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Horowitz: Trump Takes Us Backward on Cuba

Tuesday, June 20, 2017


Rob Horowitz

President Trump’s decision, to put back in place some of the commercial and travel restrictions that were done away with by President Obama as part of his effort to forge a new and constructive era of US-Cuban relations is a step backwards. Trump announced the policy change this past Friday in front of an aging group of hard core anti-Castro activists in Miami’s Little Havana.  

Specifically, the Trump executive order prevents Americans and American companies from doing business with any part of the Cuban economy that is controlled by the government, military or intelligence services- which remains about 80% of the economy. including the tourist sector---and bans individuals from planning and executing their own travel in Cuba, restoring the provision that all travel be conducted through officially authorized education tours.   

Trump did not make a complete break with the Obama policies towards Cuba, leaving in place diplomatic relations and some new economic arrangements. Still, this policy shift moves us back toward the return of the failed and outdated policy of attempting to economically isolate the Communist state—a policy that we tried for 54 years without any success.  During that time period we normalized relations with other Communist nations, including China and Vietnam, but our policy for Cuba, a vestige of the Cold War, which ended more than 25 years ago, remained in place largely because of the disproportionate influence of the first generation of Cuban Americans who fled Cuba in the wake of the revolution and settled in large numbers in South Florida .

Fiercely anti-Castro, strategically located in an important swing state, historically overwhelmingly Republican in voting preference and always willing to contribute in large amounts to favored candidates and causes, this resourceful, entrepreneurial and successful generation of Cuban immigrants  amassed political power far exceeding their small share of the overall US population.  

It was this now aging generation of Cubans that by and large voted for President Trump in large measure due to his pledge to roll back the Obama opening to Cuba. His strong support from this cohort was one of the keys to his Florida victory. Politically, however, Trump is betting on the past more than the future. As a second generation of Cubans mainly born in the United States, however, comes of age and mortality takes its inevitable toll on the founding generation, attitudes in the Cuban community have shifted markedly with  a majority of younger Cuban-Americans supporting economic and diplomatic engagement with Cuba. Additionally, the Obama Administration’s Cuba policies are popular in the nation as a whole, supported by the overwhelming majority of the American people and by even larger majorities in Latin America, according to public opinion polling.

More importantly, Trump is rolling back policies that were achieving results, beginning to widen the Cuban private sector and bringing about an increase in online connectivity. His ill-advised actions puts at risk productive investments by American businesses that are already well-underway—ones that could be wins for both nations. That is why The U.S. Chamber of Commerce  opposed Trump’s decision, issuing a statement saying "today’s moves actually limit the possibility for positive change on the island.”

President Trump’s actions are particularly ill-timed, coming in the wake of Raul Castro’s announcement that he will be stepping down in 2018. His likely successor appears to be more market oriented and the best guess is that he will speed up the pace of reform. While Cuba is taking steps to move into the future, Trump is returning the United States to the failed policies of the past.

At this decisive point in Cuban history, American economic engagement and active diplomacy, opening up markets and creating incentives for reforms is all the more important and the stale and bellicose Cold War rhetoric that accompanied the President’s announcement is all the more irrelevant and counter-productive.

But President Trump will have an opportunity for a course correction. The one silver lining is the coming change of leadership in Cuba could provide Trump with the political cover he may feel he needs to put American-Cuban relations back on track and undo some of the damage he has just done. As an optimist, I hold out some hope for this eventuality.  


Rob Horowitz is a strategic and communications consultant who provides general consulting, public relations, direct mail services and polling for national and state issue organizations, various non-profits and elected officials and candidates. He is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island.


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