Trump squeezing Cuba to pressure Venezuela could backfire on the U.S.
Ambassador Curtis A. Ward
(April 20, 2019) — President Donald Trump Administration’s continued pressure on Cuba has two intended consequences. The first is to reverse President Barack Obama’s rapprochement with the Cuban Government, then led by President Raul Castro, with the aim of appeasing some members of the Cuban-American community as payback for the strong support Trump received from them in the 2016 Presidential elections. He is keeping his promise to them. The second is to end Cuba’s support for Nicolás Maduro’s regime in Venezuela.
Statements from President Trump and members of his foreign policy team have been clear about these intentions. Because of the collateral damages expected from President Trump’s new Cuba policy, his administration’s objectives will not easily be achieved. His actions against Cuba could backfire.
Trump’s Cuban policy is part of his obsession with reversing President Barack Obama’s landmark initiatives and successes. His relentless assault on President Obama’s domestic and foreign policies began soon after being sworn in as president. This came as no surprise.
Dismantling President Obama’s hemispheric policies is a misguided and myopic approach to peace and stability in the region and his Cuban policy is a stark example of this reality. If successful, Trump’s hemispheric policy, and I am cautious in using the term ‘policy’, will reverse the tremendous progress made in advancing democracy, human rights and the rule of law in the region in the post-Cold War era under presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and especially under President Obama.
Trump’s reversal of Obama Administration sanctions waivers against Cuba, which began in 2009 leading to reopening of the American embassy in Havana (July 20, 2015), by imposing new and broader sanctions and other extraterritorial application of U.S. laws against Cuba present grave implications for Caribbean and Latin American countries, as well as for Canadian and European investors and trading partners. Relations developed over the past several decades with Cuba will be severely challenged but will not end. President Trump may find a small minority of countries as willing partners in the hemisphere, especially with countries shunning liberal democratic principles for conservative policies. He will find resistance from most, at least from those not afraid of retribution from his administration. No liberal democracy in the hemisphere or anywhere else in the world wishes to see a return to Cold War geopolitical relations and military threats.
Candidate Trump did not articulate a Latin American and Caribbean policy framework or strategy during the 2016 presidential election, and, without any available policy papers, the only guide to Trump’s policies is what has played out with each announcement during the first twenty-six months of his presidency. Governments are at pains to decipher his foreign policy objectives, thus their responses are reactive and often slow to develop. Speculation is rife. The President’s words and those of his foreign policy team offer very few clues, and they have failed to articulate a coherent strategy. Without a coherent well articulated strategy, the Trump Administration seems to leap from one action to the next without regard to long-term implications.
Up to this point, actions against Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba have received very few challenges, and only a few countries with little or no capacity to have any meaningful impact on U.S. policy have openly offered any objection. China and Russia, and a few others, are exceptions. For the most part, Latin America and Caribbean governments are in tow on Venezuela, in part for fear of retributions or for the few rewards promised. On the other hand, the measures being taken against Cuba are showing signs of resistance, but, so far, the Caribbean and the rest of the hemisphere have been mute. However, it is difficult to envision a scenario where countries in the Caribbean will side with the Trump Administration against Cuba. While many caved on his policy and actions against Venezuela, given Cuba’s salutary policies across the region any Caribbean government following a similar path with regard to Cuba will find such a course unacceptable domestically.
The Trump Administration’s recent decision to give effect to Section III of the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act (Libertad) (Helms-Burton Act) which allows claims against companies doing business in Cuba utilizing property formerly owned by U.S. citizens and Cuban-Americans ostensibly taken by the Cuban Government following the Cuban Revolution presents a different set of dynamics in Cuban relations with countries in the hemisphere and around the world. Citizens of Canada and Western European investors are mostly impacted. Although the Helms-Burton Act has been in effect since 1996, every U.S. president since then has suspended Title III which gives these property owners or their descendants the right to file suit to recover losses from confiscation of their properties.
In making the announcement on April 17, 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, not only mocked the Obama Administration’s “game of footsy with the Castro’s junta” as being ineffective in changing Cuba’s human rights behavior, but his description of Cuba’s role in the hemisphere completely missed the mark. I won’t paraphrase the Secretary’s words but include them verbatim so readers may determine for themselves:
“Cuba’s behavior in the Western Hemisphere undermines the security and stability of countries throughout the region, which directly threatens United States national security interests. The Cuban regime has for years exported its tactics of intimidation, repression, and violence.”
“Sadly, Cuba’s most prominent export these days is not cigars or rum; it’s oppression. Detente with the regime has failed. Cozying up to Cuban dictators will always be a black mark on this great nation’s long record of defending human rights.”
The Chairman of the U.S. House Foreign Relations Committee, Rep. Eliot Engel, has a direct opposite view. In a statement issued by Chairman Engel on April 17, 2019, he said:
“President Trump’s rejection of over two decades of bipartisan consensus on a key piece of U.S. policy toward Cuba will further isolate the United States from our Latin American and European allies and diminish our ability to promote democracy in Cuba and Venezuela. Sadly, this decision will do nothing to resolve U.S. property claims in Cuba—an important goal toward which we must continue to strive.”
Congressman Engel also said that presidents from Clinton to Obama have rightly concluded that implementation of Title III of Helms-Burton
“…would harm U.S. interests, American businesses, and the Cuban people. It will also damage our partnerships with key allies, including Canada and the European Union, by opening up another front in the Trump trade war as it opens the United States to litigation in the WTO. The losers in the latest round of Donald Trump’s cowboy diplomacy will be the American people who will suffer the real-life consequences of retaliatory trade measures.”
In urging the President to reconsider, Rep. Engel said, “there are very serious repercussions of this decision on our cooperation with allies in support of democracy in Venezuela. Instead of understanding the impact of today’s action on our partners, the Trump Administration has chosen to isolate itself from those in the EU and the Americas with whom we should be coordinating.”
Implementing Title III of Helms-Burton Act has not been received well by Canada and the European Union. They have rejected its extraterritorial application and the liabilities it will create on Canadian and European investors in Cuba. The Foreign Ministers of Canada and the EU jointly threatened to take the U.S. to the World Trade Organization and to implement measures to protect their citizens from the lawsuits which are sure to come. Caribbean governments that have benefited significantly from Cuban assistance, even throughout the period of the great recession, will be pressured to join in with Canada and the EU to protect their own interests as necessary.
This Trump Administration policy will set back hemispheric relations and is therefore doomed for failure; and it will backfire on the United States. Will Caribbean governments follow the EU’s example and act in unison or stand divided as in the case of Venezuela?
© 2019 Curtis A. Ward/The Ward Post