In recent weeks, as the White House has been consumed by loud debates over health care, taxes and trade, there has been another, quieter debate occurring beneath the surface. Government agencies and lawmakers have been pulling the administration in two directions on whether to continue the Obama administration’s path on relations with Cuba.
A small but vocal group of lawmakers, including Senator Marco Rubio, have pressed the White House to roll back the process of normalization President Barack Obamaset in motion in 2014. The Cuban government, they contend, has become no less despotic and must be pressured to reform through strict enforcement of existing sanctions, public admonishment and diplomatic isolation.
Meanwhile, a large pro-engagement coalition that includes lawmakers from both parties, businesses and young Cuban-Americans, is calling on the White House to build on the foundation of engagement it inherited. By charting out narrow areas of cooperation with Havana — while agreeing to disagree on human rights issues — the Obama administration enabled the freer flow of people, goods and information between the countries.
Among the fruits of this approach have been bilateral agreements on health care cooperation, joint planning to mitigate oil spills and coordination on counternarcotics efforts. Havana also recently agreed to start accepting some Cubans who have been ordered deported. Regulatory changes have made it easier for most Americans to visit Cuba — though going there purely for tourism is still technically illegal — and enabled broader exchanges among scholars, journalists and artists. Google, meanwhile, is negotiating a series of agreements with Cuba that could significantly expand access to the internet on the island, one of the most unplugged nations on earth.
Mr. Trump’s public remarks on Cuba policy have been brief and thoughtless. Shortly after being elected, Mr. Trump tweeted: “If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate deal.”
He also would be putting American farmers and businesses at a disadvantage by curtailing their access to a market that is gradually opening to global trade. In 2016, the European Union formally abandoned a policy predicated on pursuit of a democratic transition and struck a broader agreement with Havana that includes cooperation on trade and development and a dialogue on human rights.
Most damagingly, putting the relationship with Cuba back on a confrontational track would all but certainly subject Cubans to greater repression and privation. In the past, Havana has ratcheted up its repressive tactics during moments of heightened tension with the United States.
Instead of waiting for the Cuban government to “make a better deal with the Cuban people” — whatever that means — Mr. Trump can continue to make it easier for Americans to travel to Cuba and do business with Cubans. Strengthening ties does not guarantee that Cuba will reform its one-party system or overhaul its centrally planned economy. But it would empower Cubans as they contemplate the future they want for their country.