For more than five decades, the United States sought to curb the Castro regime’s tyranny by imposing a trade embargo on Cuba and severing diplomatic relations. The strategy just plain didn’t work. If anything, it gave the Castro brothers — current leader Raul and his now-deceased brother Fidel — a way to blame their own failures on America.
President Obama tried a different path in 2014. He reopened the U.S. Embassy in Havana and eased restrictions on travel, business contracts and licensing. A broad trade embargo enacted by Congress remains in place, and there were no illusions that repression in Cuba would disappear overnight. But Obama’s initiative was a worthwhile alternative to fruitless isolation and carried the hope that, over time, exposure to American ideas and capitalism might pull Cuba into the light of freedom.
Now President Trump — in his eagerness to reverse policies associated with his predecessor and play to the Cuban-American community in South Florida — has offered the worst of both worlds: restoring some of what failed in the past, while watering down what might succeed in the future.
In his speech before a hard-line crowd in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood Friday, Trump said he was acting on behalf of “innocents locked in prisons.” The nasty communist regime in Havana does indeed deserve condemnation for human rights violations. But Trump’s newfound solicitude for the oppressed rang hollow given his recent embraces of dictators in Egypt, the Philippines, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
A key part of Obama’s relaxed policy toward Cuba was greater freedom for individual Americans to visit the island. The result was a flood of U.S. tourism: a record 615,000 American tourists last year, including 285,000 not of Cuban heritage, a jump of 74% in that category.
Trump reverses this, again restricting individual travel and restoring heavily regulated group excursions. He also bars American companies and people from doing business with companies controlled by the Cuban military, saying he wants more “people-to-people” interactions. But his policy would achieve precisely the opposite.
When Americans were free to travel individually, they arrived in droves and stayed at privately owned bed-and-breakfast hotels or private homes through Airbnb, ate at private restaurants, and hired private tour guides. “More than half my customers are Americans,” 33-year-old Dionys Diaz told The Washington Post, “the best tippers.” Diaz had worked with relatives to restore a 1954 Chevy convertible, painted it pink and earned $25 a ride from tourists outside Havana’s Hotel Nacional.
Limiting U.S. travel to tightly controlled, “educational” groups will doubtlessly reverse the growth in U.S. tourism, hurting small Cuban entrepreneurs and reducing people-to-people interactions. It makes no sense. If the Cuban military didn’t buckle under the pressure of decades of tough sanctions, Trump’s watered-down restrictions can hardly fare better.
Rhetoric about tearing up Obama’s bad deal with the Castro regime notwithstanding, Trump isn’t reversing all of Obama’s changes. Newly restored diplomatic relations continue, as do direct flights or cruises to Cuba. Cuban Americans can continue to send money back to the families on the island.
Trump’s partial rollback is out of step with public and political sentiment in the United States. Two-thirds of Americans favor reopening ties to Cuba. A bill that would allow unrestricted travel to Cuba has 55 supporters in the Senate. The conservative U.S. Chamber of Commerce complains that Trump’s Cuba policy will hurt American businesses and jobs. And farm-state Republicans want to expand Cuban markets.
As with the normalization of American ties with Vietnam in 1994, the tide of history points toward restoration of relations between the United States and its island neighbor, even if the president tries to stand athwart it.
USA TODAY’s editorial opinions are decided by its Editorial Board, separate from the news staff. Most editorials are coupled with an opposing view — a unique USA TODAY feature.
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