Let’s call President Donald Trump’s election-time economic sanctions against Cuba what they truly are: a political play to run up the margins of his Cuban American vote in Florida.
No hotel stays. No bringing home all the rum and cigars you can carry, Trump has mandated.
But with little U.S. travel to the island in the era of COVID-19, his prohibitions are meaningless. There isn’t much revenue to take away from the Cuban government when people aren’t going there anyway.
He announced the new round of prohibitions for American travelers Wednesday during a speech at the White House honoring Brigade 2506, the Miami-based Bay of Pigs veterans association that has twice endorsed him.
It was a grand — and empty — gesture to stoke the base during his Friday campaign visit to Miami.
The restrictions sound like big news, but the Treasury Department is only adding more hotel names and properties like “casas particulares” run by people connected to the government to what was already a long list of forbidden properties run by the Cuban military enterprise GAESA, which controls tourism.
RUM & CIGAR DIPLOMACY
More interesting, Trump is ending President Barack Obama’s rum and cigar diplomacy.
It was one of the missteps of Obama’s otherwise brilliant move to restore relations with Cuba, visit the island and personally encourage not only the government but also its people to open up to modernization and democracy.
But after Obama delivered an unprecedented speech in Havana — broadcast to the entire nation — extolling the values of democracy and the success of Cuban Americans in Miami, he angered his host, Raul Castro, and his brother Fidel, who penned a scathing rebuttal in the Cuban press.
To appease them and save his hard-fought rapprochement, Obama lifted restrictions on how many Cuban stogies and how much Cuban rum American travelers could bring into the country from the island and other countries: As much as they could carry for personal consumption and gifting.
I wasn’t a fan of the strategy.
It became a symbol of American frivolity, one of the perils of the people-to-people engagement effort. Everyone just wants to have fun on a Caribbean island, repression be damned.
It was a silly gesture and an olive branch that didn’t accomplish a thing, an unworthy follow-up to Obama’s historic visit and bold speech on the home turf of dictators, who were harshly repressing people even during his time in Havana.
Seeing authoritarian Trump doing away with rum and cigar imports, however, leaves me cold.
He doesn’t command any moral authority when the president can’t commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the November election, something unprecedented and unimaginable in this country.
And then, there’s the hypocrisy of his own record vying to do businessman in Cuba.
TRUMP RECORD IN CUBA
The prohibitions also are a tactic to push back on criticism over Trump’s well-documented record of chasing business opportunities in Cuba during the last decade.
Trump first tried to get into the Cuba market in 1997 when dictator Fidel Castro was alive, ruling Cuba and asking for foreign investment. Trump only turned to wooing Cuban exiles when he couldn’t strike a deal.
Throughout the 2000s, Trump kept trying, sending emissaries from his organization to scout locations and network while courting Cuban exiles for a potential run. In 2008, he even went as far as applying to register his Trump trademark in a bid to build hotels, golf courses, casinos and even possibly bring in a beauty pageant.
All of this in violation of the U.S. trade embargo, because that’s what Trump has lawyers for. The rules don’t apply to him.
The president underestimates Cuban American voters.
With his tough talk on “Communist oppression,” he pleased the octogenarians who tried and failed to invade Cuba in 1961 with U.S. support. But Trump overestimates his right-wing base — and underestimates the increasingly large numbers of Republicans leaving him, plus the liberal bloc of multi-generational Cuban American voters.
Like other U.S. travelers, these voters like their freedom to do as they please.
And, in four years, Trump’s sanctions against Cuba and Venezuela have failed moved the needle in favor of democratization.
To the contrary, both countries have retrenched and dealt severe blows to the opposition. And Trump’s lockdown on Americans’ travel to Cuba and reversal of rapprochement have hurt the Cuban people, especially fledgling private entrepreneurs benefiting from Obama’s engagement.
Meanwhile at home, anti-immigration Trump has left Venezuelans in Florida without Temporary Protected Status and vulnerable to deportation to a deplorable regime. His administration, at his direction, has denied the asylum claims of Cubans who either are languishing in immigration prisons vulnerable to COVID-19 or who have been deported to Cuba.
Trump speaks out of both sides of his mouth — and acts only for his own political benefit.
Authoritarian Trump also underestimates the state of Cuban-Americans’ alliances.
We may love and care about Cuba, but first and foremost, our eyes are on his dismantling of democracy in this country — and on the “Fidelito,” the Little Fidel, Trump carries inside.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Fabiola Santiago is a columnist for the Miami Herald.
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