US Has Nothing to Lose by Reinstating Restrictions on Cuba
By William Tucker
Contributor, In Homeland Security
Near the end of his presidency, Barack Obama reestablished diplomatic ties with Cuba and visited the island in March 2016. Although the restoration of diplomatic ties was a welcome change, it did nothing to follow through on decades-long demands from the U.S. that Cuba release its political prisoners, allow for freedom of expression and stop the arbitrary detention of political dissidents.
In keeping with his previously stated position on relations with Cuba, President Trump announced earlier this month that certain restrictions on U.S.-Cuban relations would be reimposed.
For now, the restrictions apply only to a single category of travel and a few economic incentives that fall under the authority of the presidency. But both nations have agreed to keep bilateral relations in place and their respective embassies open, despite the change in U.S. policy.
50-Year Embargo Failed to Change Cuba’s Behavior
The ironic aspect of this policy reversal, however, is that Cuba was under these restrictions for more than 50 years and never saw fit to change its behavior. That doesn’t necessarily mean Cuba is immune to change this time, but the situation may have shifted sufficiently to bring certain pressures to bear on Havana. It might sound strange, but the recent turmoil in Venezuela has created a problem for the Cuban government.
The agreement between Fidel Castro and then-Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was an exchange. Venezuela would trade oil for Cuba’s intelligence support to keep Chavez in power.
In the past five years, Castro and Chavez have died. More important, oil prices have drastically tanked. The price decline has destroyed the Venezuelan economy and left Cuba without any energy assistance.
The self-imposed economic stress that forced Cuba to enter into talks with Washington has yet to improve, despite the reforms ushered in by Raúl Castro. Although oil prices remain low, they are still higher than free Venezuelan crude oil.
Trump May Have a Chance to Push Cuba on Political Reforms
This situation might give Trump an opening. With Cuba stuck economically, Washington has an opportunity to push Havana harder on political reforms. Furthermore, the diplomatic opening to Cuba by the Obama administration made it clear that Congress was in no mood to lift the U.S. embargo.
It’s possible that the government’s stance could change if Cuba made concessions and Trump pushed his Republican majority in Congress to soften its position on the embargo. But that is a tall order because Congressional lawmakers from Florida have many Cuban expatriates in their districts. Most of those expatriates have no love for the communist regime and oppose any political shift.
US Has Nothing to Lose by Walking Back Cuban Relations
From Washington’s perspective, there really is nothing to lose in walking back aspects of U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations. Havana needed the Obama opening far more than the U.S. did and Washington has little incentive to rush things.
Strategically, Cuba might be considered within the U.S.’s Gulf of Mexico orbit. But there is no power now or in the next decade that could exploit the island as the Soviet Union did in the 1960s to threaten the U.S. mainland.
The pelota is in Cuba’s court, so to speak. Havana can take unilateral action and institute reforms that could threaten the regime’s stability, or Castro can try talks with Washington once again. Either way, Havana has some difficult decisions to make.