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A Smarter Approach to Cuba

Walter Russell Mead

President Trump will roll back major components of the Obama administration’s opening to Cuba with a new slate of travel and business restrictions, reports Reuters:

Taking a tougher approach against Cuba after promising to do so during the presidential campaign, Trump will make clear that a ban on U.S. tourism to Cuba remains in effect and his administration will beef up enforcement of travel rules under authorized categories, the officials said.

The new limits on U.S. business deals will target the Armed Forces Business Enterprises Group (GAESA), a conglomerate involved in all sectors of the economy, including hotels, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity. [….]

Trump will justify his partial reversal of Obama’s measures to a large extent on human rights grounds. His aides contend that Obama’s easing of U.S. restrictions has done nothing to advance political freedoms in Cuba, while benefiting the Cuban government financially.

Trump’s move comes at a moment of great Cuban vulnerability, when an eroding Venezuela is losing its ability to prop up Cuba’s failed economy. Estimates suggest that Cuba consumes 130,000 barrels of oil per day, but only produces 50,000 on its own. With the flow of crude from Venezuela now plummeting, Cuba is struggling to fill the gap—and has been desperately looking for foreign lifelines and investment. Trump’s renewed restrictions on tourism and business could make Cuba feel the economic pinch even more acutely.

Still, it is not clear what is the legal basis of preventing U.S. citizens from traveling to Cuba absent a Cold War-level security threat. American citizens should have the right to go where they want, and it is a serious American civil liberties issue to start telling us where we can and can’t go. Of course, the State Department is wise not to recommend that Americans schedule tourism to North Korea at the moment, and there is a legitimate national security reason to watch who goes to eastern Syria, for example. But today’s Cuba doesn’t meet that test.

Nor is it in the U.S. national interest to push the Cuban economy over the cliff. We shouldn’t be rescuing the Castro regime, but from the standpoint of American foreign policy, our lives would not be better if we added a Cuban succession crisis to the one shaping up in Caracas. Given the current chaos in Venezuela, we want to have some cards in our hands to affect Cuban behavior there. It is NOT in our interest for the Cuban government to help prop up the Maduro disaster, and increased Cuban economic dependence on flows of tourism would give us more ability to affect their behavior going down the road.

The smartest play for President Trump right now would be to let the Cubans know that he has zero emotional investment in Obama’s opening, stands ready to reverse it and even tighten things farther under certain circumstances, is deeply opposed to Cuban interference in Venezuela—and meanwhile leave the sword of Damocles hanging over Cuba’s head.

But it is Venezuela, not the ghost of the Bay of Pigs, that should be driving our Cuba policy these days.

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