One of Barack Obama’s most remarkable foreign policy accomplishments as president was warming ties with Cuba, in a break from decades of icy relations dating back to the early days of the Cold War. But the Trump administration is currently contemplating ways to cool the relationship again.
Administration officials are reportedly considering a wide variety of policies that President Trump could enact through an executive order that would partially close the economic and diplomatic channels Obama opened up. It’s still in the preliminary stages, but if it happens, the move could be announced as early as this month.
There are a lot of potential changes currently on the table — here are some of the main ones:
- Tighter restrictions on the ability of US travelers to visit Cuba
- A return of restrictions on the flow of Cuban cigars and rum to the US
- A ban on US companies making deals or selling material to the Cuban military
- Some kind of restriction on dealings with Cuban banks (it’s unclear from reports what they would be)
- A demand for the release of US fugitives like Assata Shakur (Cuba has provided asylum to her for more than three decades; she escaped from a US prison in 1979 after being convicted of killing a New Jersey state trooper)
There is apparently no plan to sever diplomatic ties or to shut down the US Embassy that reopened in Havana under Obama for the first time in 54 years, however.
The timing here is a bit strange. Obama’s move to thaw US-Cuban relations was ultimately the burial of an anachronistic policy that should’ve ended with the Cold War. His policy of openness toward Cuba was supported by a bipartisan majority of Americans. Currently at least 55 senators from both parties support completely scrapping the current limitations on traveling to Cuba, which were eased under Obama. It’s fair to say that Obama’s policies created a new status quo without much controversy.
But there is passion and focus running the other way. Cuban-American lawmakers, in particular Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, both from Florida, have been pressing Trump on the matter. Rubio has been playing a “key role” in pushing Trump, according to NBC News.
Trump would be able to use the executive order to reward the loyalty of Rubio, his former rival for the presidency who has ultimately stuck with Trump on the major issues. (Remember when Rubio, one of the biggest Russia hawks in Washington, decided to confirm Rex Tillerson for secretary of state despite Tillerson’s exceedingly warm relationship with the Kremlin?) It would also allow Trump to deliver on a pledge he made on the campaign trail to woo the conservative Cuban-American constituency that helped deliver the crucial swing state of Florida to him.
And while many lawmakers in Washington may be fine with the current trajectory of US-Cuban relations, their support for it isn’t so deeply held that it can’t be pierced by committed critics like Rubio.
Trump’s “principled realism” is really hard to follow
One other feature that stands out about this executive order is that, according to some reports, the administration is planning to frame it as a response to Cuba’s human rights violations.
That justification will make it even more difficult than it already is to keep track of Trump’s position on promoting values like human rights or democracy.
On the campaign trail and early in his presidency, Trump claimed that he was a hard-nosed realist coldly pursuing American interests without regard for how countries were choosing to govern themselves. And in keeping with that, he’s been notably silent on China’s human rights abuses, lavished praise on President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines for his murderous war on drugs, and signed a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia with no mention of that country’s many restrictions on women’s freedom.
But Trump has invoked human rights on a few occasions. He has publicly supported laws that call for cracking down on human rights abuses — including in Russia, with which he hopes to improve ties. And there was a human rights dimension to his decision to fire cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against civilians.
Trump justifies this unpredictable worldview as “principled realism,” an ad hoc philosophy that allows him to pursue what he believes to be US interests as a realist while still being able to use his own judgment in cases where he decides “values” do actually kind of matter to him. To be fair to Trump, he’s far from the first president to think that way.