As the 2016 presidential campaign began heating up — and Florida appeared more and more winnable — the Donald Trump campaign began increasing its criticisms of President Barack Obama’s 2014 decision to reverse the United States’ longstanding policy towards Cuba. In Miami in September, then-candidate Trump said, “All of the concessions Barack Obama has granted the Castro regime were done through executive order, which means the next president can reverse them, and that I will do unless the Castro regime meets our demands. Not my demands. Our demands.”
In October, Trump’s running mate Mike Pence said, “When Donald Trump and I take to the White House, we will reverse Barack Obama’s executive orders on Cuba.”
The drumbeat has continued post-election. In late November, President-elect Trump tweeted, “If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate deal.”
A Trump spokesman followed with, “This has been an important issue, and it will continue to be one. Our priorities are the release of political prisoners, return of fugitives from American law, and also political and religious freedoms for all Cubans living in oppression.”
Clearly, changes are coming to U.S.-Cuba policy under Trump. But what to replace Obama’s policy with? Certainly no one argues for a return to the status quo ante. Instead, the President-elect’s new team should seize the opportunity to bring energy and creativity to truly empowering the Cuban people to reclaim their right to decide their own destiny.
If Obama’s ill-fated policy reaffirmed one thing (aside from the Castro regime’s congenital intransigence), it is the Cuban people’s enormous desire for change. But that can’t be supported at the same time as embracing the regime, which Obama failed to grasp. The two are fundamentally incompatible.
That being said, the new administration could begin its review of Cuba policy by focusing on three immediate imperatives:
1. Re-establish common cause with Cuban dissidents and human rights activists. Perhaps the worst aspect of Obama’s policy was shunting these brave Cubans to the back of the policy bus. Obama may believe the U.S. lacks moral authority to advocate on behalf of human rights, but the fact is a strong and unconditional stance by the U.S. serves as an inspiration to those struggling for basic rights around the world, as well as sending an important signal about American purpose.
The U.S. must return to a policy that prioritizes providing both moral and material support for Cuba’s dissidents and human rights activists. Funding for Cuba democracy programs was redirected by the Obama administration to other activities on the island. Not only should those programs be returned to their original purpose, but additional support ought to be sought from the new Congress. Human rights in Cuba must also be reprioritized at the United Nations, other international forums, and in U.S. public diplomacy campaigns.
2. Review all executive orders issued by Obama and commercial deals struck under the Obama administration. They all ought to be judged according to a single standard: Do they help the Cuban people or do they buttress the Castro regime? Any activity found to be sustaining the regime’s control rather than directly benefiting the Cuban people should be scrapped. For example, cruise ships that fill military-owned hotels are hard to justify. The guidelines could be: Does the activity promote and strengthen human rights such as freedom of speech and assembly? Does it improve ordinary Cubans access to the internet and information, breaking down the Castro regime’s wall of censorship placed between the Cuban people and the outside world, and between Cubans themselves? Does it help to lessen Cubans’ dependence on the regime? Does it allow for reputable nongovernmental organizations to freely operate on the island?
3. Review Cuban immigration policies. Cubans today are the beneficiaries of generous U.S. immigration privileges. The Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 allows Cubans reaching U.S. shores to be automatically paroled into the country, and a year and a day later they are eligible for permanent residency. On top of that, the U.S. grants at least 20,000 visas a year to Cubans in a lottery. What has happened is that the Castro regime has turned those policies into another economic lifeline. Many Cubans now emigrating are arriving in the U.S. only to turn around and ferry consumer goods back to the island. Certainly no one can begrudge Cubans trying to help their families on the island, but the situation has become morally inverted. What began as efforts to help Cubans fleeing tyranny has become a situation in which the regime’s victims are now relied upon to provide it economic sustenance.
An overhaul of Obama’s policy toward Cuba is needed, but it does not have to mean a return to the stasis of the past. With newfound political will and creativity, it can mean the implementation of a policy that unapologetically supports the aspirations of the Cuban people for a future devoid of the Castro regime. U.S. policy should be targeted at convincing Cubans that such a future exists, and inspires them to work towards it.