Nearly two years after President Barack Obama restored U.S. diplomatic relations with Cuba, President Donald Trump is poised to roll them back.
That would be a mistake. Trump is reportedly considering restrictions on Americans traveling to Cuba and on transactions by U.S. companies with entities connected to the Cuban military, which controls more than half of the country’s economy. But turning back the sanctions clock would hurt the U.S. without offering Cuban citizens a clear path to a better future.
Some might argue that Obama’s changes to U.S. policy have benefited American tourists and companies more than ordinary Cubans. Even as U.S. travelers flock to Havana, the Castro regime’s political repression continues and its stranglehold on the economy endures. The problems with this argument are twofold — it both exaggerates and underplays the effects of U.S. engagement in Cuba.
The argument for engagement is partly geographic. Surrounded by democracies, Cuba is less than 100 miles off the coast of the world’s biggest economy, which is also home to some 2 million Cuban-Americans, many of whom travel back and forth. American tourism is already creating more Cuban entrepreneurs: Airbnb has paid Cuban hosts $40 million over the past two years — an average of $2,700 per year, nearly eight times the average annual wage.
Record remittances from the U.S. to Cuba are opening up other new economic opportunities for ordinary citizens. Empowering them and stoking higher popular expectations will, in turn, put more pressure on the regime.
More broadly, U.S. engagement with Cuba has improved cooperation on everything from counter-narcotics to environmental protection.
As a growing number of Republican and Democratic legislators have recognized, it also promises greater prosperity on both sides of the Florida Strait.
Critics of the current policy also tend to downplay the risks of changing it. Greater sanctions wouldn’t persuade Cuba’s one-party state to change its spots; they would just reinvigorate aging hardliners and their narrative of Yanqui persecution. And a blanket ban on U.S. transactions with Cuba’s military conglomerate would just create opportunities for European, Asian and Latin American investors to fill the gap, depriving the U.S. of influence and commercial opportunities.
At the same time, engagement alone cannot break the grip of a one-party state.
The U.S. could use further dismantling of the embargo as leverage for Cuba’s progress in implementing economic reforms that the Cuban government has tentatively endorsed, settling property claims, releasing political prisoners, or returning fugitives.
The U.S. could do more to promote affordable access for Cubans to the internet. Shoring up the region’s commitment to democracy would also help — beginning in Venezuela, the Cuban regime’s foundering enabler.
Reversing course in Cuba would benefit neither Cubans nor Americans.
The last half-century offers plenty of proof of what doesn’t work. Why repeat it?