The next US president – what does it mean for Cuba and Latin America?

Winter 2016

Canadian author and journalist, Keith Bolender gives his view on the 2016 US Presidential elections

The upcoming presidential election in the United States has been called one of the most important in the country’s history. Political observers are keenly watching America’s choice between a polarising outsider with no political experience or a long-established beltway insider considered too politically sophisticated. While the difference in choice seems starkly apparent for the nation, will the new president have an impact on relations with Latin America and Cuba? 

Both Republican Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton bring specific perspectives when it comes to foreign relations. Trump’s opinions about immigration from south of the US border are well known –  railing against what he calls illegal immigration, criminals and rapists coming from Mexico and Central America. Interestingly, part of his foreign policy views resonate across party lines with those who support his belief that the US doesn’t need to be the world’s policeman. US imperialism has caused untold harm to millions of innocent victims over the past 50 years, and when Trump warns of US intervention without recognising the often unforeseen negative consequences, that garners consensus within segments of both conservative and liberal voters.

Despite that aspect of his foreign policy appearing somewhat pragmatic, Trump’s foreign policy is overwhelmingly racist and unworkable. His presidency would undoubtedly create tensions and difficulties with the left-leaning governments in Latin America, potentially seeing a rise in anti-American sentiment in a region that has been relatively ignored by the past few presidents.

When it comes to Cuba, Trump’s latest comment reflects the patronising, inconsistent aspects of his whole campaign. Until he spoke in Miami in mid-September, Trump made only a few measured remarks about the island nation. While in support of the process, he previously stated – “I’d get a better deal” – when asked about Obama’s move towards normal relations with the long-time adversary. However, at a rally in Miami, Trump vowed to reverse improved relations with Cuba unless his demands for more religious and political freedom are met, according to a Bloomberg report.

“All of the concessions that Barack Obama has granted the Castro Regime were done through executive order, which means the next president can reverse them – and that is what I will do, unless the Castro Regime meets our demands," Trump said at the rally.  He continued with the tired old anti-Cuba rhetoric, promising his administration would "stand with the Cuban people in their fight against Communist oppression."

Most observers saw his switch as simply political pandering to the crowd, made up of mostly older Cuban-American voters who support the continuation of the blockade. That ever diminishing demographic may bring him a few votes, but it goes against the majority in Florida who support normalisation. If Trump were to win the White House based on the backing of right wing Cuban-American voters in Florida, there may be pressure for him to follow through on reversing Obama’s initiatives. That scenario, however, is extremely improbable as a recent poll showed a strong percentage in favour of ending the blockade and travel restrictions; the only Cuban-Americans still supporting restrictions are those whose average age is 76.

Even if elected, Trump would find it difficult to reverse Obama’s Cuban policies that will have been in place and functioning for more than two years, particularly if the Democrats gain more influence in Congress. Another brake to any intent to reverse policy would be the strong support those measures have received from a large number of Republicans and the US population in general. While his Miami comments are concerning, most see it as simply another example of Trump saying what he perceives to be popular for the audience he’s performing in front of, with little intent to commit. 

Trump has come out against the Cuban Adjustment Act that allows any Cuban who reaches U.S. soil to remain in the country legally, obtain special financial and social benefits and apply for residency immediately. Under the recently relaxed rules enabling Cubans to leave the country, the Act has created problems with hundreds who have left the island stuck in Costa Rica and Nicaragua in their attempt to make it to the US. Fear of the Act ending is driving Cubans to pay human smugglers thousands of dollars to get them to the shores of America. Trump’s opposition to the Act is not based on making immigration easier for everyone, but instead on making it harder for all Latin Americans across the board.

So while Trump could cause great disruption in Latin America, he probably would not do much to alter the policy of normalisation with Cuba despite his latest attempt to appease the hardliners in Miami. Trump saying whatever he wants to get whatever he thinks will work with the crowd he’s in front of is his trademark, default position.

Which leaves Hillary Clinton. With her lengthy political background, Clinton is the quintessential Washington insider, a designation that brings her praise as an experienced and competent politician along with criticism as someone who will simply continue America’s bi-partisan imperialistic strategies. Her time as secretary of state tends to confirm her views on Latin America and Cuba are decidedly in line with traditional US foreign policy goals. Hillary is a long time hawk and interventionist who has consistently backed neo-liberal influences that have done so much harm to Latin America, supporting anti- Chávism in Venezuela and the coups in Honduras and Haiti that replaced left leaning governments with those more aligned to US interests. Clinton comes from the view that capitalism and democracy are inseparable social elements, little understanding the important popular movements that have identified Latin America liberalism the past 15 years.

Clinton’s telling silence on the coup in Brazil has been taken for tacit backing for the right wing forces that engineered the legal manipulations that led to the removal of democratically elected president Dilma Rousseff.

So what about Cuba?  Hillary has long ties with some of the worst anti-Cuban elements in Florida, dating back to husband Bill’s presidency when he caved in to those forces and signed the disastrous Helms-Burton bill in 1996. Although a critic of the Revolution, dredging up the old canards of human rights and democracy, she did come out in favour of Obama’s decision to normalise relations. In her memoirs she urged Obama to reach out to the long-time adversary. Since then Clinton has stated she favours ending the blockade, confirming her position in front of an audience in Miami in 2015.

"The Cuba embargo needs to go, once and for all,” she said, reported by the Tampa Bay Times. But just as revealing was what came after – “We should replace it with a smarter approach that empowers the Cuban private sector, Cuban civil society, and the Cuban-American community to spur progress and keep pressure on the regime.”

Her position is exactly what makes Cubans wary of the process—they understand it is simply a different strategy with the same objective – regime change. Cuban leadership favours normalisation, but will not agree to any encroachment on their sovereignty nor abide criticism of their internal matters.

The bottom line is that Cuba knows it must have normalisation, the end to the blockade and all travel restrictions in order to have a chance to advance and solidify their economic reforms and move into sustainable 21st century socialism.

Many observers fear the US will simply overwhelm Cuba in this process and succeed in destroying the Revolution, but it is far better to deal with US friendship and all the perils that may entail, then to continue with US hostility and the untold damage it has caused to the Cuban people and society.

Revolutionary officials have long waited, planned and prepared for normal relations; both the existing first-generation and the new leaders are more than ready.

There is an increasingly prevailing view that the more US citizens who come to Cuba under the relaxed licensing requirements Obama has put into place, the more will see the country as it actually is. Those visitors will experience the good and the bad, and not just the anti-revolutionary propaganda they’ve been subject to for the past 50 years. Americans would then go back home with a – hopefully – better understanding of Cuban society and its people, thereby putting more pressure on their local congressmen to accelerate the process of full normalisation. 

A Clinton victory would most likely hasten efforts at normalisation, regardless of the strategy behind it.

Despite her support for normal relations, she has so far made no comment on the contentious Cuban Adjustment Act. Undoubtedly she is aware of the opposition to it from many Latin American leaders, who recently came out strongly for the US to end its "wet foot, dry foot" policy, saying it encourages "disorderly, irregular and unsafe" migration that negatively affects countries throughout the hemisphere, citing the problems in Central America as the most recent example.

Nine Latin American foreign ministers sent a letter to Secretary of State, John Kerry expressing the concern the Act is creating an immigration crisis in the region. So far the US side has continued to assert there will be no change in policy. Obama’s intent is to let the next administration deal with the problem.

In the end, does it really matter who gets into the White House?

Although a new president can do more to further weaken the blockade through executive orders to help increase trade and co-operation on issues ranging from investments, drug enforcement to environmental protections, the real key to the process lies in another Washington edifice. Which party comes out on top in Congress may be more important than who sits in the White House. It is only in Congress where the blockade and the travel restrictions can fully be eliminated, and it’s in the House of Representatives and Senate where the battle for real normalisation will be held.

Currently the Republicans hold sway over the House and Senate, and while bi-partisan support for ending the blockade is increasing, anti-revolutionary members of Congress from Florida still have an inappropriate amount of influence blocking new legislation in support of normalisation. In fact they are doing their best to turn back the clock – Cuban-American members of Congress who oppose expanded travel have introduced bills, first in the House and now in the Senate that if passed, would halt new commercial air travel to Cuba. The rationale is over concerns about terrorism and inadequate security measures to safeguard the flights. Both the Department of Homeland Security and Cuba's aviation authority have confirmed that Cuba’s airports are up to recognised international security standards.

Nothing is expected to come of their attempts to move Cuban policy back to the 1960s, but as long as the Republicans have control of Congress any move to end the blockade and travel restrictions become more complicated.

If the Democrats regain the Senate, and win more seats in the House, that could be a game changer. Under that scenario the Democrats would have a better chance to introduce legislation to end the embargo, and make sure anti-Cuban bills don’t move outside the committee level. Whoever sits in the White House may not matter, as both Trump and Clinton would have little reason not to sign those measures that truly normalise relations with Cuba.

An augmented number of Democratic congressmen could also embolden Republicans who are leaning towards a move to the normalisation side. The more bi-partisan support there is, the easier it becomes not to cave in under the pressure from hardline Cuban-American members of Congress like Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Marco Rubio. And the less influence those anti-Cuba politicians have, the better.  Recent legislation to end the blockade has been supported, and sometime initiated, by Republican representatives, only to be consistently derailed by the anti-Cuban faction.

Best case scenario

The perfect scenario would be for the Democrats to win both House and Senate, with Clinton in the White House. It would be expected legislation ending the blockade would come out of Congress within the first year of the new administration.

Most likely, the November election would see Clinton as president, with Republicans holding the House but the Senate switching back to Democratic control.  This remains a positive development, although the time frame for blockade - ending bills might be delayed a year or two, but expected before the first Clinton administration ends.

Worst case scenario

The worst case? Trump in the White House, Republicans control Congress. Then it becomes more complicated; the anti-Cuban congressmen retain their influence and ability to beat back blockade - ending legislation. Trump would have little inclination to use his executive authority to further weaken the embargo and he may even follow through on his Miami speech. But it would be doubtful he would move to reverse any of Obama’s policy – mostly likely simply state he’ll get a better deal without actually doing anything. Cuban policy would remain frozen under that development.

For Latin America – Trump would be worse, but not by much, than Clinton. For Cuba, both have similar viewpoints, but it’s Congress that holds the key to finally establish true normal relations.

Cuban officials have commented little about the presidential race, preferring instead to focus in on the enduring harm the blockade and travel restrictions do to the national economy. The continued negative impact becomes even more important to end as the country struggles to cope with shortages, blackouts and little growth in large part due to the problems with their main economic partners Venezuela and Brazil. Cuba still has to deal with the various harmful aspects of the blockade – one of the worst is that of international banks being extremely hesitant to conduct legitimate business with Cuba for fear of harsh sanctions.

The results for a new president, and change in Congress will be known after the 8 November election. Cuba is not waiting. Small but important positive effects have resulted from the country’s economic reforms and the new relationship with the United States.

Just as important, the normalisation process has put to rest the lie that the blockade has nothing to do with Cuba’s economic shortcomings. Havana is showing a new vibrancy, thousands more tourists are coming (including many from the US thanks to the ease of getting a license to travel to the island) and there are signs of a small middle class developing with measurable disposable income as a result of the ever increasing private-sector workforce.

US businessmen are coming, seeing opportunities and making deals. American hotel management companies are taking over Cuban hotels, US air carriers are lining up to fly into Cuba, and this genuine activity creates its own energy to end the blockade and travel restrictions.

Latin America and Cuba look anxiously to the race for the White House. Whoever wins it will bring challenges and opportunities to these countries. Just as importantly, however, eyes should be focused on the race for Congress, something that could in the long-run be even more significant to end the 50 years plus of hostility between those who live on either side of the Florida straits.

Keith Bolender will be speaking at the Latin America Adelante! 2016 Conference and at meetings in Liverpool and Nottingham in November 2016.

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