Don’t step back on Cuba relations

Javier Yanez stands on his balcony decorated with U.S. and Cuban flags in Old Havana, Cuba, on Dec. 19, 2014. (Ramon Espinosa / Associated Press)

Did you have plans for a getaway to Havana, a string of nights spiced with mambo and mojitos? Did you pack your briefcase for a trip to the island aimed at tapping into its burgeoning tourism trade? Were you planning on coming back with all the cigars and Havana Club rum you could wedge into a suitcase?

Did you book a refundable fare?

President Donald Trump is expected to roll out his policy toward Cuba soon, possibly this week. It’s expected that he will reverse critical elements of the historic resumption in relations with Havana that his predecessor, Barack Obama, put in place.

Obama eased restrictions on travel by Americans to Cuba, allowing them to book their own independent trips to the island. Regularly scheduled U.S. commercial flights to Cuba resumed. Trump is expected to re-impose the restrictions, which confined travelers to tours reliant on Cuban government buses and guides, and state-run hotels. There’s no indication Trump will reverse the decision on commercial flights.

And while the 55-year-old U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba remains intact, Obama also eased restrictions on some types of commerce, including allowing a foothold by American computer and telecommunications companies in Cuba, hotel deals, and yes, an end to limits on Cuban cigars and rum that Americans can bring back from the island. It’s very possible Trump will restore pre-Obama restrictions.

Even during the campaign, Trump hinted this is the course he would take. He told supporters at a rally in Miami in October that he would shelve Obama’s Cuba detente unless the Communist regime in Havana pledged to ensure “the religious and political freedom for the Cuban people, and the freeing of political prisoners. Earlier this month, White House spokesman Michael Short repeated that “the current Cuba policy is a bad deal. It does not do enough to support human rights in Cuba.”

Pushing Havana on a path toward human rights protection is spot on. Cuba’s track record on human rights is abysmal, and has been for decades. But if Trump thinks he can get Cuban leader Raul Castro to reform by rolling back relations with Cuba, he’s sure to be disappointed.

Havana hasn’t budged on human rights reform despite five decades of embargo and diplomatic blackout. Economic and political engagement holds more promise. Through the exchange of information, people and commerce, lines of communication open up, and prospects for influencing Cubans and their government improve. Shut down those lines, and those prospects fade.

There’s an economic toll that also comes with reversing course on relations with Cuba. Engage Cuba, an American coalition of business groups and economists that backs stronger ties with Cuba, estimates that a rolling back of Obama’s Cuba policy would cost U.S. businesses and taxpayers $6.6 billion and 12,295 jobs. And if America pulls back from Cuba, Russia will surge in influence. Moscow has announced plans to invest $2 billion to shore up Cuba’s aging railways. And while it’s been 15 years since Russia has had a military presence in Cuba, its defense ministry is thinking about reopening bases there.

Trump counts among his most ardent backers the bloc of conservative Republicans from Florida who remain staunchly anti-Castro. He’s got politics on his mind. What he doesn’t have in mind is what’s best for American-Cuban relations, and what’s best for Cubans.

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