After an encouraging start, the breakdown in America's reset with Cuba is a loss for both sides and for the state of democracy across the region. Havana and Washington are both to blame, but the Trump administration's hard line with Cuba is out of sync with the times and damaging to the interests of Florida.
The Tampa Bay Times' Paul Guzzo chronicled the latest development in the relationship this week. Tampa-based Florida Produce once symbolized the potential of new U.S. trade with Cuba. In 2015, as nearly a half-century of enmity began to thaw, the company asked Cuba for permission to open a 100,000-square-foot facility in Havana to house and sell American goods. Cuban leaders seemed inclined, the Obama administration was eager for new ties and exporters were interested. But today the project is in limbo, and Florida Produce symbolizes something else: a lost opportunity for the two countries to capitalize on a new era in relations.
Business leaders once saw a flurry of excitement over Cuba. The Trump administration's harder approach, mixed signals from Cuba's leaders and fresh concerns over the treatment of U.S. personnel in Cuba have all combined to stall this budding relationship. Trump erected new hurdles to doing business with Cuba by banning U.S. companies from partnering with entities that have links to Cuba's military. Last year, he tightened rules on travel between the two countries, and more recently, suspended consular services at the recently reopened U.S. embassy in Cuba's capital after a mysterious attack that left American diplomats complaining of hearing loss, concussion-like symptoms and other ailments. Though the cause of that episode remains unexplained, experts are now examining whether microwave strikes were weaponized to harm dozens of U.S. diplomats and their family members.
The Trump administration's hard line and the continuing resistance by Cuba's communist government to improve human rights and liberalize conditions on the island nation virtually guarantee a freeze on relations for the foreseeable future. Still, travel between Tampa Bay and Havana is on the upswing (71,376 passengers flew between Tampa and Havana through April of this fiscal year, reports show, up from 53,512 during the same period in 2017). Cruise ships are sailing more often to Havana. And even officials with Florida Produce have not given up on the warehouse project.
President Barack Obama showed the value of presidential leadership in forging a new state of relations between Washington and Havana. Yet Obama could have gone further to promote bi-lateral trade. Cuban Americans in Florida and elsewhere played a vital role in helping re-establish some semblance of economic and diplomatic ties.
The person-to-person contacts between Cubans and Americans and the continued lobbying for stronger economic and political ties will help counter the impact of Trump's change in course. Still, the loss of momentum denies the U.S. an opportunity to expand the ideal of American democracy across the region. And it denies Florida the fullest potential of a new and emerging market only 90 miles from its shore. It's time both countries realize what their own citizens see — that closer ties benefit both sides.