The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Don’t get too worked up over Trump’s Cuba shift. It’s just a policy tweak.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), left, walks off the stage with President Trump after his Miami speech on Cuba. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

PRESIDENT TRUMP announced a new policy on Cuba on Friday, and even before he finished speaking, criticism was pouring in from advocates of President Barack Obama's opening to the communist island. They asserted that Mr. Trump was sacrificing the Cuban people's hopes for more freedom, which Mr. Obama had revived, on the altar of hard-line anti-Castro ideology.

We hope the hubbub over Mr. Trump's announcement won't drown out the voice of José Daniel Ferrer Garcia, general coordinator of Cuba's largest dissident organization, the Cuban Patriotic Union. Mr. Ferrer's group supported the Obama opening in December 2014, believing that recognition by the United States would deprive dictator Raúl Castro of his old excuse — Yankee hostility — for political repression. It hasn't worked out that way, as Mr. Ferrer noted in an open letter to Mr. Trump on June 6. "Castro's tyranny has been benefitting from the good will of the US government without giving up a bit in their repressive attitude," the dissident wrote. Indeed, arrests, beatings and jailings for political reasons have all increased — both in Cuba itself and in Venezuela, where Mr. Castro's military and intelligence officials serve more and more as vital supports to an increasingly violent regime.

Mr. Ferrer called on the president to abandon Mr. Obama's essentially unconditional policy in favor of "strong sanctions" on Havana. However, notwithstanding much hype both by Mr. Trump — who boasted that he was "canceling" Mr. Obama's "deal" — and by his detractors, what the president actually pledged Friday was little more than a policy tweak.

Mr. Trump will cease Mr. Obama’s calls for lifting what remains of the trade embargo, which Congress was not likely to do anyway. He’ll make it somewhat more difficult for Americans to travel individually to Cuba. The administration will adopt still-unspecified, but inevitably difficult-to-enforce, measures to block the flow of dollars from U.S. travelers and businesses to companies through which Mr. Castro’s military controls the Cuban economy’s most profitable sectors. The rest of the Obama policy remains — full diplomatic relations; reduced immigration favoritism for Cubans; restored commercial flights and cruise-ship visits; enhanced cash remittances and visitation by Cuban Americans; removal of Cuba from the list of state terrorism sponsors.

What has changed is the rhetoric in Washington. Mr. Trump's heated emphasis on Cuban repression, and his linking any further rapproachment to political reform, replace Mr. Obama's cool assurances that constructive engagement will gradually, gradually breed more freedom and prosperity. In our view, a little more impatience about democracy isn't such a bad thing. To be sure, Mr. Trump, with his own uncivil political habits and indulgent attitude toward the likes of Vladi­mir Putin, is far from the best messenger. Nevertheless, his message is not wrong — neither about the lack of political reform in Cuba since Mr. Obama's effort began, nor about the risk that Mr. Castro and his cronies will use greater economic flows as a de facto bailout. Totalitarian control being what it is, no U.S. administration would find it easy to engage Cuba's people without normalizing and enriching the regime that oppresses them. But that is the right objective.

Read more on this topic:

Allison Michaels: Can Trump really roll back Obama’s Cuba policy?

The Post’s View: How Trump could bring real change to Cuba

Christopher Sabatini: 5 myths about Cuba

The Post’s View: A brave act in Cuba deserves American support