Chronicle of a Failure Foretold: Trump Turns the Screws on Cuba

May 3, 2019

Just over a year ago, one day shy of his 58th birthday, Miguel Díaz-Canel became Cuba’s head of state. A “post-Castro” era had finally, if begrudgingly, dawned. No dramatic transformation of Cuba’s political system had taken place, so government opponents mostly rolled their eyes. Still, other Cubans were hopeful a generational succession in leadership augured well for change.

Since then, tensions between the forces of reform and retrenchment in Cuban society have been compounded by external challenges. Long before the renewed push to oust Nicolás Maduro from power in Caracas, Venezuela’s crisis had reached a breaking point, jeopardizing a 20-year lifeline of economic support to the island. Cuba’s endemic balance of payments issues had worsened, resulting in cuts to imports and shortages of some basic supplies. Add to this scenario a nosedive in U.S.-Cuban relations, particularly after the White House put in place a team of senior appointees vehemently opposed to anything whiffing of bilateral rapprochement. Amidst a regional standoff on Venezuela that shows no signs of abating — and to which Cuba has been linked — the Trump administration and supporters of sanctions against both countries intend to increase economic pressure to a boiling point.

Yet if National Security Adviser John Bolton and Sen. Marco Rubio expect the Cuban government to crumble, they are making the wrong bet. Díaz Canel’s position is hardly enviable, but with leaders of the Venezuelan opposition licking their wounds after Tuesday’s unsuccessful mobilizations, it seems clear the road to Havana does not run as directly, or quickly, through Caracas as partisans of the administration might like. (Or vice versa, as we will see.) Whatever the links between them, Venezuela and Cuba remain different cases. As ever, everyday Cubans will bear the brunt of recently intensified U.S. sanctions, and a reinvigorated U.S. pressure-cooker strategy is likely to stall needed reforms on the island rather than push them along.

The Inheritance

Raúl Castro left office in 2018 after leading Cuba through a decade of halting transformation. Under his watch, the Cuban government took the most concerted steps in its six-decade history to open space for the market, private business, and even, within limits, political debate. These developments were buoyed by the Obama administration’s efforts to normalize U.S.-Cuban relations. In retrospect, Cubans placed too much faith in the December 2014 announcement that both governments had agreed to a framework for renewing diplomatic ties. Nonetheless, a flood of American visitors under loosened U.S. travel rules provided infusions of cash, capital, and ideas that helped Cuba’s burgeoning private sector grow and increased expectations for change.

By 2016, however, the economic payoffs of these developments had also proven limited. Growth remained stagnant. Efforts to incentivize the production of domestic foodstuffs and attract $2.5 billion per year in foreign investment came up short. For some, the government’s effort to “update” Cuban socialism had not gone far enough. For others, rising inequalities between a new middle class of private-sector workers and underpaid state-sector employees no longer resembled socialism at all.

Díaz-Canel, then vice-president, thus found himself waiting for a promotion amidst mounting pressures for counter-reform. Obama’s March 2016 visit to Cuba provoked a backlash among communist conservatives who accused the U.S. president of pedaling a message of reconciliation that amounted to a capitalist Trojan Horse. The death of Fidel Castro in late 2016 further revived nationalist rhetoric and a wariness of Washington’s aims. It was no wonder that Díaz-Canel appeared in a leaked video in the summer of 2017 touting hardliner bona fides to Cuban security officials. At the same time, the Cuban government announced a freeze on small business licenses issued by the state.



The license freeze also came on the heels of the first moves by the new Trump administration on Cuba policy. In truth, renewed restrictions on trade and travel announced in June 2017 left most of the Obama-era arrangements intact. But by August, reports emerged that U.S. diplomats in Havana had suffered unexplainable, concussion-like health effects. Who was behind these suspected “sonic attacks,” or whether they were “attacks” at all, remains a source of fierce speculation. Yet the United States held Cuba responsible for not protecting its personnel. Against Cuban objections that the case was being manipulated for political ends, the State Department virtually shut the embassy’s doors.

Year 1

This was the landscape that Miguel Díaz-Canel faced when Raúl Castro passed him the generational torch on April 19, 2018. On the economic front, tourism remained strong, and relations with Europe were on an upswing. But even Castro recognized that the most nettlesome pieces of his own internal “update” — like currency reform — remained incomplete. Given these constraints, Díaz-Canel was circumspect at the start of his term. “I don’t come to promise anything,” he said. “Continuity,” not change, would be his mandate.

Not all momentum stopped. By summer, the government announced a revised framework for issuing small business licenses, albeit with a bevy of new regulations. (Two of the most onerous were later waved.) The drive for foreign investment accelerated, and over the fall of 2018, Cuban citizens debated a revised constitution that recognizes new forms of private property. Continued domestic skittishness, however, combined with a rightward shift in Latin America to cast the island’s economic future further into doubt. This November, for example, the demands of far-right Brazilian President Jairo Bolsonaro led Cuba to pull out of Mais Médicos, a lucrative program to staff hospitals in poor parts of Brazil with Cuban physicians employed by the island’s Ministry of Health.

The most significant variable in this equation, though, has clearly been Venezuela. Following the election of Hugo Chávez in 1998, the Cuban and Venezuelan governments forged a symbiotic partnership. In exchange for staffing Chávez’s all-important social missions (largely with doctors), Cuba received subsidized oil in ample supply. But from a peak of 100,000 thousand barrels a day in 2014, those shipments had declined to 40,000 a day by 2018. Díaz-Canel’s expressions of “friendship” toward Chávez’s successor Nicolás Maduro could not insulate the island from Venezuela’s economic calamity. Forced to obtain oil from elsewhere increasingly over the last year, Cuba has had to cut back on imports of basic foodstuffs and payments to creditors, leading to shortages in recent months.

Enter the Hawks

This was the moment John Bolton had been waiting for. Since first charging — without evidence — that Cuba had a biological weapons program in 2002, Bolton, then a State Department official under George W. Bush, has had Cuba in his crosshairs. After being named national security advisor in March 2018, Bolton and new National Security Council Western Hemisphere Director Mauricio Claver-Carone, a long-time pro-embargo lobbyist, branded Havana the leading member in a regional “Troika of Tyranny.” If the President’s initial goal on Cuba was to “make [Sen. Marco] Rubio happy,” now partisans of sanctions in and out of the White House had reached a mind meld. And given events elsewhere in the region, they sensed an opportunity.

That was because Cuba’s loyalty to the Maduro government put it at odds with a regional consensus increasingly backing his ouster. After Maduro bypassed the Venezuela National Assembly and appointed a questionable Constitutional Assembly in 2017, support for more concerted measures against his government grew. Since the controversial U.S.-led recognition of National Assembly President Juan Guaidó as interim president in January 2019, Cuba’s has become one of the few governments in the hemisphere lending Maduro unqualified backing. Cuba feels justified in taking this position against what it perceives as a U.S.-backed attempted coup. But it also fuels the administration’s tendency to lump Cuba and Venezuela together uncritically, and to heighten anticipation that after taking down one country’s government the other will follow.

With that philosophy in mind, Bolton traveled to Miami on April 17 — the anniversary of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, an odd choice — to announce new measures to supposedly accelerate the Cuban government’s demise. First, the United States will now restrict the ability of Cuban-Americans to send remittances to family and friends on the island, a blow to the small business sector in Cuba that relies on remittance circuits for both capital and wholesale supplies. Second, new travel restrictions are coming that may make it impossible for most Americans to visit the island and patronize such businesses at all. Third, the administration has opted to fully implement Title III of the Helms-Burton Act, a major piece of embargo-tightening legislation from 1996. Title III allows U.S. nationals — including Cuban-Americans — to sue any foreign company in Cuba accused of “trafficking” in former properties that were nationalized by the Cuban government in the 1960s. Presidents previously waived implementation of the provision because it opens a Pandora’s box of extraterritorial litigation in U.S. courts. Finally, these measures all follow sanctions against vessels transporting Venezuelan oil to Cuba that aim to bring all such shipments to a halt.

Faulty Logic

The administration’s theory of the case is a revival of a strategy of resource denial tried on Cuba with varying degrees of intensity since the 1960s, no matter the collateral damage to people caught in between. Find ways to block the entrance of hard currency into the Cuban economy, or scare off foreign investment, and the United States can purportedly hasten the proverbial domino’s fall. Yet Bolton and his allies have also justified the new sanctions by alleging repeatedly that Cuba is uniquely responsible for propping up the Venezuelan government. Were it not for the “colonization” of Venezuela by Cuba, Bolton insists, Maduro would have fallen weeks ago.

“For years now, the Cuban regime has suffocated Venezuela’s independence and directly contributed to the current crisis for its own gain and survival,” said Bolton in April, channeling his inner anti-imperialist. This is an odd rhetorical turn for a man who has repeatedly invoked the Monroe Doctrine.  But he is not alone. For Sen. Rubio, Vice President Mike Pence, and the leaders of the Venezuelan opposition alike, Maduro appears to be little more than a Cuban prop. On Tuesday, Bolton repeated what has become a core, unproven corollary of the charge: that Cuba has secretly infiltrated into Venezuela as many as 20,000 troops. Via Twitter, Trump also threatened a “full and complete embargo” of Cuba (as if a significant one didn’t exist already) if Cuban “militia” in Venezuela did not “immediately” go home.

There are several problems with these arguments, however. For starters, links between Cuba and the Maduro government remain the subject of more speculation than verified reporting. The New York Times and the podcast Radio Ambulante have gathered credible accounts suggesting Cuba’s doctors in Venezuela were enlisted to bolster Maduro’s political fortunes in past elections. (The Cuban government has firmly rejected the allegations.) It is plausible, as U.S. military officials have claimed, that Cuba’s government has lent Maduro considerable security and intelligence support. But it is improbable that the Venezuelan military is entirely under Cuban control, as hardline Cuban-American voices have claimed, or that large numbers of Cuban soldiers are embedded in Venezuela military units or Cuban medical brigades — two other Washington charges Cuba has categorically and repeatedly denied. At the end of the day, sales of weapons and financial lifelines from Russia and China have proved far more crucial to Maduro’s survival, as even the CIA appears to recognize. And if the White House insists it is not the puppet master behind the Venezuelan opposition’s every move (as Caracas and Havana allege), surely it should be willing to concede that the military brass still backing Maduro might have minds of their own.

Second, unlike the Trump administration’s position on Venezuela, its policy toward Cuba will not receive international support. Europe and Canada, both supporters of the U.S. decision to recognize Guaidó, are not backing off from relationships with Havana. In Latin America, not even leaders like Bolsonaro seem to have an appetite to follow sanctions against Venezuela with more than anti-Cuba tough talk. If anything, dropping Title III in the mix jeopardizes the coalition backing the Trump administration’s Venezuela policy. The European Union, Canada, and others were swift to note their intention to defend their countries’ business interests in Cuba, a position for which the Díaz-Canel government promptly gave thanks.

Third, supporters of increased Cuba sanctions have fundamentally misread the state of affairs inside Cuba itself. Or they are deliberately selling a false bill of goods. Whatever one thinks of the international strategy to back Guaidó, or his apparently stalled move to turn the tide against Maduro this week, he and other opposition leaders in Venezuela have proven capable of mobilizing thousands of citizens to protest. In Cuba, no parallel reality obtains. Opposition groups remain marginalized, and an equally wide, more reformist current of Cuban civil society does not currently share their methods or aims. That may be a good or bad thing, and the reasons for it can be debated at length. But from a U.S. policy perspective, it means that, unlike in Venezuela, there is no replacement government or viable movement waiting in the wings.

Blunt Hammers, Dismal Results?

Even if the Maduro government one day falls, there is nothing to suggest that Cuba’s will too. Virtually the whole world has recognized this, which explains why Europe, Canada, and others continue to back Guaidó, but insist that the better way to encourage reform in Cuba is through dialogue, investment, and exchange. For 60 years, supporters of U.S. sanctions against Cuba have been selling the idea that by denying the flow of dollars to the island, they can prompt a democratic spring. But this strategy, like that of many other sanctions regimes, comes with an ethically fraught corollary: to achieve its goal, resource denial must make the Cuban economy scream so much that the Cuban people take the streets.

Events in Venezuela this week suggest that taking the streets, or even peeling off support from sectors of an entrenched military, may not be enough. And for all the problems the Díaz-Canel government faces, mass rebellion and internal government defections are not front of mind. Fears of Cuba entering a new “Special Period” (the euphemism for the island’s post-Soviet crisis in the 1990s) are on the rise. Yet Cubans, it turns out, do not take kindly to being given bit parts in the Hunger Games. “It is really easy to tell the [Cuban] people to beat up on their government — as if the island was the Roman Coliseum, and its citizens gladiators or animals — when you are not going to be in the midst of the fight but in foreign grandstands, eating a hamburger.” These are not the words of a government messenger, but a young independent journalist once detained for unauthorized reporting by the Cuban police.

The announced U.S. approach only forces the Díaz-Canel government to double-down on its ties to Maduro while alienating Cuban citizens. And reporters have rightly noted that the administration’s tough-on-socialism rhetoric is equally designed to make a play for 2020 Florida votes. (“We must all reject the forces of communism and socialism in this Hemisphere — and in this country,” Bolton said, pointedly, in Miami.) If more creative minds prevailed, Cuba might be incentivized to help broker an end to Venezuela’s political standoff, just as it joined Norway to help negotiate a peace deal in Colombia. Or at least Havana could be convinced to not stand in the way. Instead, new Cuba sanctions will bring increased Cuban hardship, but none of the expected political results.

The new Trump administration offensive makes it harder for Cuba’s internal reformers to make their case, lest their proposals be taken as ceding to external pressure. Cuba may have no choice but to act, but the environment will still revive the siege mentality in the island’s politics that traditionally has empowered those most averse to change. For Miguel Díaz-Canel, though, this difficult scenario also presents an opportunity. Facing a U.S. antagonist was his predecessors’ sweet spot. In otherwise grim times, rallying citizens against unpopular U.S. policies may prove the easiest part of his job.



Michael Bustamante, Ph.D. is assistant professor of Latin American history at Florida International University. He is the co-editor of The Revolution from Within: Cuba, 1959-1980 (Duke, 2019). His writing on contemporary Cuban affairs has appeared in Foreign Affairs, NACLA Report on the Americas, and the Washington Post, among other publications.

Image: Cuban state