Forecasting President-elect Donald Trump’s Cuba policy is a difficult exercise since the New York millionaire has been inconsistent in his positions and explanations about the process of rapprochement begun by presidents Obama and Raúl Castro. Judging by his statements, Trump aims to break away from the liberal globalizing consensus that has dominated the great U.S. strategy since the end of World War II. However, few U.S. presidents structure their foreign policy based on the rhetoric of the electoral campaigns.
Whatever President Trump’s decision on Cuba is, realities exist that will not change:
1) The majority of U.S. citizens, Cubans and the Cuban-American community support the dialogue and exchange processes with Cuba. The ties woven between Cuba and Miami have today reached a critical mass that guarantees a rejection in Florida of any policy aiming to separate the two principal communities from the Cuban nation.
2) The international community rejects the U.S. embargo/blockade on Cuba and today is more disposed than ever to challenge the sanctions by promoting Cuba’s integration into the world economy and the western hemisphere. The U.S. president is not omnipotent and does not have the ability to force a rupture of those positions of dialogue and rapprochement on its European allies or on its strategic Chinese and Russian rivals.
3) In the U.S. bureaucracy of diplomacy and security the opinion predominates that the embargo/blockade policy has been a failure, and that the Obama strategies allow for advancing in the negotiation of issues of common interest for the two countries. Today there isn’t a symbolic obstacle to the dialogue between the two states as was the case of the detention of the five Cuban agents and Alan Gross. No administration can back down from this.
4) Cuba is not a threat to national security and is of scarce importance to U.S. foreign policy. Eliminating the work groups, the bilateral commission for negotiations between Cuba and the U.S. and the repeal of the presidential directive of October this year would require from the president-elect an attention that would be irrational given the challenges confronted in other regions like East Asia and the Middle East. Trump will not be able to again include Cuba on the Department of State’s list of countries that sponsor terrorism without adulterating with party manipulations a process that generally operates with a technical criterion.
These four structural factors, together with the five decades of Cuban nationalist resistance to U.S. coercive imperial policy, guaranteed the defeat of the embargo/blockade policy in December 2014.
Trump cannot do much more against Cuba than what George W. Bush created with the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba between 2004 and 2006. The reality was that Cuba survived. Cuban nationalism has proven it knows how to defeat all those policies of aggression. If the United States resumes its hostility, it will try in the worst case scenario to repeat the asymmetrical impasse that led to the December 17, 2014 agreement. Like in a game of chess that ends in a draw, Cuba as a smaller power would pay an extraordinary price in development and democracy, but without yielding it will prevent the big power from translating the power disparity into domination. Washington would again pay a significant political price for insisting on the immoral, illegal and counterproductive policy, which has proven to be mediocre in the promotion of national interests and U.S. values than the one tried out since December 17 by Washington.
Signs of hostility
However, the U.S. strategy toward Cuba has demonstrated it is not based on a rational foreign policy. Several elements allow for auguring a rough road ahead for the process of normalization of relations between the two countries.
In the first place, the last positions of nominee Trump at the end of the campaign were of hostility toward the rapprochement between the two countries. Such a posture was ratified in October by Vice President Mike Pence’s statement that the presidential directives on the rapprochement would be repealed after the January 20 presidential inauguration. The president-elect’s appointments for important posts in his administration, with potential influence on the U.S. Cuba policy, do not have a moderate profile but rather of rage, with an imperial agenda in the relationship with the NATO, Mexican and the western hemisphere allies.
It is logical to suppose dangers for the normalization of relations process in those appointments. General Michael Flynn, former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and designated by Trump as national security adviser, has described Cuba as an adversary of the United States in a “world war” that comprises Islamic fundamentalists, Iran, North Korea and Venezuela.
Second, even if Trump wanted to continue the process of dialogue and cooperation on issues of common interest, his transactional focus of tit for tat with preconditions, based on maximalist positions of force, is inappropriate for an asymmetrical normalization. The processes of this type, between a big power and a small state, tend to face hurdles with demands of reflexive reciprocity and the absence of an all-encompassing vision of the relationship. The United States, as a big power, can guarantee and create a space of trust for Cuban sovereignty that the island’s government cannot reciprocate to the same extent. Only after noting an atmosphere of mutual respect do the small countries moderate their foreign policy by showing deference to the big power status of their previous rivals.
Third, the victory in the congressional elections of the Republican politicians who have a clearly hostile position toward the rapprochement to Cuba, in the first place Senator Marco Rubio, freezes the agenda in Congress to dismantle the sanctions. Such a victory also confirmed the inability of the anti-embargo lobby group, already created, to translate the collected money into the electoral defeat of its adversaries or into the substantive introduction of related bills. In these circumstances, it is probable that the administration will use the Cuba topic in exchange to get the backing of the pro-embargo legislators regarding issues that are a priority for it.
An area where a significant change can take place is in that of migration, on which the president-elect has already said he is against the privileges enjoyed by Cuban emigrants through the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act. The relevance of that legislation can jump to the debate apropos the priority given by the president-elect to the migration issue in general. With this debate open, the strange coincidences for diametrically opposite reasons between the Cuban government that denounces “the murderous act” and the most right-wing sectors, upset because their anti-travel political agenda due to the recent wave of Cuban migrants has not been accepted, would come to the fore.
Given that Cuba is not a priority on the president-elect’s agenda in terms of trade, migration and security threats, a great deal of what will take place will depend on who will manage the respective institutions of U.S. foreign policy and their respective links with the forces debating the Cuba policy like the Departments of the Treasury, of State, of Defense and Homeland Security. If those appointed to such posts face the Cuba issue with a technical criterion, the advice of the specialists in the U.S. state would inform the new administration how the reasoning that backs the presidential directive of October 14 is based on what is more convenient for the United States’ national security and economic and strategic interests. “America first” in its best variant.
The logic of domestic policy
There is also a domestic policy logic that justifies at least not abandoning the policy of exchange with Cuba. President-elect Trump does not owe his victory in Florida to the right-wing Cuban-American votes. The voting for Trump in the Cuban-American community was one of the worst for a Republican nominee. He owes nothing to the pro-embargo groups whose political elite represented by Mario Rubio was among Trump’s most virulent opponents in the Republican primary. The principle of the campaigns of Congresspersons Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Carlos Curbelo featured the total rejection for Trump as a nominee, denouncing him as a con man trying to distort the conservative principles.
Neither is it reasonable for Trump, based on adaptive rational expectations, to pick a fight with Cuba not even because of vote-catching criteria. With a view to the future, the pro-embargo Cuban-American voters have nowhere to go for the 2020 elections. Contrary to what happened in 1992 when the Democratic Party attacked the Republican on the issue of Cuba from the right flank when Bill Clinton supported the Torricelli Act, today the policy of understanding and dialogue with Cuba is the dominating strategy in the Democratic Party as a whole. If those motivated by wishes for vengeance and the restoration of properties don’t vote for Trump in 2020, who are they going to support? Why open a new vulnerable flank in Cuba, of conflict with the allies and opportunity for the strategic rivals of the United States, on an issue of such little importance to U.S. national security and with so much symbolism on a multilateral level? There is no big power rationality to back down on the opening of the embassies, or of the cooperation agreements on international health, business, law and order and mutual guarantees of security.
What’s most probable is that a bit of history will have to go by for the new White House team to become aware of the limits of its power and of the structural weight of Cuban nationalism in the resistance to more than a century of imperial policies from Washington. Cuba, its government and civil society have to become aware as soon as possible of the challenges and opportunities present today with a United States under the Trump presidency. The processes of rapprochement and negotiation with the island cannot be understood without the liberal democratic consensus that predominated in the logic of the Obama administration for its foreign and domestic policies. The blockade and the anti-constitutional control over the trips to Cuba and the visions about those policies in the Cuban-American community by the pro-embargo right-wing group were antithetical to that projection.
Meanwhile, Trump represents a condemnation of that consensus. His narrative of “Make America Great Again” appeals to a hard core right wing in the culture of U.S. policy, which is xenophobic, racist and which follows an imperial projection. In their international policy the sectors that accompany the president-elect do not invoke the self-restriction because of respect for international law or the logic of alliances but rather due to an isolation that rejects spending U.S. funds in international public assets associated to a liberal order. In that dangerous vision, the United States as a power does what it wants because it can.
What Cuba does counts
History has demonstrated that Cuba-U.S. relations have been so vulnerable to crises that, if progress is not made in building mechanisms for the management of differences, they will end up backing down. The dynamics of asymmetric and ideological conflict between Cuba and the United States opens opportunities for party poopers who could cause a return to the dynamics of hostility where only they benefit. It is the moment for Cuba, aware of the security challenges, to take advantage of opportunities to build bridges and publics inside the United States in favor of continuing the process of dialogue, communication and exchange.
After the attractive messages and the charisma displayed by President Obama during his March visit to Havana, Trump’s statements have thrown a bucket of cold water on the visions that in Latin America, including Cuba, recognized a United States with a milder and more persuasive projection in the defense of its democratic-liberal values. Today the government of Raúl Castro, before the presidential generational transition in 2018, has the opportunity of forging dynamics of political realism in the dialogue with those who do not respond to its communist ideological core. In the present situation, it would be a mistake to let those inside the Cuban political system who have a preference for what is contentious toward everything coming from the United States to use Trump’s projections as a pretext to silence the growing plurality of Cuban society and paralyze the ongoing economic and social reforms.
It’s one thing to make people understand why a realistic Cuban estimate has to foresee the possibility that a Trump succeeds an Obama, and another is to shackle the thinking of those who recognize, in addition to the challenges, important potentials for the Cuban national interest derived from a stable and constructive relationship between Cuba as a small underdeveloped country and the United States, as a big power. It is evident that Cuba is not living in an ideal world and patriotism demands a minimum of nationalist unity. But unity does not precede but rather continues the acceptance of diversity. Political alliances are built on citizen persuasion and negotiation.
It is also important to assume a realistic vision about Cuba’s role in the dynamics of global power. It does not correspond to Cuba, as a small country, to bring down Trump’s imperial dreams or his domestic or foreign anti-liberal policies. Excessive internationalist zeal in the backing of sectors positioned by the Trump administration as hostile to its projection of security, let’s say Iran and its Hezbollah friends or North Korea, can attract U.S. attention toward Cuba that is not useful or recommendable. Cuba can defend its principles of foreign policy in multilateral contexts, condemning interventionist stands but without accepting irresponsible actions.