Council on Foreign Relations; Tightening the Screws on Cuba. Elliott Abrams

Tightening the Screws on Cuba

Blog Post by Elliott Abrams

Several weeks ago I wrote an “Expert Brief” for the Council on Foreign Relations titled “Time to Tighten the Screws on Cuba?” There I argued that the one-sided and unfortunate concessions the Obama administration made to Cuba had helped the regime but not the Cuban people, and urged the Trump administration to go even further than it has already gone in reversing those concessions.

Americans’ travel to Cuba was one of the topics I covered:

The Trump administration has left most of Obama’s major changes intact, despite the new president’s tough rhetoric. “The previous administration’s easing of restrictions on travel and trade does not help the Cuban people—they only enrich the Cuban regime,” President Trump said in June 2017.

Under Trump’s leadership, the United States has restricted commerce with Cuban entities owned by the military and security services, such as hotels owned by the Cuban army, and it has ended individual travel. The State Department also warned Americans not to visit Cuba following attacks first reported in 2017 on U.S. diplomatic personnel there that left two dozen with serious and unexplained health problems. However, Trump has not altered regulations covering commercial flights and cruises to Cuba or travel by tour groups.

It is too early to judge whether Trump’s policies will have a significant commercial impact. Cruise ship passenger arrivals appear to be rising, but multiple airlines have canceled flights from the United States due to low demand. The net effect on U.S. citizen travel to Cuba will have to be calculated after another year or two.

Now we have some preliminary information about U.S. citizen travel to Cuba, and it suggests a substantial reduction. Reuters has just published a story titled “U.S. visits to Cuba plunge following Trump measures.” The story quotes the Cuban Ministry of Tourism’s commercial director, Michel Bernal, saying that “The total of U.S. clients is only 56.6 percent of what it was in 2017.” This is a larger drop than I anticipated and suggests that the Trump administration’s steps are having a substantial impact. 

Last week Raul Castro stepped down as president of Cuba, leading some journalists and analysts to believe that real change had come to the island. It has not. Raul Castro remains head of the Cuban Communist Party and the Cuban armed forces, and other members of the Castro family hold critically important and powerful posts. For example, Raul’s only son, Col. Alejandro Castro Espín, heads intelligence and domestic security for the army and interior ministry. The new president, Miguel Diaz-Canel, is surrounded–but that may not matter very much because Diaz-Canel is himself an apparatchik with a long history of service to the Castros and to the Communist party. As an article in The Atlantic noted, immediately after being sworn in Diaz-Canel said “I affirm to this assembly that comrade Raul will head the decisions for the present and the future of the nation. Raul remains at the front of the political vanguard.”

In this at least Diaz-Canel spoke truthfully. That’s why the Trump administration was right to judge the Obama opening to Cuba as a gift to the Castros: “The previous administration’s easing of restrictions on travel and trade does not help the Cuban people—they only enrich the Cuban regime,” President Trump said last year. And it is why reversing those concessions was right and should go further. The regime is vulnerable, especially now that Venezuelan help is no longer available to it. Pressure (something the Obama administration never really tried) might elicit some human rights concessions. At the very least, the United States should demonstrate that we realize Cuba remains a communist tyranny, and that we remain entirely on the side of the Cuban people in their long struggle for freedom.