Elliott Abrams: Has Trump Made the Right Move in Cuba?

This article first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations site.

Congratulations to President Trump for a serious (though not total) reversal of the terrible Obama policy toward Cuba.

Why? Because the Obama policy was values-free, granting all sorts of advantages to the Castro regime in exchange for nothing.

That was no bargained-for exchange, winning more freedom for the Cuban people. Instead it was a prime example of Obama’s ideological politics, abandoning decades of American policy that he thought right-wing or old-fashioned and wrong and in the process strengthening the vicious Castro regime and paying little attention to the people of the island.

GettyImages-460244696 A member of the Ladies in White opposition movement gestures when she is arrested during a demonstration to commemorate the Human Rights Day in downtown Havana, on December 10, 2014. ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty

In the years since Obama acted, human rights in Cuba have gotten worse. If Obama’s approach was an experiment, it has failed. Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2016 said this of Cuba:

The Cuban government continues to repress dissent and discourage public criticism. It now relies less on long-term prison sentences to punish its critics, but short-term arbitrary arrests of human rights defenders, independent journalists, and others have increased dramatically in recent years.

Other repressive tactics employed by the government include beatings, public acts of shaming, and the termination of employment.

The Miami Herald’s lead analyst on Latin America, Andres Oppenheimer, wrote this in July 2016:

One year after Cuba reopened its embassy in Washington on July 20, 2015, Cuba’s human rights situation is much worse. It’s time for Latin America and the U.S. to stop clapping, and demand that Cuba’s dictatorship start allowing fundamental freedoms

On the first anniversary since Cuba reopened its embassy in Washington, D.C., one thing is clear: The reestablishment of U.S.-Cuban diplomatic ties — which I have cautiously supported in this column — has not helped improve by one iota Cuba’s human rights situation. On the contrary, human rights abuses have worsened.

That’s a fair epitaph for the Obama policy: it made human rights in Cuba worse. And that is why it was politically sensible and morally right to end it.

Trump is maintaining diplomatic relations and allowing flights and cruise ships to Cuba, but trying to end the phony individual beach gambols that masquerade as something more serious. And he is ending the bonanza for the Cuban military, which owns most of Cuba’s tourist industry.

The overall effect of Trump’s moves is logically to push Americans toward group visits that have a serious purpose beyond tourism, and toward individual Cuban economic efforts like Air BnB accommodations, rooms in private homes, and small private restaurants—all of which help the Cuban people.

And if the regime is caught between the people’s desire for economic progress and the end of Obama’s foolish policy, perhaps this will push Castro to allowing even more private economic activity.

Hats off to Senator Marco Rubio, a key architect of the new policy whose pressure on the Trump administration has now put human rights in Cuba right back at the heart of U.S. policy. And to the President, who made the right decision just a few months into his administration.

Elliott Abrams is senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in Washington, DC. He served as deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security advisor in the administration of President George W. Bush, where he supervised U.S. policy in the Middle East for the White House.