Back to the ‘Nineties with Trump

Campaign News | Thursday, 29 June 2017

CSC insisted, following President Obama’s dramatic retreat in 2014, that the embargo legislation remained untouched, that the US had merely refocussed its regime change strategy, and that Obama’s reforms, all made by presidential directive, could be easily reversed by a successor. President Trump’s National Security Presidential Memorandum on Strengthening the Policy of the United States Toward Cuba of June 16th proves the point, and is a significant setback for the Cuban people.

The first headline of Trump’s announcement is stricter enforcement of the 1990s embargo legislation, designed by right-wing Cuban-American groups. The Obama administration’s record-breaking $billion embargo fines on international companies has already hit Cuba hard with banks withdrawing and others frightened off. Trump’s embargo policy will exacerbate this crushing fear of investing.

Secondly, Trump will police much harder the ban on US citizens travelling to Cuba as tourists. The few permitted educational groups of US ‘people to people’ travellers will again face onerous pre-Obama controls and sanctions, and the ‘group of one’ permitted by Obama is abolished. This is already hitting the private tourist businesses Trump claims he wants to support.

Thirdly, financial transactions will be prohibited with a new list of Cuban institutions and companies considered to be, ‘under the control of, or act on behalf of, the Cuban military, intelligence or security services or personnel’ and which ‘disproportionately benefit’ such services or personnel ‘at the expense of the Cuban people or private enterprise in Cuba’. Cuba’s armed forces, completely rebuilt after the revolution, are popular and trusted: the ‘people in uniform’ and partners in building a new society. They successfully took responsibility for many struggling businesses during the Special Period, and created large corporations to organise them. Targeting their business activities has nothing to do with weakening the forces, everything to do with causing maximum economic damage. The forces’ companies are, for example, partners in the giant Mariel container port and many tourist facilities including the new joint-venture hotel with US company Starwood. The White House says existing business deals are not affected, but it will become illegal for US citizens to use such facilities, adding more disincentives to international investment.

A fourth shift widens the ban on Cuban officials travelling to the US. The old list banned government and Communist party officials. It will now encompass, ‘secretaries and first secretaries of the Confederation [sic] of Labor of Cuba (CTC) and its component unions; chief editors, editors, and deputy editors of Cuban state-run media organizations and programs, including newspapers, television, and radio, and members and employees of the Supreme Court.’ It is to be hoped that both trade unions who support Cuba, and indeed journalist groups that regularly condemn Cuba, will respond. Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have already rejected Trump’s policy.

Trump appears, at first sight, to have stepped back from his election campaign promises to reverse everything Obama did. He boasted in his June 16th speech that, ‘Effective immediately, I am cancelling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba’. But this was fake news. He is not breaking off diplomatic relations, nor reinstating the ‘wet foot-dry foot’ immigration policy whose abolition last year virtually ended people-trafficking Cuban deaths at sea. He is not tearing up post-2014 accords in areas such as counter-narcotics, marine and environmental protection, hydrography, civil aviation safety, mail, telecommunications and internet services, public health and biomedical research, and scheduled airline, cruise and ferry boat links. He is not re-imposing pre-Obama limits on Cuban-American visits and cash remittances to families and others on the island. Obama’s policy permitting US visitors to bring back Cuban products remains. Trump has not re-imposed the ban on cargo vessels visiting US ports within six months of visiting Cuba, nor reversed the easing of payment conditions for Cuban imports of US food products. Cuba is not being re-listed as a ‘sponsor of terrorism’.

It would a serious error, however, to assume that Trump feels permanently constrained by US business interests, diplomatic pressures, or the opposition to the embargo of majority US public opinion, not least of Cuban-American opinion. Trump’s Cuba policy team included Cuban-American right-wingers like Senator Marco Rubio. They have not immediately got everything they wanted, but they believe that they will. Announcing his policy in a Miami centre named after a prominent Cuban-American terrorist, Trump told his hard-line audience, referring to the promise to repeal all of Obama’s directives,

‘I promised you -- I keep my promises. Sometimes in politics, they take a little bit longer, but we get there. We get there. Don't we get there? You better believe it… We get there. (Laughter.) Thank you. Thank you. No, we keep our promise.’

Apart from the potential for reversing more of Obama’s reforms, the new policy builds in procedural opportunities for hostility against the Cuban people. It requires various government agencies to regularly report on the implementation of embargo legislation and the travel ban. Reports will assess Cuba’s ‘progress’ in meeting US ‘transition government’ (ie regime change) demands, including ‘democracy program’ spending in Cuba, in terms of the objectives of the hard-line 1996 Helms-Burton embargo legislation, and evaluate progess with listed ‘US interests’ which start with (US-defined) human rights and developing Cuba’s ‘private sector independent of government control’.

These reports, together with the promised resumption of opposition to the annual UN motion condemning the US embargo, will provide endless scope for right-wing politicking aimed at pushing or helping Trump to fulfil his total reversal promise. The same is true of the process of identifying which financial transactions with Cuba are subject to the new ban on ‘disproportionate’ benefit to Cuba’s military and security institutions. The more high-profile delay and uncertainty is generated around investment in Cuba, the more Cubans will suffer.

Trump’s ‘I’ll do a better deal’ rhetoric is breathtakingly arrogant, given that the US was always unilaterally imposing or changing policy. His Memorandum has been widely attacked as a return to Cold War posturing. In fact, it is more a return to the post-Cold War, 1990s strategies driven by Cuban-American right-wingers, to strangle Cuba economically while nurturing internal subversion to trigger regime change. In this, it remains consistent with Obama’s strategy of influencing an expanding private sector to erode Cuba’s socialist constitution: the 1990s’ ‘track two’ approach. Trump’s promise to intensify both the embargo and ‘track two’ subversion threaten new harm to Cubans and new challenges to solidarity groups.

In the US, ranged against Trump and the Miami Mafia will be the many business, political, and solidarity, academic and cultural groups that have campaigned against the embargo and to preserve Obama’s limited reforms. As Trump’s Memorandum turns into regulations, they will fight back. Our solidarity with them and with the people of Cuba requires that we also intensify our resistance to the embargo and this recapture of US policy by the remnants of the Batista dictatorship and the defenders of anti-Cuba terrorism.

By Dr Steve Ludlam, Sheffield University

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