When Cuban dictator Fidel Castro died in November, the responses issued by then-President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump made for a study in contrasts. Where Obama struck a note of optimism, looking forward to the brighter future of a Fidel-free Cuba, Trump dwelt on the past, deploring the irretrievable decades of human suffering Castro’s regime had wrought.
Despite their differences, both messages had value. Trump rightly named and critiqued Castro’s legacy of “firing squads, theft, unimaginable suffering, poverty, and the denial of fundamental human rights,” while Obama pointed to one of the clearest foreign policy successes of his administration: the orchestration of a historic thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations in diplomacy, cultural exchange, and trade alike.
It’s a success Trump didn’t recognize then and remains inclined to undo now that he has replaced Obama in the Oval Office. As the New York Times reports, primary options under consideration include reversing the Obama-era relaxation of travel rules and prohibiting all trade between American businesses and Cuban companies with military ties. (That latter proposal is more complicated than it sounds, as the Cuban military, like those of many authoritarian governments, has its fangs sunk deep into the island’s economy.)
Whatever the options on the table, any steps back toward the demonstrably failed policy of isolation would be a grave and unforced error. It will make advances toward Cuban freedom more difficult and re-entrench the grim authority of the regime in Havana.
This is not a partisan argument. True, Obama is responsible for warming U.S.-Cuba relations, but before his administration, maintaining isolation was the bipartisan default in Washington. And today, some leading congressional champions of rapprochement, notably Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), are members of Trump’s own party.
They understand an isolated Cuba will not be a free Cuba.
As Paul wrote in 2014, those who seek to push Havana to respect individual rights and liberties should “support engagement, diplomacy, and trade” because “once enslaved people taste freedom and see the products of capitalism they will become hungry for freedom themselves.” Interaction, not isolation, is how the United States can peacefully nudge Cuba out of totalitarianism and into much-needed prosperity.
Flake, who like Paul is no tepid critic of the Castro government, argues along similar lines. “It always bothered me that as a Republican we preach the gospel of contact and commerce and trade and travel,” he said in an interview last year, “yet with Cuba we turn around and say, ‘No, it’s not going to work there.’” U.S. trade and travel bans help keep Cuba’s economy abysmal and its people ignorant, Flake explained, by providing “the Castro regime a very convenient scapegoat for the failures of socialism.”
Trump and his team have couched their consideration of reversing Obama’s overtures in humanitarian terms, but if the president is sincere in his desire to foster freedom in Cuba, he must not return to the discredited isolationism of the past. Open diplomacy and free trade with the United States is Cuba’s chief hope for progress toward basic standards of human rights and quality of life -- and it’s America’s best hope for a friendly, prosperous trading partner near our borders.
The best way for the Trump administration to pursue its stated goal of a liberated Cuba is to get Washington out of the way and let the American people travel and trade with our Cuban neighbors at will. Engagement, not isolation, is how we water the Cuban seedling of liberty.