Trump Threatens to Rescind Obama's Cuba Engagement—and Activists Fight Back
The advocacy community now includes travel agencies, airline and
agricultural companies, and a growing number of politicians.
By Peter KornbluhTwitterTODAY 7:00 AM
At mid-day on May 29, the conservative media website The Daily Caller
posted an "exclusive" story titled "Trump Set To Roll Back Obama's Cuba
Policies." The article stated that the president was planning a June
trip to Miami, where he would reimpose restrictions on the right of US
citizens to travel to Cuba, as well as curtail business opportunities
that Obama had authorized through executive decree. The Daily Caller
credited Trump's decision "to the behind-the-scenes efforts of
Republican Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Democratic New Jersey Sen. Bob
Menendez and Republican Florida Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart"—the trio of
hard-line Cuban-American legislators who have pressed the president to
rescind Obama's history-changing policy of engagement toward Cuba.
The article immediately ricocheted around the Internet, was forwarded by
CNN and picked up by a number of media outlets. Within 24 hours, other
journalists began consulting their sources inside the Trump
administration and publishing more comprehensive stories. On May 31, The
Hill posted a detailed article on the internal debate within the
foreign-policy bureaucracy on how much to alter a policy that has
yielded clear benefits for US economic and security interests in the
Caribbean and a new era of collaboration between Washington and Havana
on key issues of mutual importance such as counternarcotics,
counterterrorism, and migration. The New York Times followed up with a
front-page report that "a split has emerged over rolling back a policy
that many senior officials privately agree has been an improvement on
the Cold War dynamic that shaped relations with Cuba in the past."
The information in the original Daily Caller story did not leak from
inside the Trump administration. Rather, the story was sourced to "an
anti-embargo group." An astute advocate of engagement, it appears,
decided to sound a political fire alarm on Trump's pending plans for
Cuba, rather than sit by as a clique of right-wing Cuban-American
legislators influenced the new administration to torch a successful policy.
Indeed, with the spate of news reports, the Cuba advocacy community—now
made up of travel agencies, airline corporations, tech companies,
agricultural interests and a growing number of politicians and political
activists, among others—is mobilizing to defend recently expanded
US-Cuba relations. "Cuba policy should not be determined by several
hard-line Cuban-American legislators from South Florida," points out
Mavis Anderson, head of the Washington-based Latin America Working Group
(LAWG), which is generating grassroots support to sustain engagement
with Cuba. "Especially when the great majority of US citizens approve
the changes President Obama made to Cuba policy, and want it to go further."
LAWG was one of the first advocacy groups to push back against the Trump
administration's plans to roll back Cuba policy. "Its Now or Never: Stop
Trump from reversing travel to Cuba!" reads a LAWG posting on May 30.
The posting included an image to share on social media that states in
bold letters i support engagement with cuba, and it calls for ending the
travel ban and the embargo. In less than two days, it had been viewed
over 37,500 times on Facebook, and had some 300 shares.
The LAWG posting also exhorted readers to contact members of Congress
and urge them to demand continued travel and engagement with Cuba. After
years of efforts by advocacy groups such as the Center for Democracy in
the Americas and the Washington Office on Latin America to educate both
Republican and Democratic members of the House and Senate about Cuban
realities, Congress is finally emerging as a potential player on Cuba
policy. Last week, in anticipation of Trump's decision, a bipartisan
group of senators reintroduced the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act. When
this bill was first introduced two years ago, it had only eight
cosponsors; now it has 55—a reflection of how normalization, and the
advocacy and lobbying interests it has unleashed, have dramatically
changed the politics of the Cuba issue.
The legislation would lift remaining restrictions on travel and deprive
Trump of his ability to interfere with the constitutional right of US
citizens to visit whenever they want. "Recognizing the inherent right of
Americans to travel to Cuba isn't a concession to dictators," stated
Republican Senator Jeff Flake, who co-sponsored the bill with Vermont
Democrat Patrick Leahy. "It is Americans who are penalized by our travel
ban, not the Cuban government."
Opinion polls show that some 81 percent of the American public supports
free travel to Cuba, and that 74 percent of Cuban-Americans do as well.
"The current travel restrictions," notes the Cuban Study Group (CSG), a
Miami-based Cuban-American association of business professionals, "have
no parallel for any other country and are vestiges of over fifty years
of failed policy. Rather than catalyze political or economic freedom on
the island, they have only served to hurt the Cuban people in a
misguided attempt to weaken their government." Moreover, according to
the CSG's statement supporting the travel bill, "lifting the travel ban
will have a substantial and positive effect on the lives of ordinary
Cuban citizens who have joined the country's nascent private sector."
Last week, 46 travel agencies made a similar economic argument in a
letter to Trump—one timed to support the introduction of the Freedom to
Travel to Cuba Act. Organized by one of the leading travel providers,
Cuba Educational Travel (which has helped coordinate The Nation's Cuba
trips), the signatories urged the new administration to consider the
"benefits of increased travel to Cuba to both the American and Cuban
private sectors," and to continue the Obama-era relaxation of travel
restrictions, which have led to a 73 percent increase in the number of
US visitors to the island this year.
"Many US travelers visiting Cuba stay in privately run B&Bs, dine at
private restaurants, hire independent taxis, and purchase goods and
services from entrepreneurs," the letter stated. And US jobs are also at
stake. "Due to increased demand, our companies have brought on
additional staff to handle the high volume of travel to Cuba," the
signatories noted. If travel to Cuba expands, the travel service
providers will "hire more American workers," according to the letter.
But, the letter warned, "a rollback of the current policy would lead to
significant layoffs at many of our companies."
An "economic impact" analysis released earlier today by the leading US
business lobby, Engage Cuba, attempts to quantify the significant
employment and monetary costs of rolling back the policy. Based on
average plane-ticket prices and cruise-ship fares, the study estimated
that restrictions on travel could cost up to $3.5 billion in lost
revenues and affect over 10,000 jobs in the travel industry over the
next four years. Jobs and revenue streams in South Florida would be
hardest hit, with loses of $212 million per year to the state economy,
should Trump cut off cruise ship travel to the island. "Manufacturing
companies are finalizing commercial contracts that will create $1.1
billion worth of exports from the U.S. to Cuba over the next five
years," according to the impact analysis. "Ending this process could
diminish U.S. exports by $227.6 million per year, or $929 million over
four years." Ending those export deals in progress, the study predicts,
would affect 1,359 jobs a year.
The Engage Cuba study is the latest salvo in the bitter battle to rescue
Cuba policy, but it certainly won't be the last. The stakes, as the
pro-engagement advocacy community understands, go beyond job and
investment losses; in both language and action, Trump is threatening to
undermine years of concerted effort—inside and outside of government—to
establish a civil, peaceful coexistence with an island neighbor after
more than half a century of intervention, embargoes, and assassination
plots. At stake is a model of responsible US foreign policy—to be
emulated, not repudiated. "Now is not the time to backtrack," Mavis
Anderson told The Nation. "Now it is time to take our policy back."
Source: Trump Threatens to Rescind Obama's Cuba Engagement—and Activists
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