Crit­ics say Trump clips progress in Cuba

Oth­ers say aid­ing regime does lit­tle for democ­racy

USA TODAY International Edition - - NEWS - Alan Gomez

A lit­tle more than two years ago, the sit­ting pres­i­dent of the United States was tak­ing in a base­ball game in the Cuban cap­i­tal of Havana.

Then-pres­i­dent Obama’s his­toric trip was de­signed to fur­ther his pol­icy of en­gag­ing with Amer­ica’s long­time foe in hopes of im­prov­ing liv­ing con­di­tions in Cuba and slowly gain­ing in­flu­ence over the fu­ture of the com­mu­nist na­tion.

Now, as Cubans pre­pare for a his­toric change in their lead­er­ship, the U.S. govern­ment is nowhere to be found, al­low­ing coun­tries such as Rus­sia and China to fill the vac­uum.

Af­ter a se­ries of mys­te­ri­ous “health at­tacks” against Amer­i­cans in Cuba, Pres­i­dent Trump re­versed many of the open­ings his pre­de­ces­sor pushed through. Trump or­dered most em­ploy­ees of the U.S. Em­bassy in Havana to leave. He ex­pelled Cuban diplo­mats from their em­bassy in Wash­ing­ton. He has made it more dif­fi­cult for Amer­i­cans to travel to Cuba or do busi­ness there.

Vicki Hud­dle­ston, former chief of the U.S. mis­sion in Havana, de­scribed Trump’s ac­tions as a re­gres­sion to­ward a “failed pol­icy” that cut off what had been a promis­ing start to a new re­la­tion­ship with Cuba.

Cuban Pres­i­dent Raúl Cas­tro is ex­pected to re­tire Thurs­day and hand over power to his hand­picked suc­ces­sor, Miguel Díaz-Canel, a Cas­tro loy­al­ist who has steadily risen through the ranks of the Com­mu­nist Party of Cuba. Hud­dle­ston said Trump wasted a rare op­por­tu­nity to en­gage with the new leader and nudge Cuba in a more demo­cratic, cap­i­tal­ist di­rec­tion.

“If the United States was not threat­en­ing, if the econ­omy was do­ing all right and the re­la­tion­ship was sta­ble, it would’ve given Díaz-Canel a good deal more lee­way to be an agent of change,” she said. “Why are we do­ing this again? Don’t we ever learn?”

That sen­ti­ment is echoed by many who say the pre­vi­ous five decades of iso­la­tion yielded no re­sults. Ric Her­rero, who ran #CubaNow, an ad­vo­cacy group that sup­ported Obama’s open­ing of re­la­tions, said there was clear and con­vinc­ing ev­i­dence the United States was mak­ing in­roads.

Ex­panded busi­ness op­por­tu­ni­ties be­tween Cuban en­trepreneurs and Amer­i­cans, and the in­flux of U.S. tourists, rat­tled the most hard-line mem­bers of the Cuban govern­ment, he said. Former pres­i­dent Fidel Cas­tro pub­lished a let­ter shortly af­ter Obama left Havana, crit­i­ciz­ing the visit and say­ing Cuba didn’t need help from the Yan­kees.

That back­lash, Her­rero said, proved the Amer­i­cans were start­ing to win over more pro­gres­sive seg­ments of the pop­u­la­tion and the govern­ment. “The fact that Obama raised those ex­pec­ta­tions to such a con­sid­er­able de­gree is some­thing (the hard-lin­ers) saw as a threat,” he said.

Crit­ics of the Obama open­ing dis­miss those ar­gu­ments, say­ing the pol­icy didn’t show any tan­gi­ble re­sults in the more than three years it was in place. The com­mu­nist regime didn’t change, Cas­tro con­tin­ued work­ing closely with the fail­ing govern­ment in Venezuela, and Cuba did noth­ing to change its hu­man rights record, said Jaime Such­licki, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Cuban Stud­ies In­sti­tute in Mi­ami.

“There was noth­ing that we were get­ting that was worth it,” he said. “Cuba gave noth­ing.”

Whether Obama’s ef­fort to warm re­la­tions worked or not, Trump’s de­ci­sion to end it has left Amer­ica’s ad­ver­saries back in the driver’s seat in Havana.

Trump started a trade war with China, im­posed sanc­tions on Venezuela, threat­ened to tear up the Iran nu­clear deal and is deal­ing with a spe­cial coun­sel’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion into his cam­paign’s pos­si­ble ties with Rus­sia.

By pulling out of Cuba, all those coun­tries re­main the most in­flu­en­tial foreign voices in Cuba.

Rus­sia has been the most vis­i­ble, even park­ing one of its spy ships in Havana Har­bor last month. Brian Win­ter, vice pres­i­dent for pol­icy at the Amer­i­cas So­ci­ety/Coun­cil of the Amer­i­cas, said that fits into Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin’s goals of cre­at­ing may­hem through­out Latin Amer­ica to up­set its re­la­tions with the United States.

“Moscow has been de­lighted to see the Wash­ing­ton-Havana at­tempt at rec­on­cil­i­a­tion not work out,” Win­ter said. “Cuba of­fers the Rus­sians the same thing it did 60 years ago, which is a fab­u­lous op­por­tu­nity to be a thorn in the side of the United States.”

China’s in­ter­ests in Cuba are more eco­nomic.

The coun­try has long turned to Latin Amer­ica as a source of com­modi­ties to fuel its grow­ing econ­omy. Its re­la­tion­ship with Cuba has deep­ened in re­cent years.

Cuban cigar sales are boom­ing in China, and China in­vested $36 mil­lion to mod­ern­ize ports, san­i­ta­tion and wa­ter sys­tems in Cuba.

“I don’t think they’re as openly ne­far­i­ous a pres­ence as the Rus­sians are, be­cause I think their pres­ence is more eco­nomic and re­source-based and less po­lit­i­cal,” Win­ter said.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., a Cuban Amer­i­can op­posed to en­gag­ing with Cuba, said all those coun­tries were in­volved in Cuba be­fore, dur­ing and af­ter the Obama open­ing.

“Cuba of­fers the Rus­sians the same thing it did 60 years ago, which is a fab­u­lous op­por­tu­nity to be a thorn in the side of the United States.” Brian Win­ter Amer­i­cas So­ci­ety/Coun­cil of the Amer­i­cas

MICHAEL REYNOLDS/EPA

Pres­i­dent Obama and Cuban Pres­i­dent Raúl Cas­tro at­tend a Ma­jor League Base­ball ex­hi­bi­tion game in Havana in March 2016. Crit­ics say Obama’s poli­cies of open­ness were of lit­tle ben­e­fit as “Cuba gave noth­ing.”

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