Donald Trump and Raúl Castro Will Not Shake Hands

By Orestes Rafael Betancourt Ponce de León, Middlebury Student

On November 8th, 2016, perhaps you did not sleep from disbelief, joy, or rage. In Havana, the nomenklatura of the communist party also lost sleep; a new situation emerged that broke the plans of a diplomatic approach prepared secretly and meticulously. The new tenant of the White House was a piece on the chessboard of international relations that no one had taken into account. And now? Many say that the process of rapprochement will still continue, while others, more cautious, prefer to wait before reaching verdict. Personally, I already have mine. For the Trump administration, the arguments in favor of deepening relations with Cuba are insufficient to counteract the influence of the Cuban-American sector in Congress; these individuals are totally opposed to such relations, unless the Cuban government changes its policy towards human rights and democracy. This chess game will remain unfinished pending until 2018 when Raul Castro leaves office. Then, we will see if the new government of Havana and Washington will continue to play together.

​Many of my stubborn academic colleagues presume that rapprochement is imminent, based essentially on two arguments. The first is that pressure from Latin American governments, will lead to a white-washing of the US’s image in the region Many left-wing governments see the American embargo on the island as a remaining of an era of military interventionism in the continent. The second is that hidden financial interests will lead to the normalization of relations with Cuba.  

What these academics miss is that the Latin American political spectrum is no longer the same as in 2009, when Obama felt diplomatic pressure at the Fifth Summit of the Americas held in Trinidad and Tobago. Nowadays, many leftist governments are not in power: Manuel Zelaya (Honduras), Fernando Lugo (Paraguay), Cristina Kirchner (Argentina), and Lula da Silva and his successor Dilma Rousseff (Brazil). Today, In their second terms, Michelle Bachelet (Chile) and Tabaré Vázquez (Uruguay) do not play an active role in regional diplomacy. Among those still in power, Rafael Correa will leave soon the presidency of Ecuador and his party’s candidate Lenín Moreno seems to be more moderate in foreign and domestic politics. In Bolivia, Evo Morales seeks a re-election in 2019 that would be unconstitutional. The influence of Nicaragua is really nil, and the constant political and personal accusations about President Ortega, including of rape by his stepdaughter, prevent him from being an influential personality. Venezuela today, a mere shadow of what it was, is headed by a vice president accused of links to drug trafficking and elements of Islamic terrorism, as well as a president whose mental capacity is in doubt. Furthermore, in case this detailed analysis does not convince you, it is obvious that Trump does not care too much about his diplomatic ties and image.

The argument that Cuba will offer the United States billion-dollar-business opportunities is no more very solid. Tourism would be the vanguard of us Cuba financial relations, but still, many cruise companies lack incentive to deal with Cuba until the picture is clear. Earlier this year, American Airlines announced a one quarter decrease in the number of flights to Cuba based on “low demand,” and just few weeks ago, Silver Airways announced a reduction of flights as well.

What else does Cuba have to offer? Tobacco is surely the most profitable business. With regard to rum, the most famous Cuban-made brand is Havana Club. It turns out that the American company Bacardí already produces and sells Havana Club rum as well and there is still litigation that has taken little more than 20 years between Bacardí and Pernod Ricard (the Cuban government business partner). The bio-pharmaceutical sector may be attractive, but it would require a gigantic investment due to the lack of resources and cutting-edge technology that Cuba suffers, in addition to a constant brain drain. The same massive investments would be necessary in the case of the nickel because of the complete obsolescence of the Cuban infrastructure (also, the world market price of nickel is unstable with a downward trend). And while certain agricultural companies see a potential market in Cuba, they forget that the average salary in the island is around $ 25 per month. With less than $1 per day, the idea of having potential buyers falls apart. Could this mean cheap labor for the American companies? Of course, but it is not only morally questionable to take advantage of this situation, it would be necessary to calculate the financial feasibility. For example, if it is better to keep producing in Kansas, or invest in Cuban machinery, training, government fees, and transportation costs. As can be seen, so far, most lucrative business opportunities lie in the distant future; today there is hardly anything concrete.

The main reason why I think the new administration will not immediately go forward is the political strength of sectors broadly opposed to a rapprochement with Havana. By the way, let’s remember that after the death of Fidel Castro, Trump was quick in describing Castro as a “brutal dictator.” Many, like Foreign Policy magazine, argue that the Cuban Lobby is even more powerful than the National Rifle Association. As for political representation, only preceded by the Jewish-American sector, today eight Cuban-Americans (of whom six are Republicans and two are Democrats) serve in Congress, and none, I repeat, none looked favorably on Obama’s policy towards Cuba. Three senators (Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Bob Menéndez) and five representatives (Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Carlos Curbelo, Mario Diaz-Balart, Albio Sires, and Alex Mooney) are the political strongholds defending non-negotiation with Cuba. It is not about potential and future investments; no, it is solely about power in its pure state. (Just think, two of them were in the presidential race!) Donald Trump knows that the hopes of having Democratic support in Congress are almost nil, so he needs the Republican Party where he already faces powerful enemies (John McCain, Lindsay Graham, Bush family and media darling Arnold Schwarzenegger). Trump does not need more adversaries, no matter how fierce he wants to appear. Moreover, Cuba does not seem to be a priority for the administration, and Trump needs all possible support for the centerpieces of his agenda (think: ISIS, the wall, migratory policies and economic protectionism, Russia, and China).

Needless to say, the Cuban government has shown no interest in changing the political system or its position on human rights. If Havana does not give in, neither will Washington. However, in 2018, once Raúl Castro leaves office, we will see if the new Cuban government is willing to cede. The new Cuban administration’s hand will be forced by the crisis of its main allied and economic partner Venezuela, and its already existing dependence on the United States from remittances and American visitors. Fidel Castro’s death has cleared the way, but, the climate of uncertainty surrounding the power shift is high. It’s still unclear who will be the next president! And in a country with a Communist Party that has been clinging to power for six decades, a military caste accustomed to privileges, and a massive police state, it is hard to believe that Cuba’s behaviors is going to change quickly.        

At the present time, Trump’s administration will not continue with the diplomatic rapprochement with Havana since the presumed diplomatic benefits simply don’t exist. In addition, although there are certain financial benefits, these elements are not strong enough to counteract the power of the Cuban-American sector in Congress. After 2018, depending on Havana’s move regarding human rights and democratic reforms, we will see if the chess game continues or if someone decides has left the table for good. Who knows?


Orestes Rafael Betancourt Ponce de León is a Master of Public Administration Candidate (2018) at Middlebury Institute of International Studies. 

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