The senselessness of President Donald Trump’s crackdown on Cuba is becoming clearer, and the losses are mounting across the board –— for national security, trade, democratization on the island and for Cuban-Americans in Florida looking to reconnect. With the president and Florida’s two Republican senators, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, tethered to failed policies of the past, it falls to local political, business and civic leaders to continue pressing the case for a smarter approach that serves the mutual interests of two neighboring countries about the same distance apart as Tampa and Orlando.
The moderating force that cities could have on this chillier relationship was underscored this week during a visit to the bay area by Cuba’s ambassador to the U.S., José Ramón Cabañas. In a meeting with the Tampa Bay Times editorial board, Cabañas said Cuba was looking to expand on the collaborative research between Havana’s National Aquarium and the Florida Aquarium in Tampa, which focuses on coral restoration in the Caribbean. Cabañas also extended invitations to area mayors to his country’s celebration in November of the 500th anniversary of Cuba’s capital city, Havana.
The ambassador’s visit came against the backdrop of new restrictions Trump announced this month that bar educational group travel and cruises to Cuba. While Cabañas said the financial impact pales in comparison to the broader economic damage from the 60-year-old U.S. trade embargo, the loss of cruise passengers will hurt taxi drivers, private restaurant owners and other Cubans hoping to supplement their incomes from a growing tourist industry. The U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council estimates the cruises — including Carnival’s connections between Tampa and Havana — generated an economic impact of $120 million in Cuba in 2018. More to the point, cruises offered a more affordable option for many Cuban-American travelers to visit.
The Trump administration is looking to harvest continued political support from the dwindling chorus of hard-line exiles in Miami by blaming Cuba for propping up the leftist government of President Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela. Critics cite recent reports that the embattled Maduro relies on Cuban guards for his personal security and that Maduro left a meeting of senior officials this spring during a nationwide power blackout to accept a phone call offering assistance from former Cuban president Raúl Castro.
As Cabañas and even the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency noted as recently as this year, Cuba and Venezuela have a long relationship, involving mainly the barter of Venezuelan oil in exchange for the services of Cuban medical personnel. Do two countries working to keep the lights on and their citizens healthy really constitute a security threat in the western hemisphere?
Meanwhile, Trump’s rollback of the Obama-era re-engagement with Cuba has reduced the official and people-to-people contacts that can lay the foundation for a new relationship. The two countries are losing the opportunity to build on nearly two dozen memorandums of understanding signed since 2015 that cover areas ranging from public health to the environment. And Cabañas said that while the two sides exchange information on law enforcement and immigration matters, their dialogue is otherwise limited.
Trade and travel won’t gloss over major grievances Cuba has with U.S. policy or with American concerns about democracy and human rights on the island. Unanswered questions about the mysterious ailments dozens of American diplomats and their family members in Havana reported in 2016 also have furthered the rift. This is exactly why a closer relationship is critical for realigning U.S. and Cuban interests - and why that policy cannot be delegated to a small group in South Florida.