Trump’s Latest Foreign Policy Play Hurts Cubans AND Americans

Credit: The Nation
Tuesday, June 4, as Donald Trump was wrapping up his only moderately disastrous state visit to the United Kingdom, the U.S. Treasury Department issued a press release announcing that the Trump administration was reversing the Obama administration’s 2014 loosening of restrictions on Americans’ travel to Cuba.

Of course, to maximize confusion, the policy was set to go into effect THE NEXT DAY — Wednesday, June 6.

The nugget of the press release was this quote attributed to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin:

“Cuba continues to play a destabilizing role in the Western Hemisphere, providing a communist foothold in the region and propping up U.S. adversaries in places like Venezuela and Nicaragua by fomenting instability, undermining the rule of law, and suppressing democratic processes,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. “This Administration has made a strategic decision to reverse the loosening of sanctions and other restrictions on the Cuban regime. These actions will help to keep U.S. dollars out of the hands of Cuban military, intelligence, and security services.”

Although it wasn’t spelled out in the press release, supporting documents made it abundantly clear that Trump was returning to those halcyon days of yore when only Americans with direct family ties in Cuba could legally travel there.

The precipitous nature of the announcement meant that Royal Caribbean International’s Empress of the Seas — calling overnight at Havana Tuesday — would be the last cruise ship\ to visit the Cuban capital for the foreseeable future. It also meant that the cruise ships already en route to Havana would have to scramble to find an alternative destination.

All told, approximately 800,000 would-be Cuba visitors were booked on cruises to the island at the time of the announcement.

This left several cruise lines frantically changing itineraries, dealing with angry or confused customers and developing policies to address the sudden loss of a popular cruise destination. The lines had to decide whether to offer compensation or allow booked passengers to cancel their reservations (something they legally didn’t have to do, according to the fine print of cruise documents no one reads but everyone signs that stipulate cruise companies don’t have to compensate guests for cancellations due to political issues).

Much like other “strategic” Trumpian foreign-policy moves, such as tariffs that are NOT paid by other countries and that hurt U.S. farmers, manufacturers and consumers, the Cuba travel rollback had an immediate effect on the big three cruise lines as their stock prices dropped 25 to 45 cents per share.

Since Cuba opened to cruise traffic two years ago, about 190,000 people have visited by ship — 140,000 of them since January 2019. Indeed, Cuba cruises represented 4% of Norwegian Cruise Line’s cruises, 3% of Royal Caribbean’s and 1% of Carnival Cruise Line’s sailings. There’s no way to estimate how many potential first-time cruisers will not buy a cruise on one of those lines now because the only reason they even considered a cruise vacation was to visit Cuba.

It’s hard to feel sorry for the cruise lines or even for their customers who might end up visiting St. Thomas or San Juan instead of Havana. And while the idea that the policy will keep money out of the Cuban government’s coffers is valid, the most pain will be felt by Cuban citizens who serve as tour operators, drivers of ’50s-era taxis and sellers of souvenirs, rum, cigars and food to cruise passengers.

That the Trump administration assumed that preventing Americans traveling to Cuba would somehow pressure the regime into pulling its troops out of Venezuela and stopping its support of the Maduro government demonstrates a complete ignorance of 150 years of United States–Cuba relations and a complete lack of understanding of the Cuban psyche, which is made up of equal parts truculence, stubbornness and illogical thinking. (Having lived among the Cubans of Miami for almost 30 years, I feel imminently qualified to make that assessment.)

If Trump thinks of himself as a consummate “fighter,” he has no appreciation for the mind-set of a country that has successfully weathered invasions, blockades and embargoes to survive for more than 60 years as a “Communist foothold” just 90 miles away from one of the largest, most successful democracies in the world.

In any case, this is not about Venezuela. It’s about two things: undoing one of Barack Obama’s signature foreign-policy achievements and pandering to a shrinking voting bloc of Cuban-American hardliners in Miami. As the last of those Cuban hardliners, most of whom are in their 70s and 80s, watched the death of Fidel Castro in 2016 and his brother Raul’s abdication of the presidency in 2017, their hopes for a new counter-revolution waned.

Although U.S. Senator Marco Rubio continues to call for hard-ball Cuba relations, enforcement of the six-decade-old embargo and restrictive travel policies, most younger Cubans who were born in the United States are less interested in their parents’ and grandparents’ homeland politics.

But Rubio has convinced Trump he needs these remnants of the Cuban hardliners to win Florida in 2020 and secure his re-election. This Cuba travel policy change is just another cynical attempt to extract what may be the last presidential election vote from many of this dying breed.

In the meantime, Americans miss out on a vacation while Cubans miss out on a vocation. As with most Trumpian policies, there’s enough cruelty to go around for everybody.

(DISCLOSURE: I work for a public relations agency that represents Carnival Cruise Line.)

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