For more than half a century US presidents have wrestled with Cuba. Fidel Castro’s communist revolution in 1959 turned what had been a friendly nearby island escape for American tourists into a defiantly independent – and potentially dangerous – foe.
An early failed US attempt to overthrow Mr. Castro was followed by an economic blockade and, eventually, by the Cuban missile crisis – a stare-down with Cuba’s patron, the Soviet Union, that threatened to end in nuclear war.
Over the decades US presidents of both parties have tried sticks of various sizes and types to force Castro to leave, or at least move toward a more open and democratic system of government. None has succeeded. So when late in his presidency Barack Obama decided to dangle carrots instead – restoring diplomatic ties and easing travel restrictions – many Americans were ready to give the new approach a try.
But in mid-June President Trump, the 12th inhabitant of the White House to deal with the Castro regime, made a dramatic announcement that seemed to end that short-lived experiment. His new policy tries to divert US tourist dollars away from hotels, restaurants, and other companies run by the Cuban military by restricting where Americans can stay and requiring them to travel only as part of supervised tour groups.
The details of how the new policy will play out won’t be known for many months. But it appears many of the Obama changes will remain. Cruise ships will continue to dock and airplanes will continue to land filled with passengers from the United States, though where visitors may spend their money will be more restricted.
The new restrictions seem likely to harm many ordinary Cubans, including about 22,000 who signed up to welcome visitors into their homes via Airbnb. The company says these entrepreneurs earned about $40 million last year.
The Obama opening also has increased the access Cubans have to the internet. If these arrangements are left in place they could prove to be one of the greatest tools in creating greater understanding between Cuba and the US.
Mr. Trump is right in saying that the Castro regime – headed by Fidel’s brother, Raúl, since 2008 – continues to oppress the Cuban people. One human rights group recorded nearly 10,000 people who had been arbitrarily detained by the Cuban government last year.
But whether the new modest rollback in relations with Cuba will do anything more than please the dwindling number of Cuban-Americans who demand a hard line against the Castros remains to be seen. It could just as easily stiffen the resolve of the Cuban government to stay the course as promote reforms.
In the long run the Trump policy may be seen as one step back in a relationship that keeps building momentum to move forward.