Donald Trump’s Half-Baked Cold War Revival in Cuba Is the Worst of Both Worlds

The change will push the remaining American tourists into the cruise-ship tours that work to give travelers a distorted rosy picture of Cuba.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

On Friday, President Donald Trump stood before the most hardline members of the Cuban-American community in Miami, and laid out what he said was a new tough policy on Cuba.

Trump claimed that President Barack Obama’s “misguided” 2014 opening to Cuba had not produced results. Easing restrictions, especially in the realm of human rights and political freedom, had not led to any diminishing of government repression, as Obama said the opening would accomplish. In fact, suppression of dissenting views and political arrests had increased, rather than diminished. The Obama administration had looked the other way on Cuba’s human rights violations and now Trump was canceling Obama’s policies, proclaiming “those days are over.”

During the campaign, Trump had made promises to Florida’s Cubans, whose Florida votes he needed, and he was determined to keep them. However, his speech sounded tougher than the changes he proposed, which chiefly targeted American tourism to the island. Even here, he left intact most of Obama’s policies; allowing cruise lines and commercial flights to go there and Cuban Americans to continue to send cash remittances and visit relatives. Cuba remains off the list of state sponsors of terror; new Cuban-American agreements on cooperation in the area of medicine, counter-terrorism and anti-drug smuggling are maintained, and most important, full diplomatic relations have been continued, with the U.S. Embassy in Cuba and the Cuban Embassy in our nation’s capital remain open and functioning.

The responses from both the left and the right were predictable. The editors of National Review praised the new policy as a “welcome course-correction,” while gently chiding the president for not going far enough. He might have, for example, prohibited cruise lines from having trips to Cuba, “which enable Americans to gambol on Cuba’s shores while dissidents are beaten a few miles away.”

On the left, Peter Kornbluh—who often leads The Nation’s trips to Cuba—argues in that magazine that Obama’s policy has been a smashing success, and attacks Trump for trying to “discredit the Obama policy of positive engagement” for denouncing the Castro government, and for demanding that Cuba take specific actions as a quid pro quo for improved relations. In his eyes, the policy amounts to “harassment” of American citizens traveling to the island. Missing in Kornbluh’s article is any mention of the Castro regime’s continuing political repression of dissidents.

The main changes in Trump’s Cuba policy will make it more difficult for American tourists, whose numbers have grown significantly since Obama’s opening, to easily continue traveling to Cuba. The regime needs them to come. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had paid a giant subsidy to Cuba, and the fall of the oil industry in Venezuela, whose leaders had made up the gap caused by the Soviet withdrawal with cheap oil and money, the Castro regime was forced to find new ways to continue the flow of money. The only path left was that taken by other small Caribbean nations—tourism.

One way to hurt Cuba’s treasury is to cut off the source of that income. From now on, Americans will be barred from doing business with hotels under majority control of a management company run by the military that controls most of Cuba’s tourist industry. This includes staying in their hotel rooms, eating at their restaurants, or attending shows there. They will also be prohibited from eating in state-run restaurants. Instead, individual travelers will be encouraged to stay in either an Airbnb or a privately owned apartment or house called particulares (which by and large can accommodate just a few people) and eat in privately owned restaurants called paladars. They can also stay in the few privately owned hotels.

American tourists will also be required to be part of official tours lest they be tempted to wander off and explore Cuba on their own. The monkey-wrench in this new arrangement is that tour groups must use large hotels to board the many travelers who sign up for them. Every traveler will have to produce receipts, daily diaries and the like to prove compliance. The government bureaucracy, currently the Treasury Deptartment, will have to expand to handle all the paperwork. The beneficiaries of this policy will be the cruise lines—a total of nine will sail to Cuba by the end of this year. Travelers stay in the cruise ship rooms, and the cruise lines offer their own approved and expensive tours.

The irony is that these tours are the very ones that work to give travelers a distorted rosy picture of Cuba. As a Washington Post report by Nick Mirof puts it:

By reinstating restrictions on independent travelers, the Trump administration’s new policy will hurt Cuba’s emerging private sector that caters to American visitors, critics insist.

Instead, the new rules will herd Americans back toward the kind of prepackaged, predictable group tourism that the Cuban government actually prefers — and earns more revenue from.

“I think if you come here on a package tour, you see what the Cuban government wants you to see,” said Andrew Sleyko, 36, a food scientist from Chicago who was visiting the island for the first time as Trump announced his new policy.

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Mirof’s argument was verified by my wife and I on our own trip to Cuba, which we write about in the current issue of The Weekly Standard. Organized tours are meant to show the supposed accomplishments of Cuban socialism; on our own, we managed to talk with many Cuban dissidents, who told us about the repressive measures taken by the regime to hinder development towards democracy. In contrast, check out the group tour put together by The Nation, permissible under the new guidelines. It is a veritable ode to the glories of the Castro revolution.

Mario Rubio, who helped Trump come up with the new Cuba policy, made the rounds on Sunday’s talk shows. On CBS’ Face the Nation he said he wouldn’t view it as putting pressure on the government, rather:

I think this is an effort to strengthen individual Cubans… This basically says that American travelers to Cuba, [can] continue to fly on commercial airlines or get there in a cruise.

But when they get there, they have to spend their money primarily with individual Cubans who own private businesses, which is what everybody who supported the Obama opening was always bragging about. They were saying there was all these new small businesses. Well, we want to put them in a privileged position.

And so American travelers to Cuba will have to spend their money with them instead of the Cuban military. That was the goal of this... to empower individual Cubans to be economically independent of the Castro military and of the Castro regime.

Rubio’s intentions and goals are sound. The problem is that the new policy will work against them. With all the new restrictions, there are predictions that fewer Americans will travel to Cuba. Instead of expanding opportunities, it may very well diminish opportunities in the fastest growing sector of the Cuban economy. Independent tour guides, taxis drivers, newly enthusiastic owners of the particulares and the 900 paladars might have their hopes raised only to be disappointed. They will find that in the coming year, their income from American travelers will vastly decline.

Moreover, the Cuban state gets its tribute from all businesses. Paladars pay a heavy tax, and owners of particulares must pay a large percentage of what they receive to the Cuban regime.

Trump said that easing restrictions “have not helped the Cuban people.” In fact, they have. Rubio acknowledges this, when he says that he wants to encourage those private businesses established during and after the Obama reset. That is why his plan leaves in place most of the Obama opening. But by making it harder to accomplish the very goals they have set, the Trump policy will only force the Stalinists in charge of Cuba to retrench, as they have in the past under similar circumstances, increase the amount of repression, and return to regarding the U.S. as an adversary.

Its power will remain; only the Cuban people will suffer.