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Trump’s Bad Bet on Cuba

On June 16, 2017, President Donald Trump announced his plan to reverse the Obama administration’s efforts to thaw relations with Cuba. The president claimed that he would seek a “better deal” and refuse to lift the embargo on Cuba until: (1) the Castro regime was no longer in power, (2) free and fair elections had occurred, (3) all political prisoners had been freed, and (4) all political parties were legally permitted. However, the Trump plan does not change Cuban immigration policy, restrict Cuban-Americans’ travel to the island, forbid U.S. investments in the Cuban tourism industry, or ban U.S. citizens from traveling to Cuba. In fact, Trump’s policy even keeps the American embassy in Havana open.


The proposed plan does little to cancel the Obama administration’s efforts. Rather, the Trump policy will limit the United States’ ability to achieve the Trump administration’s policy objectives and will weaken the president’s position at home and abroad.

Image Courtesy of the United States Government (c) 2015

Donald Trump claims to want an end to the Castro regime and to encourage democratization in Cuba. While pushing for democratization is a valiant objective, by refusing to lift the embargo or temper the harsh rhetoric, the Trump administration’s efforts are unlikely to cause democratization to occur. In fact, the Castros remain in power even though the United States tried this approach for over half a century. Long term sanctions, like the Cuban embargo, are not likely to create policy changes in sanctioned nations. Rather, the threat of these sanctions between connected economies is more likely to drive changes in government behavior. Instead of effecting change in Cuba, the Cuban embargo serves as little more than a scapegoat for the real political and economic challenges the Cuban government faces. Furthermore, one of the few policy changes that the Trump administration is making—banning people-to-people travel to Cuba—will likely hinder democratization efforts in Cuba. The United States has long argued that people-to-people exchanges are one of the best ways of displaying American values and promoting democratic practices around the globe.

U.S. policy towards Cuba has long been an obstacle to improved U.S. relations with other Latin American countries. The Obama administration’s rapprochement with Cuba and presidential trips to Latin America made important improvements in regional relations. However, President  Trump has been squandering these gains since his election and will not make any friends in the region by harshly criticizing the Castro regime or returning to Cold War-era tactics. Many pundits suggested that one of the driving forces for the Obama’s change in U.S.-Cuban relations was Cuba’s invitation by other Latin American countries to participate in the 2015 Summit of the Americas. The next Summit of the Americas, slated for 2018, could present President Trump with the opportunity to seek partners in pursuing his agenda in the region, but his shift in Cuban policy will likely hinder cooperation and earn him a far less positive reception than Obama received at the last Summit. Poor relations with Western hemispheric allies will make addressing regional challenges that much more difficult for the United States.

Trump’s course shift on U.S.-Cuban relations is also a domestic political folly on the part of the president. According to the Pew Research Center, a growing number of Americans (nearly 75% in December 2016) support improved U.S. relations with Cuba. This sentiment is not only evident in public opinion polls, but also in the fact that the number of Americans visiting Cuba is growing exponentially, with over 600,000 Americans visiting it in 2016. Even the Cuban-American population largely favored Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba, with 51% of Cuban-Americans supporting it. The share was even higher among those born in the United States, with 66% of the American-born population supporting the move. Trump seems to believe that he owes the Cuban-American population for delivering Florida to him in the 2016 presidential election, a point that he reminisced about at length during his June 2016 U.S.-Cuba policy speech in Miami. However, the majority of Cuban-Americans support rapprochement. Furthermore, Trump carried the Cuban-American vote by less than many of his Republican predecessors, carrying this key demographic by 2 percentage points compared to the 30 point margin held by John McCain in 2008 and the 12 point margin won by Mitt Romney in 2012. These results may explain why Donald Trump lost Miami-Dade County and the surrounding areas.

While re-frosting the relationship with Cuba would fulfill another of President Trump’s campaign promises, it would weaken his position both at home and abroad by not only failing to meet his desired policy outcomes, but also making it more difficult for the United States to achieve other policy objectives in the Americas. Although the president may believe that he has the support of the people on this policy shift, Americans and Cuban-Americans largely support rapprochement with Cuba. Although the policy changes that Trump is proposing are minor, his changes and sharp rhetoric towards Cuba may anger domestic voters as well leaders throughout the hemisphere.


Adam Ratzlaff

Adam Ratzlaff is a PhD student in International Relations at Florida International University. His research interests include U.S.-Latin American foreign policy, Sino-Latin American foreign policy, Pan-American cooperation, the defense of democracy in the Americas, and economic and social development in Latin America. Ratzlaff has previously conducted political and economic analysis for several groups including the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. He holds a MA in International Studies from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies (University of Denver), as well as a BA from Tulane University where he triple majored in International Relations, Economics, and Latin American Studies. Feel free to connect with Adam either via LinkedIn or on Twitter @adam_ratzlaff.
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