Blogs > Cuba Libre > What Would a Trump Presidency Mean for U.S.—Cuban Relations?

Aug 4, 2016

What Would a Trump Presidency Mean for U.S.—Cuban Relations?

tags: election 2016,Cuba; Trump; U.S.--Cuban Relations

Propaganda sign in front of the United States Interests Section in Havana  (2000) 
By Idobi (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Joseph Gonzalez is Assistant Professor of Global and Interdisciplinary Studies at Appalachian State University.

Donald J. Trump, the Republican nominee for President of the United States, is famous for making controversial statements about U.S. allies (NATO, the Baltic States) and adversaries (Russia, China).  Even families of fallen soldiers who criticize him are not immune to his rebukes.  

But what has Trump said about Cuba, one of the U.S. government’s most long-standing adversaries?  And more important:  What would a Trump presidency mean for U.S.—Cuban relations? 

Trump’s statements regarding Cuba have been few and far between.  Shortly after declaring his candidacy, Trump broke ranks with his fellow Republicans and expressed approval for President Obama’s policy of normalizing relations with Cuba.  “Fifty years is enough,” said Trump.  “The concept of opening with Cuba is fine.”  This comment put Trump at odds with his Republican opponents; only Rand Paul expressed a view similar to Trump’s. Still, said Trump, President Obama “should have made a better deal,” though Trump, true to form, was short on specifics as to what a “better” deal would have looked like, much less how it might have been achieved. 

After the first few primaries, Trump made known his disagreements with current immigration policy regarding Cubans.  Cubans who make it to the United States, and set foot on dry land, may apply for and be given immediate asylum, unlike other immigrants, who must wait their turn.  (Cubans who are picked up at sea are returned to Cuba.)  Such a stance, it was noted, might prove controversial in Florida, where Cubans are a force, if not a dominant force, in the Republican Party.  Nonetheless, Trump won the state by a large margin, forcing Senator Rubio from the race.  

On a more controversial note, Trump accused the Cubans of snubbing President Obama last April:  President Raul Castro did not meet President Obama when he stepped off Air Force One, leaving his foreign minister to do the honors. (In reality, it is not common for heads of state to greet other heads of state at the airport, preferring to do so during formal arrival ceremonies.) Trump of course cast the issue as one of respect.  “Our rivals no longer respect us,” he said, echoing a familiar refrain. 

In perhaps the most interesting recent development, Trump’s executives may have violated the embargo when scouting for future investment opportunities in Cuba last year.  At present, U.S. law prohibits such tourism.  Trump has said that he would be open to investing money in Cuba, in a hotel or golf course for example, when such investments become legal.  

If you favor continued normalization of U.S.—Cuban relations, as I do, you might take comfort from these comments.  Perhaps they indicate a certain intelligence, perhaps even nuance, coming from a business-oriented candidate willing to question his party’s truths.  Could it be that Trump’s statements indicate a potential for sane and competent leadership, to paraphrase Michael Bloomberg?  

Not so fast.  Remember:  This is Donald Trump we are talking about.  When viewed in context, his comments are neither brave nor all that reasonable.  

First, Trump’s statements look brave only within the context of the Republican electorate, which, unlike most Americans, is committed to continuing the embargo.  In expressing a desire to end the embargo, Trump is only echoing what most Americans, even most Cuban-Americans, already believe.  

Which leads me to my second point.  Trump’s statements about Cuba, especially when we consider his comments about “respect,” are only reasonable in comparison to his other foreign policy statements—about Putin, NATO, and trade, for example, which are long on exhortations and short on specifics.  

When we look more carefully, we see the same sort of pattern at work with Cuba:  platitudes and bromides—and an ominous demand for “respect.”  

I say ominous because if we know one thing about Trump, it is this:  He is all charm and grace—until, that is, he feels insulted, something the Cubans could easily do because they want respect too.  

The Cubans see the events of the (almost) sixty years very differently; they consider themselves a former U.S. colony, and as former “colonials,” they will demand respect from the empire that once held them.  And well they should. 

So once in the White House, President Trump might very well continue the U.S.—Cuban Thaw.  After all, he likes the idea of his countrymen making money in Cuba; trade with Cuba is comparatively small; and Cubans are not the immigrants that concern him right now.  

But once the Cubans demand respect, once the Cubans challenge and criticize him, as they might any U.S. President, it seems likely that Trump and President Castro would come to blows (the verbal kind), with improved U.S.—Cuban relations falling by the wayside.  

We might even see a resurgence in hostility.  Who knows?  

Anything is possible with a man whose ignorance of foreign affairs is matched only by his need for attention and power.  

For my next post, I will consider the consequences of Hillary Clinton’s presidency for U.S.—Cuban relations.    

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