Trump’s Cuba Policy Reboot: Less Than Advertised?

Catholic leaders and observers say that despite the president’s rhetoric about walking back flawed elements of his predecessor’s ‘deal’ with Cuba’s communist regime, not much is likely to change.

President Donald Trump signs policy changes he is making toward Cuba at the Manuel Artime Theater in the Little Havana neighborhood on June 16 in Miami.
President Donald Trump signs policy changes he is making toward Cuba at the Manuel Artime Theater in the Little Havana neighborhood on June 16 in Miami. (photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Despite President Donald Trump’s recent announcement that he is ending his predecessor’s “deal” with the Castro regime, Catholic leaders and observers say they do not expect much to actually change in the normalizing of relations between the United States and Cuba.

Cuban-Americans will be able to travel to the island-nation to visit their families. Regular commercial flights from the United States will still be landing in Cuba. The United States will continue to maintain diplomatic relations with Cuba and keep its embassy open in Havana.

“The opportunity for engagement between the two countries is still there,” said Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, who told the Register in a phone interview that the Church has long favored engagement and dialogue between Cuba and the United States instead of the Cold War policies of isolation and estrangement.

“You can’t build up a future of hope in Cuba or anyplace else based on a foundation of resentments,” Archbishop Wenski said.

Speaking before an enthusiastic crowd in Miami, the home of a large community of Cuban-Americans who have long been hostile to Cuba’s communist regime, Trump declared June 16 that he was “immediately” canceling President Barack Obama’s “completely one-sided deal” in 2014 that led the United States to re-establish diplomatic relations with the island-nation while lifting some restrictions on travel, family assistance and economic investment.

Trump framed his opposition to the Obama administration’s detente with Cuba in human-rights terms, telling his audience that the easing of restrictions would only enrich President Raul Castro’s government. Trump declared that he as president would “expose the crimes of the Castro regime.”

“To the Cuban government, I say: Put an end to the abuse of dissidents; release the political prisoners; stop jailing innocent people; open yourselves to political and economic freedoms; return the fugitives from American justice, including the return of the cop killer Joanne Chesimard,” said Trump, referencing a former Black Panther who was convicted of murder in 1977.

The executive order Trump signed calls on the U.S. Treasury Department to write up new restrictions with the aim of strictly enforcing the authorized exemptions that allow travel between the two nations and that prohibit commerce with Cuban businesses connected to the military and intelligence services.

Currently, the United States permits 12 categories of travel to Cuba.


More Rigorous Screening

Julie Schwietert Collazo, a freelance journalist who has written extensively on Cuba and co-edited a book on Pope Francis, told the Register that she expects the Trump administration to institute more rigorous screening to ensure that U.S. residents are traveling to Cuba for permitted reasons.

“For the past two years, it was essentially an honor system,” said Collazo, who suggested that the Trump administration is not proposing anything new that the U.S. government has not already tried since Fidel Castro came to power in 1959.

“What’s clear over those years is that that strategy does not work,” Collazo said. “So to come two years after implementing a new policy that really hasn’t had time to prove itself yet is, I think, really ill-advised.”

Commenting on the Trump administration’s stated intent to reiterate the United States’ opposition to efforts in the United Nations to lift the Cuban embargo until more is done on human rights, Archbishop Wenski noted that the Catholic Church in Cuba and the United States, as well as the Holy See, have long called for the embargo to be lifted.

“Embargoes are very blunt instruments because they hurt the most vulnerable and the poorest,” Archbishop Wenski said.

Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, New Mexico, in his capacity as chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on International Peace and Justice, said in prepared remarks that he was “saddened” at President Trump’s efforts to scale back the country’s bilateral engagement with Cuba.

“The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, in solidarity with the bishops of Cuba and the Holy See, has long held that human rights and religious freedom will be strengthened through more engagement between the Cuban and American people, not less,” said Bishop Cantu, who added that the president was correct to say that serious human-rights concerns persist in Cuba.

“The Cuban government must be urged to respect religious freedoms and to extend greater social, political and economic rights to all Cubans. The fruits of investment in Cuba should benefit individuals and families, and not the security forces,” Bishop Cantu said.


‘Popular Talking Points’

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, a Cuban-American who has been a hardliner on the Castro regime, commended the Trump administration’s rhetoric on Cuba. Speaking to an audience in Miami, Rubio described Trump as a president who was “willing to do what needed to be done so that freedom and liberty returns to the enslaved island of Cuba.”

The president’s comments on Cuba and human rights, and the demands that the Castro regime allow for fair and free elections and freedom of the press, are “popular talking points” within the Cuban-American community, said Sean Foreman, a political science professor at Barry University, a Catholic university in Miami.

“It was a big show for the Miami Cuban-Americans for Trump to say he kept his promises, but the practical effects are pretty limited,” said Foreman, who told the Register that he believes the president’s announcement on Cuba was geared more for political purposes than actual policy-making.

“Trump called this a reversal of Obama’s policy toward Cuba, but it’s really just stemming some of the changes,” Foreman said. “It’s certainly not a reversal. It’s more window dressing so Trump can say he did something.”

In addition to maintaining diplomatic relations and keeping the U.S. Embassy open, the Trump administration will still permit U.S. corporations to do business in Cuba and will impose no further restrictions on what goods Americans can bring with them from Cuba, such as the island’s popular cigars and rum.

“Those who are thinking about business ventures, which are risky, can still pursue those,” Foreman said.


Archbishop Wenski: Seek Engagement

As for the Catholic Church in Cuba, it has been slowly gaining more space to carry out its mission since Pope St. John Paul II’s visit in 1998.

Though the Cuban regime still places considerable restraints, the Church in Cuba has been able to implement numerous social-assistance projects while also providing significant pastoral work. Popes Benedict XVI and Francis have both visited Cuba. Pope Francis himself played a key role in back-channel talks to restore diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba.

“That gaining of space has been happening independent of the relations between the United States and Cuba,” said Archbishop Wenski, who added that the Church will continue to work to carve out more space in Cuba.

As for U.S.-Cuba relations, the archbishop pressed the Trump administration to engage Cuba instead of holding off talks until the Castro government meets certain benchmarks on human rights.

“In one sense, that’s what the U.S. has always done with Cuba: ‘This is what you have to do before we talk to you,’” Archbishop Wenski said. “Usually, you achieve those agreements and deals after you’ve had engagement and conversations. They’re usually not preconditions to engagement and negotiations.”


Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.