As Cubans continued either to mourn or to celebrate the death of Fidel Castro, President-elect Donald Trump issued a vague ultimatum to the Cuban government on Monday. “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,” Trump wrote on Twitter.
While Cuba is hardly the most pressing foreign policy challenge Trump will inherit in January, he is facing calls to roll back the Obama administration’s policy of engagement, a move that would be extremely shortsighted.
President Barack Obama’s opening with Havana in 2014 hasn’t been an instant catalyst of democracy, freedom and prosperity. But it has helped establish conditions for ordinary Cubans to have greater autonomy in a society long run as a police state. It has also enabled Cuban-Americans to play a larger role in shaping the nation’s future, primarily by providing capital for the island’s nascent private sector.
More than five decades of Cold War isolation never led to greater freedoms for Cubans.
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While the Cuban government and the Obama White House continue to have profound disagreements on issues such as human rights, the two governments have established a robust bilateral agenda that includes cooperation on environmental policy, maritime issues, migration, organized crime and responses to pandemics. These hard-won diplomatic achievements have benefited both sides.
As a businessman, Trump explored the possibility of investing in Cuba during the 1990s, in violation of the trade embargo. As a presidential candidate, he spoke approvingly of engaging with Cuba, before taking a more hard-line position during the final days of the race in the pursuit of Cuban-American votes in Florida.
If Trump’s Cuba policy matches his latest rhetoric, cooperation is likely to wane. That would only embolden hard-liners in the Cuban regime who are leery of mending ties with the United States and are committed to maintaining Cuba as a repressive socialist bulwark. In Trump, they may find the ideal foil to stoke nationalism among Cubans who are fiercely protective of their nation’s sovereignty and right to self-determination.
More than five decades of Cold War isolation never led to greater freedoms for Cubans. The Castro government has long justified its stifling controls on its citizens and its centrally planned economy by portraying Cuba as a nation under siege.
Alternatively, Trump could build on Obama’s approach by pressing lawmakers to do away with the senseless embargo. Once that happened, the U.S. government would be better positioned to keep promoting freedom of expression, free enterprise and democratic governance, while making it clear that the future of Cuba must be decided by Cubans.