Trump’s Cuba pol­icy trav­els in the wrong di­rec­tion

USA TODAY US Edition - - NEWS | OPINION -

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, con­tracts and li­cens­ing. A broad trade em­bargo en­acted by Congress re­mains, 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 his pre­de­ces­sor’s poli­cies 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 hard­line crowd in Mi­ami’s Lit­tle Havana neigh­bor­hood on 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. tourists, a record 615,000 last year.

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 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.

Lim­it­ing U.S. travel to tightly con­trolled, “ed­u­ca­tional” groups will doubtlessly hurt small Cuban en­trepreneurs and re­duce peo­ple-to-peo­ple in­ter­ac­tions. If the Cuban mil­i­tary didn’t buckle un­der 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, as do lead­ing busi­ness groups.

As with the nor­mal­iza­tion of ties with Viet­nam in 1994, the tide of his­tory points to­ward restora­tion of U.S.-Cuba re­la­tions, even if the pres­i­dent tries to stand athwart it.

YAMIL LAGE, AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Tourists talk with a Cuban in Havana on Fri­day.

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