President-elect Donald Trump’s vow to “terminate” normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba if he can’t get “a better deal” from Havana may leave him at odds with many in the U.S. business community and in deeply Republican states.
In Florida, where a significant portion of the Cuban American community objects to renewal of diplomatic relations and other elements of the thaw, President Obama’s lifting of limits on both family travel and money sent to the island are widely popular.
But there is also broad business and political support across the country for expanding exports to what is seen as a small but eventually lucrative U.S. market. Republican governors from Texas, Arkansas and elsewhere have led trade delegations to Cuba, along with their state farm bureaus and chambers of commerce.
Companies from technology to tourism have established contractual relationships with Cuba under the Obama-era changes. With the approval of U.S. commercial air service to the island negotiated last summer, American Airlines and Jet Blue landed the first regularly scheduled flights from the United States to Havana on Monday.
“I think the American business community would be strongly opposed to rolling back President Obama’s changes, and strongly in favor of continuing the path toward normalization of economic and diplomatic relations,” said Jake Colvin, vice president of the National Foreign Trade Council.
“What is he going to do? Stop direct flights to Cuba? That’s actually popular,” Colvin said.
As with many of Trump’s pronouncements, his vow to “terminate” Obama’s Cuba initiatives has been a source of head-scratching.
“It’s difficult to know exactly what he means, reading tea leaves from Twitter,” Colvin said. He predicted that “Donald Trump will confront the reality of better relations with Cuba when he gets into office . . . American companies are making more money, American travelers are visiting Cuba, and the Cuban people have more money.
“It’s hard to see how rolling back any of those things helps either the American people or Cuba.”
Trump’s threat, made in a tweet posted at dawn Monday following the Friday death of Fidel Castro, came after Trump officials said over the weekend that all options were on the table, including shutting down the process that led to reestablishment of diplomatic relations last year and increased travel and commercial ties between the two countries.
“Absolutely,” Reince Priebus, Trump’s designated White House chief of staff, told “Fox News Sunday.” “I mean, he’s already said that would be the case . . . Repression, open markets, freedom of religion, political prisoners, these things have to change.”
By Monday, however, Trump spokesmen appeared to temper those remarks. “Clearly, Cuba is a very complex topic and the president-elect is aware of the nuances and complexities,” spokesman Jason Miller said. “I wouldn’t qualify it as far as changing up or down. I’d say this has been an important issue, it will continue to be one, and to be clear, the president-elect wants to see freedom in Cuba . . . and a good deal for Americans where we aren’t played for fools.”
Only Congress can lift the long-standing U.S. trade embargo with Cuba — and the Republican leadership has not allowed action on any of a number of bills to do that, and to lift remaining restrictions on U.S. travel to the island.
Obama has used his executive authority to expand what is permissible despite the embargo. But agricultural producers across the country, from rice producers in Louisiana to Northwest apple farmers to Kansas wheat growers, have pushed for more, including lifting a ban prohibiting Cuba from buying American agricultural goods with U.S. credit.
Cuba’s wheat consumption is about 50 million bushels a year, said Daniel Heady, director of governmental affairs at the Kansas Association of Wheat Growers. Although not a huge market, “it’s right off the coast and it would be extremely easy for us to deliver our product.”
“It is something that Kansas farmers are extremely interested in,” Heady said. “In a world of extremely depressed commodity prices, especially wheat, 50 million bushels looks extremely good right now.”
Those who favor moving forward with Cuba dispute Trump’s insistence that the deal has been bad for the United States, and they say that increasing contact can only reduce repression in Cuba, where the government has long blamed U.S. pressure for its crackdowns.
“I think we get into a bad place if we expect something out of the Cubans and condition what we should be doing anyway on Cuban behavior,” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said. “They’ll disappoint every time . . . They know how to play isolation well. They played our policy like a fiddle.
“I’ve never seen it as a concession to allow your own citizens to travel,” Flake said. “These sanctions are against Americans, not really Cubans.”