Trump on Changing Cuba: Keep Business Running as Usual or Pull the Plug?

OLIVIA CASTILLO—“Fidel Castro is dead!” were the four words that President-elect Donald J. Trump tweeted the morning after the world learned of the Cuban dictator’s death (exclamation mark included). As with most issues, Mr. Trump rarely chooses to remain silent and on this occasion, even less. The death of a tyrant always stirs much commotion, specifically about the future of the tyrannized country and its people. This Saturday marks two years since President Obama made a phone call that began a sea change between Cuba and the United States. Today, the historic rapprochement that resulted from that one phone call is being threatened by one tweet from Mr. Trump: “If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate deal.”

President Obama’s recent policy directive on the United States-Cuba Normalization outlines the developments made since the United States made its announcement on December 17, 2014, about the new course it would chart with Cuba. The historic policy shift heralded the re-opening of the U.S. embassy in Havana and a loosening of restrictions on remittances, travel, commerce, and banking. Despite the new aperture, Cuba’s economy is still in tough shape — as evidenced by its meager one percent GDP growth this past year. In a speech to Parliament last summer, President Raul Castro acknowledged, “there is speculation and rumors of an imminent collapse of our economy and a return to the acute phase of the ‘special period.’” That infamous “special period,” during the 1990s, was precipitated by the Soviet collapse and the loss of a primary source of sustenance for the communist-run island. A similar fate may await Cuba with the implosion of Venezuela’s economy, which helps keep the lights running on the island by supplying almost 80,000 barrels of oil per day. Cubans anticipate a return to regular blackouts and tighter food rationing as the state government aims to abruptly cut energy use.

In the meantime, Cubans continue to flee the island in record numbers. Expectedly, the thawing of relations between Cuba and the U.S. has not brought the positive change that most Cubans need. A recent Pew Research study found that during the first 10 months of fiscal year 2016, 46,635 Cubans entered the U.S. via ports of entry — already surpassing the full fiscal year 2015’s total of 43,159. More desperate Cubans are risking their lives across the Florida Straits or entering through the border because they fear the “wet foot/dry foot” immigration policy might change and end their unique immigration status.

As would be expected, the status quo for Cubans within the tropical island is not looking too promising. From outside the island, a different picture unfolds. Several international businesses see Cuba as an investment and business paradise. These companies firmly welcomed the U.S. easing its commerce and travel restrictions in Cuba. Similarly, many companies wasted no time in planning how to run their business on the island. Airbnb is investing in Cuba for its tropical-cultural allure to tourists worldwide. U.S. airlines have commenced regular scheduled flights to Havana with six more U.S. airlines scheduled to launch their own routes to Havana by early January. Most recently, Google signed an agreement with the Cuban government granting Internet users on the island faster access to its exclusive content. The business potential on the island is grand. Naturally, much of the U.S. business community wants the incoming president to maintain President Obama’s policy initiatives that expanded business and travel in Cuba.

Enter President-elect Donald Trump. Mr. Trump is no stranger to the Cuban-American exiled community and its continued struggle for a free and democratic Cuba. Indeed, Mr. Trump was elected with the help of Cuban-American voters in Florida where more than half (54%) supported the Republican president-elect. Back in 1999, at a campaign speech before the Cuban American National Foundation, Mr. Trump voiced his opinion of the Castro regime and stated, “we must not reward Fidel Castro with trade, hard currency, or respect.” Accordingly, Mr. Trump asserted that a continued isolation of Cuba via the embargo should be maintained, and such isolation would eventually oust the Castro regime.

Fast forward to 2016, now President-elect Trump appears to maintain this same stance on U.S.-Cuba relations. At a campaign stop in Miami, Mr. Trump criticized President Obama’s appeasement with Cuba: “all the concessions that Barack Obama has granted the Castro regime were done through executive order, which means the next president can reverse them — and that I will do unless the Castro regime meets our demands. Not my demands. Our demands.” Mr. Trump clarified that those “demands” included “religious and political freedom for the Cuban people” and “the freeing of political prisoners.” With those demands, the Cuban-American exiled community firmly backed Mr. Trump on November 8. Surely, Mr. Trump’s pledge to reverse President Obama’s executive orders resonates with South Florida’s Cuban-American community, which vehemently opposes relations with the communist island nation.

After the election of Mr. Trump and the death of Cuba’s longtime dictator, President Obama’s nascent U.S.-Cuba policies hang by a thread in a sea of uncertainty. Will Mr. Trump fulfill his pledge to reverse President Obama’s executive orders on the U.S.-Cuba détente? Or will Mr. Trump stay true to his businessman mentality and keep business running as usual? If Mr. Trump adheres to his campaign pledge, he might have the Cuban-American exiled community’s support for his re-election. Yet, Mr. Trump faces a clash with the U.S. business community if he pulls the plug on the normalization efforts that have transpired for the past two years. One thing is certain: Mr. Trump cannot please both sides on the issue of changing Cuba.

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