Cuban reality. Some dismiss him as an “idiot;” others, as a “clown.” A joke is going around that, since there is a shortage of clowns for the Cuban circus, perhaps Trump would be interested.
But it would be a mistake to dismiss Trump as a clown or a jerk, either in Cuba or in the United States. In certain respects, the Trump “show” of June 16 was politically shrewd. It was a move to consolidate his right-wing base by obtaining the support of political actors who not only demand a tougher rhetoric against Cuba but also play a central role in the U.S. aggressive policy toward progressive governments in Latin America, a policy pursued by the Obama administration. The rhetoric against socialist Cuba is more consistent with U.S. policy toward Latin America as a whole. Moreover, the Trump policy avoids conflict with those businesses that want to develop commerce in Cuba, by leaving intact new structures and new possibilities for commerce and travel to the island. At the same time, the hostile rhetoric appeals to an important sector of U.S. public opinion. Trump presents himself as defending U.S. interests in Cuba, overturning an agreement with Cuba in which the United States gained nothing (other than improvement in its international image). Trump declares himself to be defending America, unlike the rest of the political establishment. Moreover, his speech recalls the former days of American glory, when the United States stood proud as a defender of democracy in the world, thus invoking an image that distorts international reality but that continues to have much popular appeal, inasmuch as it never has been effectively delegitimated by progressive tendencies in the United States.
Beyond the issue of U.S. policy toward Cuba, the Trump project as a whole has a certain logic, even though it ensures the continued decline of the United States and constitutes a threat to humanity. I will discuss further the logic of Trump in a subsequent post.